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India's tribal Christians back shelving of citizenship bill

Prayers are answered for northeastern Christians who feared new law would threaten their identity

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

ucanews.com reporter, New Delhi

Published: February 13, 2019 09:54 AM GMT

Updated: February 13, 2019 09:58 AM GMT

India's tribal Christians back shelving of citizenship bill

Members of Asom Gana Parishad protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Guwahati on Feb. 8. The bill seeks to grant citizenship to minorities who fled to India after religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Photo by Biju Boro/AFP)

The upper house of India’s parliament has shelved a controversial bill on citizenship amid prayers by tribal Christians for its defeat.

People in northeastern states where Christians form a substantial population have been protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) want to push into law a before general elections due in two months.

The bill aims to accord Indian citizenship to non-Muslims — specifically Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists — who entered India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan before 2014 and have lived in the country for six years continuously.

It was listed for discussion on Feb. 12 but could not be taken up because of the pandemonium in the house after opposition parties accused Modi of corruption over a defense deal with France.

The house on Feb. 13 shelved the bill as it could not find time on the last day of the parliament before the house is dissolved for general elections.

The lower house of India’s parliament, Lok Sabha, passed the bill in January despite violent protests in Assam and other states.

Christians in states such as Mizoram, Meghalaya and Nagaland have been conducting special prayers seeking the defeat of the bill.

Most people in Assam, including Hindu groups run by native Assamese people, have been opposing it on grounds that granting Indian citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh would change the demographics of their tribal-dominated area.

"We are emotional about our identity and are committed to the interests of the natives,” said senior church leader Pu R. Lalrinsanga based in Mizoram capital Aizawl.

The Mizoram Kohhran Hruaitute Committee, a group of church bodies in the state, offered Mass and special prayers on Feb. 9-10 to ensure that the bill was defeated in the upper house.

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The federal government’s five-year term ends on May 25. For Modi, the bill was overtly linked to the elections and the pro-Hindu ideology of his party.

He told a large gathering on Feb. 9 in Guwahati city of Assam that indigenous people, including the native Christians, should not see the bill as a threat to their identity.

"It is rather linked to people across the country who have faith and respect for Maa Bharti — Mother India. It is these people who had to flee from neighboring countries to save their lives and to continue to uphold their religious faith," Modi said.

"They might have come from Pakistan, Afghanistan or even Bangladesh. Before 1947, they were all part of India only. When the country was partitioned, the minorities there like Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists stayed back there."

Modi said minorities who were tortured had to come to India.

Although the ruling BJP alliance enjoys a majority in the lower house of parliament, it has only 90 members in the 245-seat upper house and it remains a challenge for the BJP to push bills through the house.

However, the BJP’s own partners and smaller allies in the northeast were also against the bill. Asom Gana Parishad in Assam has quit the alliance saying that implementing the law would endanger the identity of the region’s indigenous people.

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