New Delhi, India – India has passed a law that grants citizenship to religious minorities – except Muslims – from neighbouring countries, with legal experts saying it violates the country’s secular constitution.
The new citizenship law, which was an amendment to a 1955 legislation, allows Indian citizenship to “persecuted” minorities – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but makes no reference to Muslims.
The legislation was pushed through India’s Parliament by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ratified by President Ram Nath Kovind on December 12.
Opposition parties say the law is discriminatory as it singles out Muslims in an officially secular nation of 1.3 billion people. Muslims form nearly 15 percent of the population.
Critics point out that the move is part of a Hindu supremacist agenda pushed by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi since it came to power nearly six years ago.
Multiple petitions have been filed against the law in India’s Supreme Court.
‘Strategy to polarise India’
Sanjay Jha, spokesperson of the main opposition Congress party, told Al Jazeera that the law is “part of a deeper divisive BJP’s political strategy to polarise India”.
“Hence the exclusionary element of religion in the Citizenship Amendment Bill,” he said.
“The political business model of the BJP is to keep India on a permanent boil, raising the communal temperatures high during elections.”
Last month, Home Minister Amit Shah, a close confidant of Modi, announced that the country will begin the exercise of counting all its citizens to weed out undocumented immigrants from neighbouring countries.
A similar exercise called the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was carried out in the northeast state of Assam where nearly two million people were left off the citizens’ list in August.
Shah has in the past called Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” and “infiltrators” and a threat to national security.
His party has vehemently opposed the arrival of Rohingya refugees and threatened to deport them to Myanmar despite the Muslim minority facing ethnic cleansing back home.
The draft law also excludes Sri Lanka, where Tamil minorities have faced atrocities.
What is Citizenship Amendment Act?
The law, first introduced in Parliament in July 2016, amends the Citizenship Act 1955 by making religion a basis for citizenship. The previous law did not make religion an eligibility criterion to become a citizen.
The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in January this year, but could not be taken up in the Upper House, following protests in the northeastern states and resistance from the opposition.
The new law made some exemptions for the northeastern states, which have protested against the move, saying it will encourage tens of thousands of Hindus from Bangladesh to migrate to India.
As per the new law, the undocumented immigrants must have resided in India in the last one year and for at least six years in total to qualify for citizenship while the 1955 law prescribes 12 years’ residency as a qualification.