Ruling Hindu nationalist government pushes for the law, which opposition says violates India’s secular constitution.
India’s ruling Hindu nationalists pushed for final parliamentary approval on Wednesday for a bill that critics say undermines the country’s secular constitution by granting citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from three neighbouring countries.
Home Minister Amit Shah tabled the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the upper house (Rajya Sabha) of Parliament, a day after the lower house (Lok Sabha) gave its approval.
Opposition parties, minority groups, academics and a US federal panel have contested the bill, which for the first time provides a legal route to Indian citizenship based on religion, calling it discriminatory against Muslims.
The proposed law seeks to give citizenship to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs, who fled Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan before 2015.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said on Monday that Washington should consider sanctions against Shah, a close associate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, if India adopts the legislation.
Introducing the bill in the upper house, Shah defended his government’s move, saying the new law only sought to help minorities persecuted in Muslim-majority countries contiguous with India.
“For India’s Muslims, there is nothing to worry about, nothing to debate. They are citizens, and will remain citizens,” Shah said.
“I feel that this step will mark the end of India’s constitution as a secular democracy because it differentiates between citizens on the basis of their religious identities,” activist Harsh Mander told Al Jazeera.
“At the heart of the idea of India and its constitution and its freedom struggle was the idea that this country will belong equally to people of every faith.”
Unlike the lower house, where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a clear majority, the governing party will likely find it more challenging to push the bill through the upper house, as it is unclear whether it can garner enough support from regional parties.
“We are opposing the bill because it goes against the spirit of the constitution of India,” Prem Chand Gupta, Member of Parliament from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (National People’s Party) told Al Jazeera.
“If the bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha today, there will be a discussion at the party-level for the future strategy,” he added.
— ANI (@ANI) December 11, 2019
Gupta said that he could not speak about the other parties who have supported the bill.
A vote is expected late on Wednesday.
Protests against the measure have flared in various parts of India, including the ethnically diverse northeastern state, where people fear that undocumented Hindu migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh could be granted citizenship.
In Assam state, thousands of people protested overnight across several towns and cities, some joining processions carrying torches. Police said they used tear gas to beat back protesters in at least two cities.
Some opposition Muslim politicians have argued that the bill is targeted against the community, criticising the Modi government for trying to render them “stateless”.
“If I’m not a Muslim and I boycott the NRC, there are no consequences for me,” activist Mander said.
“It’s only if I’m deemed to be a Muslim that there will be consequences.”
Mander asserted that the only way he felt he could stand in solidarity with his “Muslim brothers and sisters” would be to register himself as a Muslim in protest.
The human rights activist said that while it was important to challenge the bill in the Supreme Court, “we have to build an opposition to it on the streets and in peoples hearts and minds”.
When asked if his move would bring any change, Mander said: “I hope that more people join and hopefully it becomes a movement that the government has to pay attention.”
The legislation – which Modi’s government tried and failed to get through the upper house during his first term in office – passed the lower house just after midnight on Tuesday following a fiery debate.
Derek O’Brien, an opposition lawmaker in the upper house, on Wednesday said the legislation bore an “eerie similarity” to Nazi laws against Jews in 1930s Germany.
“In 1935 there were citizenship laws to protect people with German blood … today we have a faulty bill that wants to define who true Indian citizens are,” he said.
P Chidambaram from the opposition Congress party said the government was “wrecking and demolishing” India’s secular constitution to advance Modi’s “Hindutva agenda”.
Modi’s government – re-elected in May and under pressure over a slowing economy – said Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are excluded from the legislation because they do not face discrimination in those countries.
Also left out are other minorities fleeing political or religious persecution elsewhere in the region such as Tamils from Sri Lanka, Rohingya from Myanmar and Tibetans from China.
Many Muslims in India say they have been made to feel like second-class citizens since Modi came to power in 2014.
Several cities perceived to have Islamic-sounding names have been renamed, while some school textbooks have been altered to downplay Muslims’ contributions to India.
In August, Modi’s administration rescinded the partial autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and split it into two.
A citizens’ register in Assam finalised this year left 1.9 million people, many of them Muslims, facing possible statelessness, detention camps and even deportation.
Modi’s government has said it intends to replicate the register nationwide with the aim of removing all “infiltrators” by 2024.
Bilal Kuchay contributed to this report from New Delhi