India’s cabinet approved a bill on Wednesday to give citizenship to religious minorities persecuted in neighboring Muslim countries, the first time that the country is seeking to grant nationality on the basis of religion.
Last month, Amit Shah, India’s federal home (interior) minister, told parliament that non-Muslim minorities - Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, Sikhs and Parsis - who fled from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan would be given Indian citizenship under the proposed law.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was first introduced in 2016 by the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi but was withdrawn after an alliance partner withdrew support and protests flared in India’s remote and ethnically diverse northeastern region.
Giving Indian citizenship to “Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs escaping persecution” was part of the manifesto of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ahead of a general election in May 2019 that the nationalist leader swept.
Critics have called the proposed law anti-Muslim, and some opposition parties have also pushed back, arguing citizenship cannot be granted on the basis of religion.
The passage of the bill, which could be introduced in parliament this week, will also be a test for the BJP, since it enjoys a majority in the lower house but is short of numbers in India’s upper house. Any bill needs to be ratified by both houses of India’s parliament to become law.
In Assam, a northeastern state that was the epicenter of protests, some students groups said they were still opposed to the law, fearing that tens of thousands of Hindu migrants from neighboring Bangladesh would gain citizenship.
“We do not support CAB and shall launch a vigorous mass agitation across Assam and the Northeast,” All Assam Students’ Union Advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya told Reuters.
Assam’s Finance Minister and senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said that there would be amendments in the bill to help ease regional concerns. “But since CAB is for the whole of India, there cannot be a separate bill for the Northeast,” he said.
However he did not give details.