Opposition parties say the bill is discriminatory as it excludes granting citizenship to persecuted Muslims, in an officially secular nation of 1.3 billion people
Members of the lower house of the Indian parliament, Lok Sabha, on Monday locked horns over the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2019 which will grant citizenship to religious minorities from neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says this will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution, reports the BBC.
However, opposition parties say the bill is discriminatory as it excludes Muslims in an officially secular nation of 1.3 billion people.
Muslims form nearly 15 percent of the Indian population, reports Al Jazeera.
What is the Citizenship Amendment Bill?
The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 which prohibited illegal immigrants from becoming Indian citizens. In the new bill, citizenship will be granted on the basis of religion.
India's cabinet approved the draft law on Wednesday, triggering protests in the country's northeast region, which fears tens of thousands of Hindus from Bangladesh would gain citizenship, reports Al Jazeera.
As per the new draft law, members of six religious minority communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian – if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh, will be eligible for citizenship.
They will only have to live or work in India for six years.
Furthermore, people holding Indian Overseas Citizen (OCI) cards, an immigration status that allows an Indian foreign citizen to live and work indefinitely in India, may lose their status if they violate local laws for major and minor offenses and violations, reports BBC.
"They are part of a deeper divisive BJP's political strategy to polarise India. Hence, the exclusionary element of religion in CAB," said Sanjay Jha, a spokesperson of the main opposition Congress party.
"The political business model of the BJP is to keep India on a permanent boil, raising the communal temperatures high during elections," he told Al Jazeera.
Last month, Modi's close confidante, Home Minister Amit Shah, declared that the country would start the exercise of counting all its people to get rid of undocumented immigrants from neighbouring countries.
In the past, Shah has called immigrants from Bangladesh "termites", "infiltrators" and a threat to India's national security.
His party strongly opposed the influx of Rohingya refugees and threatened to expel them to Myanmar, despite the Muslim minority facing ethnic cleansing there.
Discriminatory bill against Muslims
The bill's main criticism is that it forbids Muslims from obtaining citizenship, something close to the Muslim ban of US President Donald Trump, which bans Muslims from a few nations seeking asylum in America.
Legal experts say that the bill violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to equality.
A constitutional law expert, Faizan Mustafa, termed the bill "very regressive" and a violation of the constitution.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, he said, "We don't have our citizenship based on religion. Our constitution prohibits any discrimination based on religion. By distinguishing illegal immigrants based on religion, the proposed law violates the basic structure of the Indian constitution."
Mustafa, the vice chancellor of NALSAR University of Law in Hyderabad, added if the Indian government, through this bill, wants to give citizenship to persecuted minorities in the neighbouring countries, how can it exclude the Rohingya of Myanmar who are far more persecuted than any other group in the neighbourhood.
"Similarly, how can we exclude Ahmediyas and Shias from Pakistan and Bangladesh and the Hazaras from Afghanistan."
Opposition in Northeast
A large section of people and organisations in the northeast opposed the bill, claiming it would annul the provisions of the 1985 Assam Agreement, which set March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation all undocumented immigrants regardless of religion.
The current bill has set December 31, 2014 as the cut-off date.
Home Minister Shah has promised that people in the northeast, home to a large number of tribal people, will be excluded from the scope of the bill, but their concerns have not been alleviated.
"People in the northeast are concerned about the bill because they feel it will change the demographic composition of their states," Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told Al Jazeera.
National Register of Citizens
The final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a bureaucratic citizenship exercise monitored by the Supreme Court – on August 31 excluded nearly two million people from its final Assam citizenship list.
The exercise, intended to exclude undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh, also left out many genuine Indian citizens.
The result of the Assam system was rejected by BJP as a large part of those left out were clearly Hindus. No official figures have yet been released.
"The motive behind CAB is to actually legitimise the citizenship of all those non-Muslims who may be declared as illegal immigrants as per the NRC," claims Mustafa.
Nevertheless, the government maintains that the bill aims to give citizenship to minorities in neighbouring Muslim-majority countries who have faced religious persecution.
"The argument that this bill is discriminatory cannot apply as the issue is not about the Indian citizens," BJP spokesperson Nalin Kohli told Al Jazeera.
"The Bill is for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian minority communities who, because of partition, could not come to India and suffered persecution in their own countries.
"Regarding Muslims, there are countries that were formed exclusively for them," he said.
When asked about other persecuted Ahmediyas and Rohingya, Nalin Kohli said, "India is not looking to be inundated by those who are already citizens of the neighbouring countries."