A little past midnight, with 311 ayes and 80 noes, Lok Sabha passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), a move that is likely to keep political temperatures high in the times to come.
The Bill was cleared by the Union Cabinet on December 4.
With the Janata Dal (United) and Biju Janata Dal supporting it in the lower house, the legislation is likely to sail through in Rajya Sabha as well.
Why Muslims have been left out
The CAB proposes granting Indian citizenship to the persecuted minorities such as Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis fleeing Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bill makes it clear that persecuted Muslims are not welcome. Explaining this singling out, home minister Amit Shah has said that Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan are theocratic nations and Muslims cannot be minorities in these nations.
The Sangh Parivar, of which BJP is a part, believes Hindus in India's immediate neighbourhood have faced persecution and they have nowhere to go as opposed to the Muslims.
Does the Bill contradict the Constitution?
According to Article 14 of the Constitution, "The state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth."
The Bill makes religion the ground for granting citizenship. The argument being put forth by those supporting the Bill is that the state is duty-bound to treat everyone as equals, provided they are citizens of India.
According to the Citizenship Act, 1955, a person may become an Indian citizen if they are born in India or have Indian parentage or have resided in the country over a period of time.
Illegal immigrant versus refugee
'Illegal immigrants' were so far prohibited from acquiring Indian citizenship or granted citizenship arbitrarily. Since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugees' Convention nor the 1967 protocol, who is seen as an 'illegal immigrant' and who a 'genuine refugee' has largely depended on the government of the day. Currently, India still serves as home to the largest refugee population in South Asia.
Violence and votes
For the longest time, those guarding India's borders with Bangladesh were encouraged to turn a blind eye to the influx of migrants. This influx was contested by the local population of Assam. The situation reached its tipping point on February 18, 1983, when over 2,000 people were killed across 14 villages. The incident is infamously remembered as the Nellie massacre, believed to be a repercussion of Indira Gandhi government's decision to give 4 million immigrants from Bangladesh the right to vote.
The BJP succeeded in converting this anti-immigrant sentiment in Assam into an anti-Muslim sentiment. Or so it thought. Assam today is opposing the CAB, as are other northeastern states, thinking the burden of the influx of immigrants is going to fall on them.
The government is thus working out the modalities to keep the northeastern states out of the process.
The BJP believes that this move will give the Indian state the strongest-ever documentation of all its citizens. Most importantly, through this move, the BJP is eyeing electoral benefits in Bengal and the Hindi heartland.
For the northeast, it has exemptions.
The Muslim question and NRC
In his speech made while introducing the Bill, Shah said, "This bill is not even 0.001 per cent against Muslims. It is against infiltrators."
This assertion would be put to test when the government takes the next big step — start the process to prepare a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).
Since CAB wouldn't recognise immigrant Muslims as citizens, they would find no place in NRC. Many of these people have been living in India for years and know no other country as home.
The NRC exercise undertaken in Assam took 10 years to complete and cost the exchequer a whopping Rs 1,220 crore only to identify about 19 lakh people as illegal immigrants, many of them Hindus. The BJP's contention had been there are crores of Muslim infiltrators illegally staying in the region.
NRC was thus rejected by the very people who sought it.
Most people were left out because they couldn't produce the documents required to make the cut. Ordinary citizens are scared that they may not be able to present the ordinary documents that they would be asked to produce to prove they belong to the country they were born into and that they consider home.
In Assam, land measuring the size of seven football fields in a forest, was cleared to build a mass detention centre for those who do not find a place in the NRC. Some workers who were working on the site said that they were not on the NRC list.The poor migrant workers would find it the toughest to prove they belong. Would they then build centres they would eventually have to walk into?
And what happens then?
No government functionary, not even the home minister, who Prime Minister Narendra Modi has congratulated for "lucidly explaining all aspects of the CAB" in Parliament, so far explained what happens to those excluded.
I would like to specially applaud Home Minister @AmitShah Ji for lucidly explaining all aspects of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. He also gave elaborate answers to the various points raised by respective MPs during the discussion in the Lok Sabha.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 9, 2019
Each time the question is asked, BJP leaders say, those excluded can fight their cases in Foreigners Tribunals. But some of those who fight these cases (if they have the means to) would still not be able to produce the papers to establish citizenship. There would be those who would lose in the tribunals.
Host countries are not going to take them back. Bangladesh, on its part, has clarified that India's NRC is for India to deal with. Afghanistan and Pakistan haven't even cared to distance themselves from these soon-to-be declared stateless people. It is not a subject they acknowlegde.
So, will these people have to live the rest of their lives in detention centres? Crores of people holed up in detention centres is a scary spectre.
CAB has started a process whose end even its initiators haven't thought through.