In a big success for Modi Government, Rajya Sabha on Wednesday passed the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, completing the legislative process for giving Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as a “landmark day” for India and its ethos of compassion and brotherhood, while the Opposition termed the bill, which is key part of the BJP”s ideological agenda, as “unconstitutional”, “divisive” and “an assault on the democratic and secular fabric of the nation”.
In a strongly-worded statement issued immediately after the bill was passed, Congress president Sonia Gandhi said it marks a “dark day” in the constitutional history of India and is a “victory of narrow minded and bigoted forces” over the country”s pluralism.
As many as 125 MPs voted in favour of the Bill in the Upper House and 99 against it, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi said.
The bill will “alleviate sufferings of many who faced persecution for years”, Modi wrote on Twitter and expressed his gratitude to Rajya Sabha members.
Besides NDA constituents such as the JD-U, Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and AIADMK, the legislation was supported by the BJD, TDP, YSR-Congress and independents.
BJP”s former ally Shiv Sena, which made all the noises of opposing the bill on the grounds that it ignored citizenship for migrants from other neighbouring nations, made a quiet exit from the House just before the voting.
Apart from the three Shiv Sena MPs who were not present during voting, two members each of Samajwadi Party and NCP as also one of TMC were absent.
Replying to a six-and-a-half-hour debate on the bill, Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday rejected the Opposition charge that the bill was anti-Muslim and said that Indian Muslims have nothing to fear as they are not affected by the legislation.
He repeatedly stressed that the legislation will not take away anyone”s citizenship and was only intended to help minority communities facing religious persecution in the three neighbouring countries.
“No provision in citizenship bill touches citizenship of Muslims,” he said.
“Indian Muslims are citizens of the country and will remain so…. Citizenship bill is not to snatch anyone”s Indian citizenship. Muslims have no need to fear or worry,” he said.
Earlier, Rajya Sabha rejected a motion to send the bill to a select committee of the House with 124 members voting against it as compared to 99 in its favour.
The House also rejected several amendments moved by opposition members to the bill, mostly by voice vote. The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday and will now go to the President for his assent.
This was the second attempt by the Modi government to amend the citizenship law. In January, the legislation was passed in the lower house but lapsed with the 15th Lok Sabha as it was not brought in Rajya Sabha where the ruling alliance lacked the numbers.
The Opposition tore into the government during the debate with leaders of Congress, NCP, DMK, BSP, RJD, JDS, AAP, MDMK, TRS, IUML and SDP opposing the bill.
Leader of Opposition in the House Ghulam Nabi Azad demanded to know why the entire North East including Assam, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland was “burning” at the moment if people were happy about the proposed legislation.
The senior Congress leader said: “Honourable home ministerji, you brought demonetisation, GST, (legislation on) triple talaq, NRC, Article 370 (related law) and Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the same pattern. You bring such bills every four or six months to divert the attention of people from unemployment, problems of farmers, poverty….”
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram termed the Bill a slap on the face of Parliament and said the government is “ramming” through with it in order to advance its Hindutva agenda.
He charged the government with “wrecking and demolishing” the Constitution through it and expressed confidence that the judiciary would strike down the law.
“This (bill) is a slap on the face of Parliament. …I am afraid this government is ramming through (with) this bill in order to advance its Hindutva agenda…This is a sad day,” he said.
Congress leader Kapil Sibal accused the government for giving a legal colour to the “two nation theory” and urged it not to convert “Indian republic into a jurassic republic where there are two dinosaurs”.
Congress leader Anand Sharma termed the proposed legislation as unconstitutional and said manifesto of any political party cannot override the Constitution.
He termed the Bill as an assault on the foundational values of Constitution and added “it hurts the soul of republic of India.”
The Shiv Sena, which voted in favour of the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Lok Sabha, opposed it in Rajya Sabha, saying the draft law should have been debated on the basis of “humanity not religion”.
The Sena does not need to prove how “staunch Hindu” and “patriotic” the party is, Sanjay Raut said while participating in the debate.
Shah, however, dismissed the opposition”s claim that the legislation was unconstitutional and against the principle of secularism.
He said the bill does not violate Article 14 of the Constitution as it does not prohibit laws based on reasonable classification.
“There is a specific class. We are taking all minorities in these three countries,” Shah said, adding Muslims have not been included for giving citizenship because the proposed law is for persecuted minorities in the three countries
“We have included six religions. There is no appreciation. The only focus is on Muslims. Are Muslims in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan minorities? Isn”t it secularism. Will it be secularism only if Muslims are included,” Shah said.
To a reference made by Samajwadi Party MP Javed Ali Khan, Shah said “India will never become Muslim-mukt even if you want so.”
Shah hit out at Kapil Sibal, saying the Congress leader should not teach him the idea of India.
“My seven generations have been born here. I have not come from abroad. We were born here, we shall die here. Don”t teach us the idea of India,” he said.
Shah also said that the opposition should not spread fear among Muslims.
On why persecuted minorities from countries such as Sri Lanka were not part of the legislation, Shah said 8-9 lakh Tamils from the island country had been given Indian citizenship in the past and the present law is to tackle a specific problem.
To repeated questions from opposition on why Muslims were being left out, he said Muslims from other countries have the right to apply for Indian citizenship as per existing rules.
As many as 566 Muslims have been given citizenship in recent years, he said.
Rejecting opposition”s criticism that the Citizenship Amendment Bill discriminates against Muslims, Shah referred to the Nehru-Liaquat pact to justify the new legislation.
Since the Nehru-Liaquat pact of giving minorities freedom to practice their religion was not followed by neighbouring countries, Modi government has to do the needful, he said
Liaquat Ali Khan was the prime minister of Pakistan when he and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru signed the agreement in Delhi in 1950 confirming minority rights.
Shah attacked the opposition Congress saying statements by its leaders match those of Pakistani leaders not just on the citizenship bill but also on scrapping of Article 370 and triple talaq.
Asserting that neither the citizenship bill, nor the previously passed legislation making practice of triple talaq punishable and the scrapping Article 370 are anti-Muslim, he said the bill seeks to correct the wrong done by the partition of the country on religious lines.
He hit out at the Congress for alleged double speak on the issue, saying the party had during its rule given Indian citizenship to 13,000 Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan without raising a word about the same for other communities.
Rebutting the charge that Muslims were living in fear, he said India not only fulfilled its promise of protecting minorities, Muslims have gone on to become President, Vice President and Election Commissioner in the country.
“India kept its promise, the three countries did not,” Shah said.
The Home Minister asked the Opposition why religious minorities who have come to India to save their families and the honour of women should not be given citizenship.
Shah said minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not treated equally and their population has declined by 20 per cent as “they were either killed, or forced to convert or migrated to India”.
“They took refuge (in India) but were barred from availing basic facilities like homes, jobs, healthcare and education,” he said.
Shah said the BJP had clearly indicated its intent to bring such legislation in its election manifesto for the 2019 general election and the people of the country voted for it overwhelmingly.
“It is not vote bank politics. We told the people before the elections and won the people”s mandate and approval,” he said
According to the provisions of the bill, non-Muslim migrants from the three countries who came to India till 2014 will get Indian citizenship.
“They will not face any legal consequences,” Shah said, adding that cases against them for their illegal stay or for overstaying their legal permit will be withdrawn.