India reaches boiling point as citizenship bill protests flare

India reaches boiling point as citizenship bill protests flare
India reaches boiling point as citizenship bill protests flare

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: India continued to witness unrest on Saturday as several states protested against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which makes religion the basis for granting citizenship to migrants.

The eastern state of West Bengal experienced violent protests for the third consecutive day with angry mobs burning vehicles and damaging public property. Five stationary trains were also torched in the bordering state, media reports said.

“There is a large-scale anger among Muslim communities in the state with people fearing to lose their citizenship after the coming of the CAB,” Zim Nawaz, a Bengal-based social activist, told Arab News, adding that the spontaneous outbursts of anger were because people felt that the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) would “disenfranchise them and make them stateless.”

On Wednesday, the Indian Parliament passed the new bill, which seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists — from neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — but excludes Muslims.

Besides the CAB, the Indian government has also announced its intention to bring in the NRC — an exercise to identify illegal immigrants from different parts of the country. Muslims fear that they would be the only victim of the NRC as other religious groups would be protected under the CAB.

The All Assam Students Union (AASU) issued a call for civil disobedience to protest against the bill.

Violent demonstrations in the past four days have claimed four lives and led to the cancelation of the India-Japan summit that was to take place in Assam from Sunday. The state has been under curfew for the past four days.

Other northeastern states also continued to simmer on Saturday.

Protests intensified in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, resulting in Home Minister Amit Shah canceling his trip to the northeast.

“The protest is very intense and we will continue till the government scraps the CAB,” said Lurin Gogoi, vice president of the AASU.

“The bill is not only dangerous for Assam but for the whole of India. It is anti-constitutional and violative of the secular spirit of the constitution. The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government has numbers in parliament and they are acting very arbitrarily but we will not allow them to run amok,” Gogoi told Arab News.

Meanwhile, the capital Delhi saw hundreds taking to the streets on Saturday, with the opposition Congress party organizing a huge rally during which it called for “a war against the divisive politics of the government.”

“The government violates the constitution every day and then also celebrates Constitution Day. Congress will not step behind in the fight against injustice, (we) will fulfill our duty of saving the country and democracy till our last breath,” said party president Sonia Gandhi in an address to the rally.

A large number of civil society activists also gathered in Delhi to express their disenchantment with the CAB. The government on Saturday shut down metro rail services in some areas to prevent people from gathering.

“The bill is not about giving citizenship to persecuted minorities, it is aimed at making Muslims second-class citizens in the long run,” said Ovais Sultan Khan, a civil rights activist.

He told Arab News that “this is a modus operandi for racial and religious profiling of Indian Muslims.”

The BJP, however, said that the protests were not spread across India but only “in small pockets.”

“In Bangladesh, the Hindu population was 21.8 percent and now only 8 percent, and if we are giving citizenship to these persecuted people what is the issue?” said party spokesperson Sudhanshu Trivedi.

“Those opposition leaders who are protesting are protesting against the national interests and against the interests of the persecuted minority from Bangladesh,” Trivedi told Arab News. “We are not depriving Muslims of their citizenship so their protest is meaningless. Why should they object if the persecuted Hindus get citizenship?”

Meanwhile, the opposition-party-ruled provinces of Kerala, Panjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh declared that they would not implement the CAB in their states.

Constitutional expert, Sanjay Hegde, said: “The state does not have any role in granting citizenship, it is the citizenship of a nation not of a state.”

He told Arab News: “What they actually mean is that the states can exercise their rights in deciding the implementation of the NRC process. The center cannot interfere here.”

He added that it was up to the Supreme Court to decide the validity of the bill but “I fail to see how the Supreme Court can hold so exclusionary a law to be wholly constitutional.”

“The heart and soul of the constitution is the guarantee of liberty, equality and fraternity and this measure interferes with all the basic principles of the constitution,” Hegde said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hilal Ahmed of the New Delhi-based think tank, the Center for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said: “The CAB goes against the basic philosophy of the Indian constitution. It is also against the social values we cherish. What worries me is that Indian society has been deeply communalized and we are forced to think as Hindus and Muslims. This law is going to contribute to the established communal binary.”

“The law will affect Muslims in two ways. In northeast India, they will finally become stateless. The mainland Muslims will feel isolated and marginalized as this law will create an atmosphere of fear,” Ahmed told Arab News.

On Friday, the US state department expressed concerns about the citizenship bill and urged India “to protect the rights of its religious minorities in keeping with India’s constitution and democratic values.”

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