India’s parliament approves citizenship law for non-Muslim minorities

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Indian lawmakers approved legislation on Wednesday granting citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated illegally from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan despite ongoing protests against the measure in the country’s remote northeast.

The upper house of Parliament passed the bill 125-105 on Wednesday night. The lower house had approved it on Monday. It now needs to be signed by the country’s ceremonial president, a formality before becoming law.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following his resounding election victory in May.

Protesters say they oppose the legislation out of concern that migrants who came to the country illegally will move to the border region in the northeast and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people.

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The law gives Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsi and Christians who migrated to India from the three Muslim-majority neighboring countries before December 31, 2014. The total number is expected to run into the millions.

Anand Sharma, a leader of the main opposition Congress party, said the legislation is discriminatory because it excludes Muslims despite constitutional guarantees of equal opportunities for all groups. The opposition accuses Modi’s Hindu-nationalist governing party of being anti-Muslim.

Protesters burned tires and blocked highways and rail lines for a second day Wednesday. Police fired rubber bullets and used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Dibrugarh district in Assam state, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

State police official Mukesh Aggarwal said a curfew was imposed in Gauhati, the state capital, and army soldiers were standing by in case the violence escalated.

Street protests continued in Guahati, with young demonstrators making bonfires across the city. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse hundreds of protesters who tried to march to the office of the state’s top elected official.

The Press Trust of India said the federal government was airlifting about 5,000 paramilitary soldiers to the region.

Introducing the bill in the upper house, Home Minister Amit Shah said it was not anti-Muslim because it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities. It seeks to address the difficulties of Hindus and other minorities who suffered persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, he said.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized the bill as going against “India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution,” and sought American sanctions against Home Minister Shah if the bill is approved.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said the US commission’s statement “is neither accurate nor warranted.’’

“The bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries. It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights,” Kumar said in a statement. “Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.’’

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