Mass Protests, Controversy in India Follow Proposed Citizenship Bill

Thousands of people took to the streets in the northeast Indian state of Mizoram on Wednesday, the latest in months of protests against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s Citizenship Amendment Bill. With Lok Sabha (lower house) elections three months away, the Bill presents a crucial test for the BJP, with even some regional party units openly defecting over its contents. If passed, the Bill would provide citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Framed by the BJP as a path to citizenship for many undocumented migrants within India, and as evidence of India's religious tolerance and openness towards people facing religious violence across the region, the Bill has also been criticized by opponents as a primarily pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim piece of legislation ahead of a key election, with the long-term potential to increase Hindu populations in parts of the country without an equivalent path to citizenship for Muslim refugees.

The Bill's passage in the lower house on January 8 and upcoming vote in the upper house have provoked days of related protests in Assam state, which shares a 263-km border with Bangladesh. Some protestors feared that passage of the Bill could lead to large-scale migration from neighbouring countries, raising fears among locals of losing land and jobs to the newer entrants in a region that has faced ethnic strife in its recent history.
Other opponent groups have criticized the citizenship bill's exclusion of Muslims, especially as India enters an election year when Hindu nationalism is anticipated to play a factor in the BJP's campaign. The BJP's main rivals, the opposition Congress party, has also raised concerns that the Bill could fuel ethnic divisions across India's northeast, and potentially a resurgence of extremist groups.

Defending the Bill against charges that it is unconstitutional, India's home minister has argued, "the Bill is not against the provisions of the Constitution and will give succor to persecuted minorities in three neighbouring countries as they have no place to go to, except India." He further championed the aim to give Indian citizenship to all "persecuted religious minorities" from the selected neighbouring countries, without expanding on whether minorities outside of the listed six could also be accepted.

With the BJP's main regional allies opposed, the party has begun to acknowledge the public's resistance. The opposition Congress has recommended moving the Bill to a review committee to address perceived flaws in its constitutionality and religious vote-driving dimensions. In response to the mounting criticisms, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to address the controversy across a series of public meetings in the coming days.