NEW DELHI (AFP) — India's cabinet on Wednesday signed off on legislation that will give citizenship to certain religious minorities but not Muslims, in what critics call a fresh attempt to sideline the 200-million-strong Islamic community.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, re-elected in a landslide in May, has long been accused of following a "Hindutva" agenda favoring officially secular India's majority Hindus.
The amendments to the six-decade-old Indian Citizenship Act, approved by Modi's cabinet Wednesday, could go before the lower house of parliament as soon as this week.
The bill would grant nationality to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis fleeing persecution in Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan even without any documentation.
Modi's party has said that Muslims are not included because they are able to take refuge in Islamic nations across the globe.
Senior minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters Wednesday that the legislation would follow the principles of "natural justice" — whatever that is — and is "not against anyone."
Modi’s government tried to get similar legislation passed in its first term but failed to garner enough support in the upper house, and it is unclear whether it will succeed there this time.
Apart from stoking unease among Muslims, the proposed changes have also provoked anger in northeast India that for decades has seen major influxes of people of different religions, including Hindus.
Modi's right-hand man, Home Minister Amit Shah, held talks with representatives from the region on Tuesday. Shah has been vocal in pushing through the bill that he says is aimed at "saving the lives" of persecuted religious communities in neighboring Muslim-majority countries.
He also has proposed a "national register of citizens" that he said this week would see "each and every infiltrator identified and expelled" from India by 2024.
Shashi Tharoor from the main opposition Congress party told reporters Wednesday that the bill violated the basic idea of a secular India as pushed by Mahatma Gandhi.
"Those who believe that religion should determine nationhood ... that was the idea of Pakistan," Tharoor said, calling the legislation "fundamentally unconstitutional."
"It is simple. Citizenship CANNOT be determined by or linked to religion," tweeted Sitaram Yechury, a senior politician from the Communist Party of India.
Under Modi, the Islamic-sounding names of several cities have been changed, and some school textbooks have been altered to downplay Muslims’ contributions to India.
There has been a string of lynchings of Muslims over cows, sacred for many Hindus, and other hate crimes, including forcing Muslims to perform Hindu chants.
In August, Modi's administration rescinded the partial autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India's only Muslim-majority state, in what his government said was aimed at boosting the local economy and rooting out corruption, but which has been condemned worldwide as a massive violation of human rights.
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