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Protests After Indian Lawmakers Pass Citizenship Bill

Dec 12, 2019
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NOEL KING, HOST:

India has deployed its army, cut 4G Internet, imposed curfews and cancelled trains and flights in parts of the northeast. Indian authorities were responding to thousands of people who protested after a Citizenship Amendment Bill passed last night. That law changes the rules on who can become an Indian citizen, and it uses religion as a criterion for citizenship for the first time. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been reporting on this new legislation, and she's on the line from our bureau in Mumbai. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: So what does this new law say? And what does it mean?

FRAYER: So the law makes undocumented migrants eligible for passports. It's sort of like a path to citizenship, like an amnesty. India has very strict citizenship laws. If you come into the country without a visa, you normally have no path to citizenship, and this law changes that. It grants passports to religious minorities from three neighboring countries - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Those are majority Muslim countries. But to be eligible for this, you have to be Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or a member of a couple other smaller faiths; you cannot be Muslim.

So that exclusion of Muslims is what has many people upset. They say this law violates the secularism and equal rights enshrined in India's Constitution. And today, opposition lawmakers filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. The president has not yet signed this into law, but already it faces legal challenges.

KING: OK, so at the heart of this is that people are protesting because they see this law not as something that helps people from these other faiths, but as a law that is basically, on its face, anti-Muslim.

FRAYER: Yes, some people are protesting because of that. The law doesn't apply to many persecuted groups in South Asia who happen to be Muslims, like the Ahmadis in Pakistan, the Hazaras in Afghanistan. Rohingya Muslims - there are hundreds of thousands of them in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and this doesn't apply to them.

But lots of protests over this are in Assam. That's one of the most diverse states in India's northeast, and it's where immigration is a very sensitive issue. People are worried that undocumented migrants, as they become legal, will stay permanently, will dilute local culture, will compete for local jobs. And so people in Assam are angry because, also, that's where the government is conducting something called the NRC, the National Register of Citizens. It's like this local census designed to root out undocumented migrants there. And about 2 million people, most of them Muslims, have been unable to provide documents to prove their citizenship and are therefore slated to lose it, even people whose families have been here for generations.

So in Assam, all of this is happening at the same time, and that's why many there and elsewhere see this as unfair. And by the way, they have some support abroad. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, even a U.S. government advisory panel have all called this law unfair and called it anti-Muslim. And that U.S. panel went as far as to call for sanctions against India's home minister, who introduced this bill.

KING: Oh, that's interesting. So the center of this is in Assam, basically. How big are the protests? What are you seeing?

FRAYER: A curfew is in place. This morning, thousands of people defied that curfew, though. They burned tires in the streets. It's evening now. Darkness has fallen. Things have gone quieter. Protests have actually been going on all week. But earlier, we saw vehicles burned, telephone poles toppled, politicians' homes vandalized. Dozens of protesters have been arrested. Tear gas was fired at them. President - Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for calm. He tweeted out a statement saying, to the Assamese people, nobody can take away your rights.

KING: NPR's Lauren Frayer in Mumbai. Lauren, thanks so much.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.