NEW DELHI — Lawmakers in India on Wednesday passed a fundamental change to its citizenship law to include religion as a criterion for nationality for the first time, deepening concerns that a country founded on secular ideals is becoming a Hindu state that treats Muslims as second-class citizens.
The measure was approved by a majority of the upper house of India’s Parliament in a final vote late Wednesday. It is expected to be signed into law by India’s ceremonial president within days.
The passage of the legislation marks the latest political victory for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a strident nationalist in the mold of other right-leaning populist politicians around the globe.
Since winning a landslide reelection victory in May, Modi has moved swiftly to implement his party’s agenda of emphasizing Hindu primacy in India, a diverse democracy home to more than 1.3 billion people.
Hindu nationalist ideologues view India’s history as a series of humiliations — centuries of rule by Muslim kings followed by British colonialism — that must be redressed.
They despise the secularism embraced by India’s founders, who sought to create a country where all faiths were treated equally. And they accuse India’s previous leaders of pandering to religious minorities, especially Muslims, in search of votes.
Now, in just months, Modi has achieved some of their top objectives. In August, he reversed seven decades of policy in Kashmir, stripping the Muslim-majority state of its autonomy and instituting a crackdown that endures to this day. Last month, India’s Supreme Court greenlighted the construction of a grand Hindu temple at the site of a 16th-century mosque illegally razed by Hindu extremists in 1992.
The government has also engaged in increasingly harsh anti-migrant rhetoric. The country’s powerful interior minister has called migrants who entered the country illegally “termites” and pledged to expel them. Earlier this year, Indian authorities completed a byzantine process aimed at identifying migrants in the northeastern state of Assam. Nearly 2 million people were left off the final list of citizens, raising the risk that they could be rendered stateless or deported.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, which was passed by both houses of Parliament this week, is another priority. It is effectively an amnesty for all Hindus, Buddhists and Christians (as well as adherents of three smaller religions) who illegally entered the country before 2014 from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The citizenship bill is “the first legal articulation that India is, you might say, a homeland for Hindus,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s most prominent political scientists. Mehta believes the measure violates the Indian constitution, which guarantees equal rights before the law to all people within the country.
To name specific religious communities in the law is “nothing else but sending a signal,” Mehta said. “The signal is that Muslims are not on the same footing” as others in India.
Modi and his second-in-command, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, have said the measure is necessary to offer refuge to persecuted religious minorities. Proponents say India owes a moral responsibility to such communities who have faced severe hardship and even violence. But the legislation does not provide any relief to members of oppressed religious minorities — mostly Muslims — from other neighboring countries such as China and Myanmar.
After the measure passed on Wednesday, Modi wrote that it was a “landmark day for India and our nation’s ethos of compassion and brotherhood.” He said the bill would “alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years.”
However, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on Monday described the legislation as a “dangerous turn” that “runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism.” It called upon Congress and President Trump to consider sanctions against Shah if the measure became law. India rejected the criticism as “neither accurate nor warranted.”
The heated debate in Parliament over the citizenship measure repeatedly raked up India’s original trauma, the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. While Pakistan was founded as a home for the region’s Muslims, India defined itself in opposition to the idea that religion was the basis of nationhood.
The bill runs counter to India’s “foundational values,” Anand Sharma, a leader of the opposition Congress party, said in Parliament on Wednesday. “It hurts the soul of India.”
For some in India, the citizenship legislation is a sign of the profound changes sweeping the country and a cause for deep sadness. Shah Alam Khan, 49, a doctor and columnist in Delhi, said his great-grandparents decided to stay in India at the time of partition, rather than leave for Pakistan as many Muslims did, because they believed in India’s pluralistic ethos.
“They trusted the sky over their heads and the ground under their feet,” he wrote. “I am happy they aren’t alive to see this collapsing India.”
The Modi government’s moves have intensified a sense of insecurity among India’s Muslim community, the second-largest in the world. Modi has long been a controversial figure among Muslims. In 2002, when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat, he failed to stop the deadliest outbreak of communal violence in recent Indian history. More than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed over three days. A court-appointed panel absolved Modi of involvement in the riots.
Now some Muslims worry that the current citizenship measure is only the first step of a larger project. Shah, Modi’s lieutenant, has repeatedly stated that the government intends to launch a nationwide registry in which all Indians will be required to prove their citizenship, patterned on the exercise recently carried out in Assam. The opaque and complex process was riddled with errors and forced residents to provide ancestral documents going back decades.
Shah’s repeated references to migrants as “termites” and “infiltrators” who represent a security threat is coded language to refer to Muslims, critics say. Although Shah has said that Indian Muslims have nothing to fear, many worry they would be the target of a nationwide citizenship registry.
One of the effects of Modi’s new citizenship measure would be to help those left off the list of citizens in Assam — provided they are not Muslims. In September, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of a powerful Hindu nationalist organization that is the ideological parent of the ruling party, reportedly assured politicians that “no Hindu” would be expelled from the country.
“We have to distinguish between the infiltrators and genuine persecuted refugees,” said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. “This is the right time for India to assert its security concerns, because we are living with neighbors which are the biggest security threats in the entire world.” He said the three countries mentioned in the legislation — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — were “theocratic states.”
As the citizenship legislation moved closer to a final vote, the furor around it grew. Hundreds of prominent scientists and scholars issued public letters to express their opposition.
In India’s northeast, violent protests broke out against the measure. In some areas, local authorities requested help from the Indian army, shut down mobile Internet access and imposed curfews. States such as Assam have long witnessed tensions surrounding the arrival of Bengali-speaking migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, who locals fear will alter their culture and take away jobs. Now the citizenship measure will help some of those migrants to become citizens, provided that they settle outside of areas designated for indigenous people.
“There is a lot of anger since we have already absorbed so many people,” said Madhurjya Baruah, 32, a lawyer in Guwahati, Assam’s largest city. “After making everyone in the state prove their citizenship, you are saying you will accept recent immigrants. Whatever religion they may be, we are not going to accept it.”
Opponents of the new citizenship bill have vowed to challenge its constitutionality. But India’s Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is reluctant to rule in an expeditious manner on such challenges, particularly when they involve the policy priorities of the government.