While the bill was all set to be passed by the Lok Sabha, the key challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government would be to get its approval in the Rajya Sabha where it is in a minority, banking on the support of some regional parties.
The bill aims to provide citizenship to those who had been forced to seek shelter in India because of religious persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries—Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Critics say it discriminates against Muslims and other minorities from Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Shah’s introduction of the bill came amid bitter and heated exchanges between the treasury and opposition benches. Shah made a controversial statement when he said the bill was needed because the Congress had divided the country on the basis of religion.
“This bill is not even .001% against minorities in the country. In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Parsis and Jains have been discriminated against, so this bill will give these persecuted people citizenship. Also, the allegation that this bill will take away rights of Muslims is wrong. Muslim community not named in the bill even once," said Shah.
He added that if Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh apply for citizenship according to the law, then the Union government will consider it.
“Why do we need this bill today? After independence, if Congress had not done partition on the basis on religion, then, today we would have not needed this bill. Congress did partition on the basis of religion," Shah added.
While BJP, along with its alliance partners and like-minded parties, has a comfortable majority in the lower house, the real test of the ruling alliance will come in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA is in a minority. On Monday, the vote on the motion to introduce the bill was 293 in favour and 82 against, out of 375 members present and voting.
The tabling of the bill led to a tussle between BJP and opposition parties and was led by the Congress, which alleged that the bill was against Muslims in India. Leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the bill was nothing but legislation targeted at minorities of India.
“The bill is unconstitutional and laws should not be influenced by religion. Refugees cannot be differentiated on the basis of religion," said senior Congress leader Manish Tewari.
The next test of the bill will be in the Rajya Sabha, where the NDA will require the support of at least 123 MPs in the 245-member house. The support of regional and like-minded parties will be crucial to get the bill passed in the upper house, where it is likely to be tabled in the days ahead.
There was some cushion for the government after regional parties Biju Janata Dal and YSR Congress Party came out in its support. However, the support of a couple of regional parties and NDA allies may not be enough—the government currently has the support of 109 MPs.
“We are opposing Citizenship Amendment Bill, as it is discriminatory," Chowdhury of the Congress said. “The argument of persecuted refugees can be dealt with by making separate provisions through amendment in current law for accommodating refugees. A separate discriminatory law is not needed for it."
Senior leaders of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) said the bill was discriminatory and would be challenged before the Supreme Court if it gets passed in Parliament.
“The entire ethos of our democracy is equality and talking about Articles 14 and 15. I am not convinced by the home minister; it will be struck down in the Supreme Court. I request him to rethink it and please withdraw the bill," said senior NCP leader Supriya Sule.
The day also saw the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen leader Asaduddin Owaisi accusing the Union government of acting against Muslims in a heated speech during which he dramatically tore a copy of the bill.
The Union cabinet last week gave its go-ahead to the bill after Shah had met with various stakeholders and groups from the Northeast, where concerns over indigenous northeastern populations had been raised.
The provisions of the bill mark a drastic shift from the provisions of the Citizenship Act of 1955 that labelled only those people as “illegal immigrants", who were found to have entered India without travel documents or had overstayed the date specified in their documents.
The bill seeks to amend the 1955 Act to grant exemptions to illegal migrants from specific religious communities, who came to India on or before December 2014. According to the draft, the law will not be applicable to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and in the areas covered under The Inner Line, notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.
During the last winter session, the Lok Sabha had passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016. While the bill awaited passage in the upper house, it had lapsed after the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. The Opposition had then raised objections against the proposed amendments, which exclude Muslims and minorities from Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Shaswati Das contributed to this story