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The new citizenship bill and the Hinduisation of India | Human Rights



On January 8, India‘s lower house of parliament approved a bill that would grant residency and citizenship rights to undocumented non-Muslim immigrants, sparking protests in the country’s northeast. The protests took place mainly in the state of Assam, where millions of people were accused of being foreigners and effectively stripped of their citizenship last year.

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which still needs the approval of the upper house of parliament, seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act to make Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from three Muslim-majority countries – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – eligible for Indian citizenship. This would mean migrants belonging to these religious communities who entered India without the necessary documents prior to 2014 would not be imprisoned or deported and would gain permanent citizenship after six years of residency in India.

The government says the bill aims to provide succour to persons who have been persecuted in their homelands because of their religious identities and who have “nowhere else to go but India”. The proposal assumes persons who identify as Muslim cannot be persecuted in Muslim-dominated countries, and therefore excludes all Muslim immigrants. Hence, members of the Ahmadiya and Shia communities of Pakistan, despite being persistently targeted by extremists, would not be able to seek refuge in India. 

The bill has been widely criticised for attempting to make religion an eligibility criterion for Indian citizenship – an act that would fundamentally alter the secular character of India.

Ignoring minorities from non-Muslim states

Critics have questioned the reasons behind the government’s decision to limit the scope of this bill to migrants from Muslim-majority neighbours of India. Some have argued that the fact that the proposal excludes thousands of undocumented immigrants from Sri Lanka, Nepal and most importantly Myanmar implies that the Indian government is not at all concerned about the persecution of minorities if they are not living in Muslim-majority countries.

India slammed for deporting Rohingya refugees (6:11)

Indeed, when members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority sought refuge in India after being persecuted in their home country for their religious and ethnic identity, the Indian government did not attempt to provide any legal protection for them. On the contrary, the members of the government perceived these desperate refugees as a threat to India and made attempts to force them out of the country.

In this context, the claim that this bill is a humanitarian gesture aiming to help people in need does not hold. So what is the Indian government’s real motivation for supporting this bill?

Protecting India’s ‘Hindu identity’

The governing Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) main strategist for the northeast, Himanta Biswa Sarma, recently exposed the real purpose of this bill: protecting India’s so-called Hindu identity.

Before the citizenship bill was put to a vote in the lower house of parliament, Sarma, who is also the finance minister of the state of Assam, said, “If this Bill is not passed, then Hindus in Assam will become a minority in just next five years. That will be advantageous to those elements who want Assam to be another Kashmir and a part of the uncertain phase there.” 

And soon after the bill was passed, the minister argued that this decision may have prevented Muslims from taking control of Assam’s 17 assembly seats and the Muslim leader of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Badruddin Ajmal, from becoming the chief minister.

By using the potential electoral success of Muslim Indian citizens, who have every right to contest and hold public positions, as a way to legitimise the citizenship bill, Sarma clearly demonstrated that the purpose of this bill is not to “help” anyone, but to protect and promote Hindu supremacy in India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also previously admitted that the bill is tied to his party’s desire to make India a Hindu nation that prioritises the rights of Hindus irrespective of their citizenship.

During a rally in Assam’s Bengali-Hindu dominated region of Silchar, Modi said that the citizenship bill is an “atonement for the past mistakes of partition”. Emphasising that he believes blood relations are more important than the “colour of passports”, he promised the region’s Bengali-speaking Hindus that he would make sure that they will be accepted and welcomed by “mother India” by passing this bill.

Alienating Assam’s indigenous population

Today, Assam is at the centre of protests about the proposed amendment to India’s citizenship bill and this public anger has historical roots.

During Bangladesh’s bloody struggle for liberation from Pakistan in the early 1970s, many Bengalis moved to Assam. Over the years, their increasing numbers stirred anxieties among the indigenous Assamese people about the preservation of their distinct culture and ownership of land. As a result, between 1979 and 1985, an “anti-foreigner” agitation – dubbed the “Assam movement”, targeting the Bengali immigrants – erupted in the state. 

To end the violence, India’s central government signed the Assam accord with the leaders of the Assam movement in 1985. The accord specified that only people who could prove that either they or their parents had entered or lived in India prior to March 1971 can assume Indian citizenship and legally reside in the state of Assam.

Last year, a new National Register of Citizens (NRC) was prepared in the state to distinguish Indian citizens from undocumented immigrants according to the rules set by the 1985 accord. This list included only 28.9 million of the 32.9 million people residing in the state, rendering nearly four million people stateless. 

The decision to denationalise millions of people was widely supported by Assam’s indigenous population, which still fears their culture may be decimated by the influx of “foreigners” and widely criticised by India’s Bengali communities and international observers. The Assamese’s main fear is that Bangla-speaking people from neighbouring Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, would come to dominate Assam. Hindu and Muslim Assamese are united on this viewpoint and they all want undocumented immigrants to be kicked out of the state. 

However, with this new citizenship bill, the BJP government is trying to convince Assamese Hindus that their loyalty should lie not with the indigenous Muslim communities of their state – who speak their language – but with Bengali Hindus. For now, the majority of Assamese Hindus seem not convinced by Hindu nationalist arguments.

The Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), the successor of the Assam movement, has already severed ties with the BJP and expressed its displeasure over the move. The AGP and its allies see in this move an attempt by the BJP to lure as many Hindus from Bangladesh as possible to this region, which, they think, would make it Bengali-dominated and eclipse the local cultures.

Another step towards Hinduisation of India

The citizenship bill needs to be seen as a part of the BJP’s larger ideological and political agenda to transform India into a “Hindu homeland”. The governing party believes India belongs to Hindus and everyone else are invaders, or at best latecomers, who should expect nothing more than a guest status.

The BJP is clearly using this bill to send a message to the Hindus in other parts of India that under their rule, “Hindus will always come first”.

From the very beginning, the BJP viewed the NRC as way to rid the country of Muslim “foreigners”. Using this citizenship bill, the governing party is trying to make sure no Hindus are harmed by the NRC and their quest to expel Muslims from India can continue without complications.

If this bill gets the approval of the upper house in the coming days, it will not only cause division and conflict in the northeast of India but will significantly contribute to the ongoing Hinduisation of India.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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British PM Theresa May survives no-confidence vote | News




Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May survived a no-confidence vote on Wednesday, a day after members of parliament dealt a crushing blow to the Brexit plan she negotiated with the European Union (EU).

Parliament members voted 325 to 306 against the motion called by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who had earlier urged May to resign.

It was expected that May would survive the vote, after she secured the backing of her own party’s rebels and the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up her minority government.

“I am pleased that this House has expressed its confidence in this government tonight,” May said. “My government will continue its work to increase our prosperity, guarantee our security and to strengthen our union.”    

With her leadership secure for the time being, May has to decide the next step, as the March 29 deadline for Brexit looms.

Later on Wednesday, May said that the Labour Party had yet to discuss a new approach to Brexit with her and urged politicians to put self-interest aside. 

“I am disappointed that the leader of the Labour Party has not so far chosen to take part – but our door remains open,” May said, adding she had talked to representatives from the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Welsh party Plaid Cymru. 

UK parliament rejects Theresa May’s Brexit deal

Earlier on Wednesday, she ruled out calling a general election, saying that it would be the worst thing Britain could do now.

“I believe [an election] is the worst thing we could do, it would deepen division when we need unity, it would bring chaos when we need certainty and it would bring delay when we need to move forward,” May told parliament.

The other options on the table are a second referendum, a renegotiation with the EU or an EU departure without a deal.

May pledged to work with senior politicians to find a compromise that would avoid a disorderly “no-deal” Brexit or another referendum on membership.

During the debate on Wednesday, Labour’s Corbyn said that the Brexit vote on Tuesday night has left May’s government ineffective to deliver on her promise.

“This government has failed our country. It cannot govern, it cannot command the support of the people, facing the most important issue at the moment, which is Brexit,” said Corbyn, who opposes a second referendum. 

Following the vote on Wednesday, Corbyn called on May to “remove clearly” the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit, “and all the chaos that would come as a result of that”.

Labour’s finance spokesman, John McDonnell, said May could eventually get a deal through parliament if she negotiated a compromise with the opposition party, which wants a permanent customs union with the EU, a close relationship with its single market and greater protections for workers and consumers.

But May’s spokesman said it was still government policy to be outside an EU customs union, while May insisted Britain would leave the bloc on March 29, leaving little time for a solution to be found.

Al Jazeera and news agencies

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Theresa May survives another Brexit skirmish | News




London, United Kingdom – Theresa May’s victory in a second no-confidence vote over her strategy for leaving the European Union will give the British Prime Minister a breathing space, as she tries to resolve her political woes – yet by no means assures her survival.

Parliamentarians threw out a no-confidence motion put forward by the opposition Labour Party a day after May’s humiliating defeat on the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU.

But the implications of the latest vote could ultimately prove to be greater for Labour – whose leadership has placed its bets on unseating her “zombie government” and engineering a general election – by reviving its own demons over Europe.

Professor Anand Menon, director of the The UK in a Changing Europe academic think tank, said: “All those Labour backbench MPs who to date have hidden behind the slogan ‘I want a general election’ are now finally at long last going to have to confront the real choice over Brexit.

“Do they want to leave with a deal, do they want to leave without a deal, or do they want a referendum?”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to topple May and win a subsequent election that would enable him to renegotiate the Conservative prime minister’s unpopular divorce deal.

However, many of his own Labour MPs and party members want a second referendum that they hope could reverse the UK’s decision to leave Europe taken after a plebiscite in 2016.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said: “The Labour leadership did not put forward this motion because they thought it could get them a general election, they did it because they want to avoid having to endorse a second referendum.”

The result of Wednesday’s confidence vote – May won by 325 votes to 306 – was expected, given the parliamentary arithmetic: her minority administration has survived since an election in 2017 with the support of Northern Irish MPs. She defeated a no-confidence motion within her own party in December.

Even though many Conservative MPs hate the prime minister’s Brexit deal – rejected on Tuesday in the so-called “meaningful vote” by a thumping majority – they rallied round her out of hostility to Corbyn.

Labour can call such no-confidence motions again – some of its MPs now see this as a viable strategy – but the latest result effectively rules out a general election for now.

Europe is closely watching the outcome of Theresa May’s Brexit plan [Michael Probst/AP]

Menon said that Labour figures have made contradictory statements about what to do next, with some calling for recurrent confidence motions until they get the result they want, but others insisting this is pointless.

“There is obviously a real fight going on within the Labour Party about this, and no one knows which way it will go.”

Temporary respite

Wednesday’s victory will give May temporary respite as she attempts to convince EU leaders to offer sufficient concessions to convince a majority of MPs to back her Brexit deal.

Maddy Thimont Jack, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, said: “The vote will show that she does have the confidence of the House of Commons, so it gives her a bit more flexibility going into the next step – when she has to bring back the motion [on her Brexit deal] next week with the government’s plan B following Tuesday’s defeat.

Uncertainty and ‘Brexit paralysis’ fears in UK as deadline looms

“In the immediate term, it might strengthen her, but it doesn’t stop another motion being brought in three weeks’ time and – given how fast things are moving and that the clock is ticking – it could then be a very different situation.”

However, the implications of Corbyn’s decision to move a motion of confidence could be greater for Labour, by prising open its own Brexit divisions – and May knows it, effectively daring Corbyn to challenge her.

Bale said: “She thinks clearly that it is a way of getting the troops to rally round her after Tuesday’s terrible defeat, which it is – and it also then exposes the tensions within the Labour Party because it puts the ball in Corbyn’s court as regards a second referendum and what to do next?

“He has marched his troops to the top of the hill and he can’t really march them down again now.”

Second referendum

Corbyn and other senior Labour figures have used the hope of an election to conceal from their members the fact that they want to proceed with Brexit and oppose a second referendum.

Bale said: “This vote was really not about defeating the government because they know in their hearts that can’t possibly be done.

“The confidence motion is something they have been able to hide behind since the Labour Party conference in the autumn and it allows them to tell their supporters in the country and especially their grassroots members that there is no need for a second referendum yet because they might be able to engineer a general election.

Northern Ireland prepares for worst-case Brexit scenario

“That was always a fiction and it will be exposed as such – but it might be something that they carry on trying to do for two or three weeks, meanwhile running down the clock.”

While Labour is now likely to edge closer to resolving its own policy disagreements, this does not automatically mean it will embrace a second referendum.

Bale said: “It looks as if the leadership is reluctant to do that and is intent instead on pursuing the possibility of some kind of ‘softer’ Brexit in coordination with the government, or indeed tabling another confidence motion in a few days’ or weeks’ time.”

Menon also noted that a recent gathering of Labour MPs who want a “people’s vote” attracted just 71 parliamentarians.

“That isn’t very many,” he said. “There are an awful lot of Labour MPs who don’t want a referendum.”

In principle, it would not be difficult to secure parliament’s commitment to a second referendum through a motion.

However, it would then require complex legislation and an extension of the March 29 deadline under “Article 50” by which the UK formally announced its intention to quit the EU.

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Despite crackdown, Zimbabwe fuel protests continue | News




Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Police in Zimbabwe have arrested a prominent protest leader, Evan Mawarire, as part of a widening security crackdown on protesters following violent clashes and incidences of looting.

Mawarire, an activist pastor, had called for a three-day work stayaway to protest a hike in fuel prices that citizens fear could push the country back to the brink of economic collapse.

Clashes between protestors and the security forces continued in Zimbabwe‘s second city Bulawayo on the third day of national shutdown demonstrations.

This is the longest running mass action in more than a decade since labour unions and opposition movements protested against the then President Robert Mugabe.

Mawarire was charged with inciting violence and attempted subversion of the state in 2016, when he called for a day-long shutdown against the policies of Mugabe government.

Mugabe was forced out in a de facto military coup in November 2017 that followed mass people’s protests.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded him, but instead of a new era of freedom that the new leader had promised at his inauguration, he has allowed security clampdown on protesters.

Mawarire is yet to be charged but stands accused of inciting violence along with nearly 60 out of 200 protesters arrested in the past three days. The government blames civil society activists and the opposition of being responsible for the nationwide demonstrations.

At least five people have reportedly been killed as a result of the brutal crackdown, that has brought back the memory of the mass protests that ended President Mugabe’s four-decade rule.

Looting has ceased

In Bulawayo’s western suburbs, tension remained high as security forces continued their crackdown on suspected shop looters, protesters and citizens on Wednesday.

In the suburb of Sizinda, looting has ceased, but a standoff between the people and the army continues. Military trucks were seen patrolling the neighbourhood forcing residents to clear makeshift barricades and clean the streets with their bare hands.

After cleaning, the youths re-erected the stone barricades, but the armed troops returned and lined themselves up along the main highway.

Residents and some elderly people accused soldiers of beating civilians and conducting house raids.

Mafios Mumpuri, 69, a supermarket cleaner, told Al Jazeera he was accused of erecting stone and tyre barricades.

“The soldiers told me to remove the stones because I was one of those who put them on the street. After I pushed them off, they beat me with a belt and told me to go home.

“I am pained by what they did to me, how can we expect our country to be free if they make us do things like this,” he said.

Josphat Ngulube, an activist and independent politician, said he witnessed several beatings during security raids. Ngulube said he had taken at least four people to hospital in Sizinda.

He urged the government to listen to the people and end the violence.

“The demonstration has an impact because people are no longer listening to the government, they are not going to work because no one has confidence in the government.

“They need to engage with the people, they can’t kill us all,” he told Al Jazeera.

According to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), over 100 people have been admitted to hospitals across the African nation, mostly with gunshot wounds.

Mumpuri alleges he was forced to remove stones barricading the streets and then beaten up by the army [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

‘Necessary for change’

Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who narrowly lost a disputed election against Mnangagwa, visited the wounded in hospital in the capital, Harare. In a statement issued by the opposition MDC Alliance, the movement urged the Mnangagwa government to end the “siege” on citizens and recall the military.

“You do not have to do this and it does not have to be this way. Zimbabwe can be a prosperous nation, prosperity brings about peace, not guns and murder…

“Order the armed forces back to the barracks, allow peaceful protests and do not prevent a process on national dialogue,” the statement read.

Listing five demands, Chamisa appealed to the government to consider the far-reaching impact of its crackdown on citizen’s rights and urged it to work towards resolving the economic crisis.

On Wednesday, internet was partially restored in major urban centres after access was cut for more than 30 hours.

Adding to the woes of ordinary citizens, shops and fuel stations have remained closed during the stayway. As a result a black market has emerged with basic goods being sold at exorbitant prices.

A loaf of bread which normally sells for $1.40, is being sold for $4, while a litre of fuel costs $3, more than three times the normal price.

The hike of fuel prices by nearly 150 percent is the source of discontent as it has a significant negative impact on the broader state of the economy and the average citizen’s cost of living.

Despite the steep black market prices, shop looting and the state crackdown, many Zimbabweans blame the government for the crisis and still hope the stayaway action will not only find a way to fix the economy, but also result in a change in the rule of Mugabe’s increasingly unpopular successor.

In a bid to win back the nation’s support, Mnangagwa, who is currently in Russia, posted a message on his Twitter account despite the social media blockout.

“I understand the pain and frustration that many of you are feeling. Resolving Zimbabwe’s economic challenges is a monumental task, and while it may not always feel that way, we are moving in the right direction. We will get there,” he said.

Julia Banda is unconvinced and unmoved by the President’s Twitter post.

The 83-year-old, who lived through Zimbabwe’s 1970s liberation struggle and Mugabe’s rule, told Al Jazeera that the protests are necessary for change.

Activist Ngulube has carried several wounded protesters to hospitals [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

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