HYDERABAD, India — India took a major step toward the official marginalization of Muslims on Monday, as Parliament opened debate on a bill that would establish a religious test for migrants’ eligibility to become citizens, solidifying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist agenda.
The bill, which is expected to easily pass the lower house of Parliament, would give migrants of all of South Asia’s major religions — except Islam — a clear path to Indian citizenship. It is the most significant move yet to profoundly alter India’s secular nature enshrined by its founding leaders when the country gained independence in 1947.
Muslim Indians are furious and terrified. They see the new measure, called the Citizenship Amendment Bill, as the first step by the governing party to make second-class citizens of India’s 200 million Muslims, one of the largest Muslim populations in the world, and render many of them stateless.
“We are heading toward totalitarianism, a fascist state,” Asaduddin Owaisi, a member of Parliament and a Muslim, said of the bill. “We are making India a theocratic country.”
The legislation goes hand in hand with a contentious program that began in the northeastern state of Assam this year, in which all 33 million residents of the state had to prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens. Approximately two million people — many of them Muslims, and many of them lifelong residents of India — were left off the state’s citizenship rolls after that exercise.
Now, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., is hoping to expand that kind of citizenship test to other states. And the new legislation would become a guiding principal for who could hope to call themselves Indians.
Mr. Modi and his party are deeply rooted in an ideology that sees India as a Hindu nation. And since the B.J.P.’s landslide re-election win in May, Mr. Modi’s administration has celebrated one Hindu nationalist victory after another, each a demoralizing drumbeat for Muslims.
First came the Assam citizenship tests. Then Mr. Modi stripped away autonomy and statehood for Kashmir, which used to be India’s only Muslim-majority state. And last month, Hindu fundamentalists scored a big court victory allowing them to build a new temple over the ruins of a demolished mosque in the flash point city of Ayodhya.
With the new citizenship bill, Mr. Modi’s party says it is simply trying to protect persecuted Hindus, Buddhists and Christians (and members of a few smaller religions) who migrate from predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan or Afghanistan.
But the legislation would also make it easier to incarcerate and deport Muslim residents, even those whose families have been in India for generations, if they cannot produce proof of citizenship.
Under Mr. Modi’s leadership, anti-Muslim sentiment has become blatantly more mainstream and public. Intimidation and attacks against Muslim communities have increased in recent years. And overt displays of Hindu piety and nationalism have become central in pop culture and politics.
Mr. Modi’s fellow lawmakers in the B.J.P. are unapologetic about their pro-Hindu position.
“There are Muslim countries, there are Jew countries, everybody has their own identity. And we are a billion-plus, right? We must have one identity,” said Ravi Kishan, a famous action-film hero and member of Parliament who is a central supporter of the citizenship legislation.
When asked if he was trying to turn India into a Hindu nation, he laughed. “India has always been a Hindu nation,” he said. “The Muslims also are Hindus.” (This is a common Hindu nationalist belief: that India’s Muslims are relatively recent converts, even though Islam arrived in India hundreds of years ago.)
The legislation is expected to pass Parliament’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, quickly, and protests are already breaking out.
In Assam, where the citizenship program began last summer, thousands of people have marched in the streets, hoisting placards and torches and shouting out their opposition to the bill.
People are talking of mass fasts and boycotts of schools and markets. On Monday, some hanged effigies of Mr. Modi and his right-hand man, Amit Shah, the home minister.
The leaders of the opposition Indian National Congress party are trying to paint the bill as a danger to India’s democracy. After India won its independence, its founding leaders, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru among them, made a clear decision: Even though the country was 80 percent Hindu, it would not be an officially Hindu nation. Minorities, especially Muslims, would be treated equally.
Rahul Gandhi, a party leader and great-grandson of Mr. Nehru, said, “India belongs to everybody — all communities, all religions, all cultures.” Shashi Tharoor, the party’s intellectual heavyweight, called the bill an “all-out assault on the very idea of India.”
But the Congress party is at a low point in its 100-year-plus history. And Mr. Modi’s party has the numbers: With allies, it controls nearly two-thirds of the seats in the lower house.
After clearing the lower house, the bill will move to the upper house, the Rajya Sabha, the equivalent of a senate. Mr. Modi seems to have enough allies there that most analysts predict the citizenship bill will soon become law.
Some of Mr. Modi’s critics believe the bill is serving to distract the public from another pressing issue: the economy. For the first time in decades, India’s economy is slowing significantly. It is still huge, but several big industries, like car and motorcycle manufacturing, have seen sales plummet like never before.
“The economy is in tatters,” said Aman Wadud, a human rights’ lawyer in Assam. The bill, he said, was “the only issue left to polarize the country and distract people.”
But forging India into an overtly Hindu nation has been a core goal of Mr. Modi’s party and of the R.S.S., a right-wing volunteer group whose ranks Mr. Modi rose up through and which provides him a backbone of support. And India’s recent moves in Kashmir, along with the Ayodhya temple ruling and the Assam citizenship tests, have been hugely popular with the prime minister’s base.
Earlier this year, Mr. Modi’s government tried to push similar citizenship legislation. The bill sailed through the lower house but stalled after many politicians in Assam said they did not like the religious dimension the B.J.P. was injecting — or the possibility that a large number of Hindu Bengalis would be made citizens and would be able to legally acquire land in Assam.
The bill gathered new momentum this fall, after the citizenship test in Assam. Assam has witnessed waves of migration over the years, and many of those people whose citizenship was being questioned were migrants, both Hindus and Muslims, from neighboring Bangladesh.
Mr. Shah, the home minister and architect of the B.J.P.’s recent political victories, promised to protect the Hindus and other non-Muslims. He has called illegal migrants from Bangladesh “termites,” and along with his other statements made clear that Muslims were his target. Mr. Shah has also promised to impose the citizenship test from Assam on the entire country.
The citizenship bill is a piece of the campaign to identify and deport Muslims who have been living in India for years, critics of the bill say. It lays out a path to Indian citizenship for migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they can prove they have been in India for at least five years and ascribe to the specified religions.
To overcome the resistance from politicians in Assam, who do not want Hindu or Muslim migrants taking their land, the new version of the bill carves out special protections for areas predominated by indigenous people.
Mr. Modi’s supporters employ a certain logic when defending the bill’s exclusion of Muslims. They say Muslims are not persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan, which is mostly true. They also say that when India and Pakistan were granted independence in 1947, the British carved out Pakistan as a haven for Muslims, while India remained predominantly Hindu. To them, the extension of that process is to ask illegal Muslims migrants to leave India and seek refuge in neighboring, mainly Muslim nations.
Article 25 of the Indian Constitution says, “All persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.” Given that, many opponents of the bill say the citizenship legislation is patently unconstitutional. But the Hindu nationalists have an answer for that, as well.
“We are not talking about citizens,” said Ramesh Shinde, a spokesman for the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, a Hindu organization that is considered a far-right group. “We are talking about migrants.”
Both sides agree on one thing: The bill could have far-reaching consequences.
The Indian government is already racing to build an enormous network of prisons to house thousands of migrants. If immigration law is applied selectively, Hindu migrants who are swept up in raids may be released and allowed to apply for citizenship, while Muslim migrants could instead be sent to detention camps, opponents say.
“In every state, Muslims are running around for papers,” said Mr. Wadud, the human rights lawyer in Assam. “An environment of fear has been created.”
Mr. Kishan, the action hero turned politician, said he would next push to change India’s name to Bharat, the traditional Hindi word for India. But he said that he was not anti-Muslim, and that Muslims living in India legally had nothing to fear.
“How can I be anti-Muslim? My staff in Mumbai is Muslim,” he said.
“Hindus and Muslims in India are like this,” he said, interlacing his fingers. “But,” he added with a big smile, “I love Hindus.”
Jeffrey Gettleman reported from Hyderabad, India, and Suhasini Raj from New Delhi.