NEW DELHI — As the upper house of India’s Parliament began debating a contentious citizenship bill on Wednesday, the Indian government and its allies fiercely defended the measure, saying it was intended purely to protect persecuted minorities.
The measure, called the Citizenship Amendment Bill, uses religion as a criterion for determining whether illegal migrants in India can be fast-tracked for citizenship. The bill favors members of all South Asia’s major religions except Islam, and leaders of India’s 200-million-strong Muslim community have called it blatant discrimination.
As criticism by opponents in India and international human rights groups mounted after the bill’s passage in the lower house on Monday, officials in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government insisted that the legislation would protect human rights.
“The bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries,” said Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign affairs ministry. “It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights. Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.”
The bill is a central piece of a far-reaching agenda by Mr. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, which has long espoused a Hindu-centric worldview.
India is around 80 percent Hindu, with a large Muslim minority, and many of Mr. Modi’s supporters believe India should emphasize its Hindu identity as much as possible and become more of an overtly Hindu nation. India’s founding leaders, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, resisted this, insisting on keeping India a secular state and carving out special protections for minorities, including Muslims.
The Indian Army was deployed in the northeastern states of Assam and Tripura as protests grew bigger and more violent. The police were already battling demonstrators over the past few days with water cannons and tear gas. More than 1,000 protesters gathered in the heart of Assam’s commercial capital, Guwahati, yelling: “Go Back Modi!” In other areas, angry men stomped on effigies of Mr. Modi. Crowds set fire to tires and blocked thoroughfares with trees.
As protests against the legislation erupted in different corners of the country, the debate centered on what kind of country India should be.
“The idea of India that emerged from the independence movement,” said a letter signed by more than 1,000 Indian intellectuals, “is that of a country that aspires to treat people of all faiths equally.”
But this bill, the intellectuals said, is “a radical break with this history” and will “greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country."
The citizenship legislation follows hand in hand with a divisive citizenship test conducted this summer in one of India’s states and possibly soon to be expanded nationwide.
All residents of the state of Assam, along the Bangladesh border, had to produce documentary proof that they or their ancestors had lived in India since 1971. Around two million of Assam’s population of 33 million — a mix of Hindus and Muslims — failed to pass the test, and these people now risk being rendered stateless. Huge new prisons are being built to incarcerate anyone determined to be an illegal immigrant.
Some of those who have been arrested have lived in India for generations.
The citizenship bill would allow Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsees or Jains who have migrated from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan a clear path to naturalization in India.
Migrants who are Muslim — which might include people who have lived in India for generations but were unable to produce an old property deed or birth certificate to prove it — would not be afforded the same protection.
The bill excludes Muslim members of religious minorities from neighboring countries, such as the Rohingya who have been persecuted ruthlessly in neighboring Myanmar.
International organizations have seized on that in criticizing the legislation.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal body, called the measure a “dangerous turn in the wrong direction” and said that the United States should consider sanctions against India if the bill passes.
Indian officials and other supporters of the bill cite attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which are predominantly Muslim, and the shrinking Hindu populations in those countries.
Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary and a supporter of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy, said the bill “certainly expresses a pro-Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist sentiment for objective reasons as they are a beleaguered community with no other option.”
But, he said, the citizenship bill has “nothing to do with the Muslims of India. It relates to foreign Muslims who have infiltrated into India over the years."
The big question many Muslims in India are now asking is: Who will be considered an Indian citizen? And who will be considered an illegal foreigner?
Many of the people who failed to pass the citizenship test in Assam had lived in India all their lives, felt deeply Indian and were despondent to be stricken from the citizenship rolls. Some even killed themselves, including a 14-year-old girl from a small village.
Where all of this is going is hardly clear. Even if India rounds up thousands of people the government considers illegal migrants and puts them into the newly built prisons, it will not be easy to deport them.
Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be unlikely to accept India’s determination of citizenship, especially if it seems that most of those being slated for removal are Muslims.
India’s home minister, Amit Shah, considered the second most powerful man in the country, has vowed two things: to bring the citizenship tests nationwide and to protect Hindus knocked off the citizenship rolls.
Harsh Mander, a well-known human rights defender, said in a newspaper column that these measures posed “the gravest threat to India’s secular democratic constitution since India became a republic.”
Mr. Mander, who said he was born a Sikh, said that if the bill passed he would declare himself a Muslim to stand in solidarity with “my undocumented Muslim sisters and brothers."