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In India, Modi’s citizenship proposal for non-Muslim refugees prompts outrage

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently approved a new law granting preferential treatment to non-Muslim refugees from neighboring states Afghanistan, Parkistan and Bangladesh. Modi says the measure protects religious minorities fleeing Muslim nations -- but opponents say it discriminates against Muslims. Nick Schifrin talks to Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently ushered in a new law that would grant preferential treatment to non-Muslim refugees from India's neighbors, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    Modi has argued that the bill protects religious minorities who are fleeing Muslim nations. However, opponents say that it deliberately discriminates against Muslims.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, protests against the law have been growing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the world's largest democracy, protest is expanding. In 17 cities, from the country's southern tip to the capital, New Delhi, demonstrators today rallied against the new citizenship bill, calling it anti-Muslim and anti-Indian.

  • Sadaf Fatima:

    I am proud to be an Indian, I am proud to be a Muslim, and I am proud to be a protester.

  • Woman (through translator):

    This is not what we want. India is a secular country. Let it remain secular.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Sunday in New Delhi, the protests in turned violent. Police fired tear gas and clashed with students, who accused officers of indiscriminate violence.

    At least 100 were injured. At one point, protesters torched public buses. There have been five days of discontent, following the passage of the bill that would expedite citizenship to illegal immigrants from neighboring countries who fled religious persecution, so long as they aren't Muslim.

    Critics call it the latest discriminatory move by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government. It has stripped the special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the country's only Muslim-majority region, and cut off the Internet, the longest ever Internet shutdown in a democracy.

    The government vows to nationalize a citizenship registry to weed out what the home minister calls infiltrators. Critics say it targets Muslims, and that Modi has been targeting Muslims for decades.

    Back in 2002 in Gujarat state, Modi was chief minister when deadly religious killed 1,000 people, the vast majority Muslim.

    Today, anti-government protests spread to the local government of West Bengal state. The chief minister says she won't implement the citizenship law, no matter the consequences.

  • Mamata Banerjee (through translator):

    You will bring our government down. Do it. Throw us away. We are fighting for honor, honesty. We may be hungry, but will not surrender before you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the Northeastern state of Assam, protesters are worried the bill would allow too many immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Five people have been killed during demonstrations there.

    Yesterday, Modi said violent protesters could be identified by clothes, called a way to blame all Muslims for the violence.

    Today, Modi tweeted, calling for peace, unity and brotherhood.

    To discuss what all this means for India, I'm joined by Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

    How much of this — give us the context. How much of this is about Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, trying to instill a Hindu nationalist agenda?

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    So, Narendra Modi and his party are an avowedly Hindu nationalist party.

    And I think the simplest way to understand that is that they believe that Indian culture is broadly coterminous or synonymous with Hindu culture, and India's a country of 1.3 billion people, 80 percent of whom are Hindus, and so India should wear its Hinduness as a kind of badge of honor.

    And so this latest move is really in keeping with an ideological tenet of the BJP that Mr. Modi deeply believes in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, part of the problem is that India has almost 200 million Muslims. It actually has more Muslims than Pakistan next door. And we have seen a lot of Muslim protests beginning with that.

    And we have also seen a connection between the two things that our story examined.

    What is the connection between the citizenship law that's just been passed and the citizenship test that the government vows to take nationally?

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    So, what this citizenship law does is, it grants expedited citizenship to illegal migrants who land up in India who come from one of three neighboring countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

    Now, it gives this pathway to citizenship for a wide variety of groups, except for one, which are Muslims. Now, why is important, because in one state in India, there is a process right now of essentially creating a citizens registry. And nearly two million people have been left off of that list. A large percentage of them are actually Hindu.

    So, what this bill is going to do, it's going to give those people a path to essentially regularizing themselves. But it's going to leave the Muslim minorities out.

    Now, BJP has promised to do this, not just in this one state, but actually to carry out this national citizens registration across the entire country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so we have seen protests begun by Muslim students, by young Muslims, but spreading.

    I mean, how much of a threat are these protests to Modi and the government?

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    Well, this is the biggest social test I think Modi has faced in his five years of office.

    But it's important to note that there are two sources of the protests. One, you're seeing not just from Muslim students, but students around the country and now going beyond just students, people of all ages, all classes, all religions, who are working that this essentially imposes a religious test on citizenship.

    But there's a second group of protesters — and this is primarily in India's Northeast — who are worried that a lot of these folks, many of whom are coming from neighboring Bangladesh, are going to flood our local culture, they're essentially going to stamp out what's unique about our tribal heritage, about our linguistic heritage, and so they're fighting against any immigration.

    So it's really important to note that these protesters in different parts of the country don't agree on the thing that they're protesting about.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And yet they are agreeing in protesting what's going on.

    And what is the possibility that they have the ability to change government policy?

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    So, we have already seen a suit that's been filed before the Supreme Court. They are going to determine whether or not this passes muster with the equal protection clause of the constitution and the part of the constitution that essentially provides equal citizenship to people, irrespective of their religious background.

    Most observers believe the court probably won't overturn this law on those grounds. Now, several states who are not controlled by the BJP have said, you know what, we're not going to implement this in our state.

    Now, the way the law has been written and the rules that actually implement it give the central government the ability to override that state dissent.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And then how much pressure are these protesters putting on the government in order to backtrack?

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    Well, urban protests are starting to spread. They're occurring in rural areas.

    They started with predominantly Muslim universities. They are spreading to universities across the country. So, if this is really sustained, that may force the government to actually respond and make some concessions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment, thank you very much.

  • Milan Vaishnav:

    Thanks.

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