NEW DELHI: The government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha today with 293 MPs in support and 82 MPs opposing it on the grounds that it violates numerous fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, particularly the right to equality before the law in Article 14.

Amid large protests, mostly in the northeastern states, and a bandh or general strike planned across that region tomorrow, over 600 artists, writers, scholars and rights activists issued a statement condemning the “divisive, discriminatory and unconstitutional” bill, and demanding that the government withdraw it, along with plans for a nationwide National Register of Citizens.

Separately, over 900 scientists and scholars issued a statement urging the government to withdraw the bill, saying they “find it deeply troubling that the Bill uses religion as a legal criterion for determining Indian citizenship.” Signatories include Sandeep Trivedi, director of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, and historian Harbans Mukhia formerly of the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Members of civil society say that the bill provides for citizenship based on one’s religious faith, in violation of the Indian constitution.

Signatories to the statement issued today include writers Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh and Shashi Deshpande; filmmakers Aparna Sen, Nandita Das and Anand Patwardhan; scholars Romila Thapar, Prabhat Patnaik, Ramachandra Guha, Geeta Kapur, Akeel Bilgrami and Zoya Hasan; activists Teesta Setalvad, Harsh Mander, Aruna Roy and Bezwada Wilson; and a number of prominent citizens including former Delhi High Court Chief Justice A.P. Shah, linguist G.N. Devy, sociologist Nandini Sundar and former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah.

Their statement reads:

Since independence, Indian citizenship has been firmly rooted in the Constitution. In its citizenship provisions, the Constitution insists on the fundamentals of equality, regardless of gender, caste, religion, class, community or language.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 tears to shreds the inclusive, composite vision of India that guided our freedom struggle. In the amendments it introduces to the Citizenship Act of 1955, the new Bill violates every single one of these fundamentals of the Constitution. In fact, it is not a mere change in statute. It is a Bill that will alter, fundamentally, the character of the Indian republic.

For the first time since the founding of our free and secular republic, the Bill makes religion the key to citizenship. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 so that non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan can be offered an expedited path to citizenship. For the first time there is a statutory attempt to offer privileges to certain faiths. For the first time, there is an attempt, by statute, to exclude Muslims from the possibility of amnesty and citizenship — for no reason other than their religion.

In fact, nowhere, under the successive reigns this country has had through millennia, is it possible to find the articulation of an official position that has denied migrants or refugees a place on the basis of religion. The CAB has to be viewed along with the proposed nation-wide implementation of the National Register of Citizens. Already the NRC exercise in Assam has shown us the terrible human costs of dividing people and linking citizenship to papers and detention centres and tribunals, especially among those who already lead a precarious existence.

Death, families torn apart; detention camps and foreigners’ tribunals; fear, the confusion of statelessness — this is what the common people, especially minorities, women, children and the poor have had to suffer and continue to suffer. The Citizenship Bill, as well as a nation-wide NRC, will unleash widespread division and suffering among people across the country — rather than address the critical needs of the people, from food security and employment to the annihilation of discrimination based on caste, community and gender, to the freedom to speak, worship, and live as our diverse people choose.

The Bill states that non-Muslims from three Muslim-majority countries will be granted citizenship if they have faced religious persecution in their countries; or if they migrated to India fearing such persecution.

Why leave out refugees such as Rohingyas from Myanmar or Tamils from Sri Lanka or Ahmadiyyas from Pakistan? Why focus on only three countries as if these constitute the only possible sources of asylum-seekers?

The Bill shows us, sharply, that India needs a refugee policy in line with international law, not a law dictated by an ideology that makes use of religion for political gains.

Indian citizenship flows from the Constitution. The Citizenship Amendment Bill’s blatant exclusion of a community is discriminatory and divisive. It violates the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution — including Articles 14,15, 16 and 21 which guarantee the right to equality; equality before the law; and non-discriminatory treatment by the Indian state. The Bill threatens the federal framework provided by the Constitution. It has ignored the need for debate in Parliament as well as open and widespread public debate in a constitutional democracy.

All of us from the cultural and academic communities condemn this Bill as divisive, discriminatory and unconstitutional. It will, along with a nationwide NRC, bring untold suffering to people across the country. It will damage, fundamentally and irreparably, the nature of the Indian republic. This is why we demand that the government withdraw the Bill. This is why we demand that the government not betray the Constitution. We call on all people of conscience to insist that the Constitutional commitment to an equal and secular citizenry be honoured.