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India's Parliament passes contentious citizenship bill


NEW DELHI – Indian lawmakers approved legislation on Wednesday granting citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated illegally from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Critics of the government said the legislation undermines the country's secular constitution, as protests against the law intensified in some parts of the country.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled the three countries before 2015.

The upper house of Parliament passed the bill 125-105 on Wednesday night. The lower house had approved it on Monday. It now needs to be signed by the country’s ceremonial president, a formality before becoming law.

The bill was introduced by the Hindu nationalist-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following his resounding election victory in May.

Modi said it was a "landmark day for India" and the law would "alleviate the suffering of many who faced persecution for years."

Introducing the bill in the upper house, Home Minister Amit Shah said it was not anti-Muslim because it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities.

Several opposition lawmakers who debated the bill in Parliament said it would be challenged in court. “Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India," said Sonia Gandhi of the main opposition Congress party. "The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India's pluralism.”

Protests erupted in India’s remote northeast in response to the bill.

Protesters say they oppose the legislation out of concern that migrants who came to the country illegally will move to the border region in the northeast and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people.

Protesters burned tires and blocked highways and rail lines for a second day Wednesday. Police fired rubber bullets and used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Dibrugarh district in Assam state, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

State police official Mukesh Aggarwal said a curfew was imposed in Gauhati, the state capital, and army soldiers were standing by in case the violence escalated.

Street protests continued in Guahati, with young demonstrators making bonfires across the city. Police used tear gas and batons to disperse hundreds of protesters who tried to march to the office of the state's top elected official.

The news agency said the federal government was airlifting about 5,000 paramilitary soldiers to the region.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized the bill as going against “India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution,” and sought American sanctions against Home Minister Shah if the bill is approved.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said the U.S. commission’s statement “is neither accurate nor warranted.″

“The bill provides expedited consideration for Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities already in India from certain contiguous countries. It seeks to address their current difficulties and meet their basic human rights,” Kumar said in a statement. “Such an initiative should be welcomed, not criticized by those who are genuinely committed to religious freedom.″