Protests, strikes as India Parliament considers controversial citizenship bill

Students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati, India. (AP)
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Updated 10 December 2019

Protests, strikes as India Parliament considers controversial citizenship bill

  • Some see the move as a blatant attack on India’s secularism and its minority Muslim community

NEW DELHI: The Indian government on Monday tabled its controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the lower house of Parliament amid strike threats and protests against it throughout the country.

The bill, which seeks to amend the country’s Citizenship Act 1955, is aimed at granting citizenship to persecuted minorities such as Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but excludes Muslims.

After introducing the bill in Parliament, Indian Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, said: “Why do we need this bill today? After independence, if Congress had not partitioned the country on the basis of religion, we would not have needed this bill. Congress did partition on the basis of religion.”

The bill, he added, sought to give Indian nationality to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who were facing religious persecution there, and did “not violate any of the constitutional provisions.”

The idea of the CAB gained currency after the publication of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — a process of identifying illegal citizens in the northeastern state of Assam — on Aug. 31.

After five years of implementing the rigorous process, the NRC found more than 1.9 million illegal citizens in Assam out of which close to 65 percent were estimated to be Bengali Hindus.

For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which considers Hindus as its core constituency, it was a huge setback. Therefore, immediately after the publication of the NRC list, BJP leaders in Assam and Delhi started to criticize the list, calling it faulty and demanding a fresh NRC. To relieve Hindu tensions, the BJP promised to bring a new CAB to Parliament.

Additionally, Shah also announced last month that his government would conduct an all-India NRC to identify illegal citizens, with Assam having to go through the process again.

Some see the move as a blatant attack on India’s secularism and its minority Muslim community.

“This bill is not even .001 percent against minorities. It is against infiltrators,” Shah said.

However, opposition groups, led by the Congress party, say the legislation runs against the basic principles of the constitution and secularism.

“The bill is a violation of our constitution’s secular ethos, culture, tradition and civilization, and we will oppose it,” said Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress leader in the lower house.

With opposition parties lacking a majority in both houses of the Indian Parliament, the bill is likely to pass without facing many hurdles.

But the views of the main opposition have been represented on the streets with different political and social groups staging demonstrations in various parts of the country.

In the eastern city of Kolkata, thousands of people held a rally to protest against the CAB and the proposed NRC.

Organized by a joint forum of different civil society groups, the protesters called the citizenship bill “communal and anti-constitutional” and vowed to campaign against it across India.

The capital Delhi witnessed its third protest in as many days against CAB. On Monday, the All India United Democratic Front of Assam (AIUDF) held a demonstration and asked the government to “reconsider” the citizenship bill.

Similar protests have also been organized in the southern Indian city of Bangalore where people expressed “deep anxiety” over the CAB, while all eight northeastern states were due to stage a general strike against the CAB on Tuesday.

“Citizenship based on religion is an attack on the very foundation of the secular India,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, adviser to the North East Students’ Organization (NESO), an Assam-based civil society group which is spearheading a campaign against the CAB.

Bhattacharya told Arab News that the Assam agitation of the 1980s was against illegal citizens from Bangladesh and was not targeted against any religion, but the CAB was detrimental to the interests of the entire northeast.

Assam-based Aman Wadud, a human rights activist and lawyer, said: “You have to read the citizenship bill with the NRC and then it becomes clear that the main purpose of the CAB is to harass Muslims and divide the society on religious grounds.

“The Assam NRC has proved that illegal immigrants in India is a myth and it is whipped only to arouse the emotion of the people.”

Syed Sadatullah Hussaini, president of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind (JIH), a prominent Islamic organization in India, said: “The way the ruling BJP is attaching the NRC with the citizenship bill is an attempt to target the Muslim population. It is against the constitutional values of India. It is an attempt to legitimize the two-nation theory and treat Hindus and Muslims as separate entities in India.”

Meanwhile, popular historian and political analyst, Ramachandra Guha, told Arab News that the CAB was “part bigotry, part headline management. This regime is pathologically anti-Muslim, and it desperately wants to divert attention from the perilous state of the economy.”


Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

Updated 04 July 2020

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help to remote villages fight virus

  • Young volunteers tackle tough terrain, pandemic myths in isolated northern region

JAKARTA: A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, told Arab News that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he told Arab News.

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he told Arab News.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.