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New Controversial Law In India Uses Religion As A Criteria For Citizenship


Protesters and police sparred on the streets of northeast India tonight.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in non-English language).

CORNISH: The police fired tear gas into thousands of protesters who've been burning tires in the streets. They're angry about the passage of a controversial new law that human rights groups have called anti-Muslim. The law changes the rules governing who can become an Indian citizen, and it uses religion as a criterion for the first time. NPR's Lauren Frayer has been reporting on this new legislation. She joins us now from our bureau in Mumbai.

And, Lauren, first, just tell us about the law itself. What does it say specifically?

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: So India has strict citizenship rules. If you enter this country without a visa, there is no path to citizenship, even if you're here for decades. This law amends that. Basically, it's an amnesty for undocumented migrants from any faith except for Islam.

And here's the government's argument. India is surrounded by Muslim countries - Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh. Muslims can feel at home in those countries. Other faiths might feel discrimination, might be persecuted. And so India wants to make room for them, so this new law applies to Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Sikhs, for example, who are originally from those three Muslim countries. And they had to have come to India before 2015. This bill's been through a lot of versions, and it now only applies to migrants who are already here. They can now become citizens.

CORNISH: So help us understand this. It's not the country of origin, but being Muslim determines who cannot become a citizen.

FRAYER: It's both. So you have to be from one of those three Muslim countries, but you can't be a Muslim. So this doesn't apply to Ahmadis in Pakistan, for example, or the Hazaras in Afghanistan. Those are persecuted religious minorities. It doesn't apply to Rohingya Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of them are in refugee camps in Bangladesh. They're one of the groups that's suffered the most across South Asia.

CORNISH: Does this reflect the policy and approach of India's Hindu nationalist government?

FRAYER: It comes amid some very harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric from the government. The home minister has called migrants from Bangladesh termites. He's vowed to throw them into the sea. The government's been doing this special census to find infiltrators, it calls them. About 2 million people in one of India's most diverse states, Assam, are slated to lose their Indian citizenship, and most of them are Muslim. Some of these people have been in India for generations. This is the only home they know, and so that state is where a lot of the protests have erupted now.

CORNISH: Are we seeing widespread unrest? How far-spread are these protests? And what's the overall reaction been?

FRAYER: 4G Internet has been cut in some areas. The government frequently does that to try to prevent protesters from communicating and organizing. Curfews have been imposed. The army has been deployed to Assam. There has been some harsh criticism abroad. Human Rights Watch says this law violates international law. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is calling on the U.S. government to impose sanctions on India's home minister, who introduced this bill. And most importantly, there are concerns among Indians that this violates the secularism enshrined in their constitution. No matter what side you're on, this does go to the heart of what India is, whether it should be a Hindu homeland with special rights for a majority or a secular, pluralistic democracy with equal rights for all.

CORNISH: What happens next?

FRAYER: The bill is headed to the president's desk for a signature. That's strictly a formality. And then it will become law. It is almost certainly, though, to be challenged in India's supreme court.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer from our bureau in Mumbai.

Thank you for your reporting.

FRAYER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KELPE'S "POLYMAR E") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.