Home Minister Amit Shah on Wednesday moved the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Rajya Sabha and sought to assuage the concerns of Indian Muslims by saying they have nothing to fear as they are and will remain citizens of India.
No one will harass members of the community, the minister stressed as he moved the bill that provides Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians who illegally migrated to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Shah said the proposed legislation will give persecuted minorities of the three neighbouring nations the right to education, jobs and livelihood.
Several MPs of opposition parties moved motions to send the bill, which was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, to the select committee of the Upper House for detailed consideration before it is passed.
The bill and the opposition motion will be put to vote after a debate on it.
"Muslims have nothing to fear," Shah said. "...confusion, misinformation is being spread that this bill is specifically against the Muslim community. For the Muslims of this country, there is no question of debate or concern. They are citizens (of India), will remain citizens and no one will harass them."
The government, however, does not want to give citizenship to illegal Muslim migrants from other countries.
"Do you want that Muslims who have come from Pakistan should be made citizens? Muslims who have come from Bangladesh should be made citizens? Muslims who have come from Afghanistan should be made citizens?. Should we give citizenship to Muslims coming from all over the world? How can we run the country like this?" he asked.
Describing the proposed legislation as a historic bill, Shah said it will rekindle a new ray of hope among lakhs and crores of people who were harassed in neighbouring countries.
"They can now follow their religion with respect, they can protect the dignity of their women."
The home minister said minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are not treated equally and their population has declined by 20 per cent as "they were either killed, or forced to convert or migrated to India".
"They took refuge (in India) but were barred from availing basic facilities like homes, jobs, healthcare and education," he said.
Shah said the BJP had clearly indicated its intent to bring such legislation in its election manifesto for the 2019 general election and the people of the country voted for it overwhelmingly.
"It is not vote bank politics. We told the people before the elections and won the people's mandate and approval," he said.
According to the provisions of the bill, non-Muslim migrants from the three countries who came to India till 2014 will get Indian citizenship.
"They will not face any legal consequences," Shah said, adding that cases against them for their illegal stay or for overstaying their legal permit will be withdrawn.
The bill will also regularise livelihood means such as shops of these illegal migrants, he said.
Rajya Sabha TV briefly stopped the live telecast of proceedings from the Upper House when opposition members heckled Shah over his claims of protecting Assamese interests.
This was done on Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu's instructions.
"I want to assure all the original residents of Assam that this BJP government will ensure that all your rights are protected. There should not be even an iota of doubt on this," Shah said.
The bill, which prevents Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries from receiving citizenship, has sparked protests and fear around the country.
The citizenship law goes hand in hand with a contentious programme that began in Assam this year -- all 3.3 crore residents of the state had to prove, with documentary evidence, that they or their ancestors were Indian citizens. About 20 lakh people were left off the state's citizenship rolls after that exercise.
This is the second attempt by the Modi government to amend the citizenship law. In January, the legislation was passed in the lower house but lapsed as the Rajya Sabha didn't take it up before dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
A group of 900 scientists and scholars issued a joint statement against it saying the use of religion as a legal criterion for determining Indian citizenship is disturbing.
In an open letter, about 600 writers, artists, activists, former bureaucrats and ex-judges also asked the government not to betray the Constitution.