A day after the Union Cabinet greenlit the controversial citizenship bill, Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma told NDTV that a bill providing citizenship to "religiously persecuted" refugees from Muslim-dominated neighbours could never be secular since there was "no religious persecution of Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Among other provisions, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, seeks to make it easier for non-Muslim refugees from these three countries to become Indian citizens.
The draft bill was cleared by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Union Cabinet on Wednesday and is expected to be tabled in parliament on Monday. It was cleared hours after Home Minister Amit Shah concluded a series of consultative meetings with political leaders and civil society members from the Northeast, to address their concerns.
"This bill will look to protect people who have been religiously persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh... so how can it be secular? Remember, in an Islamic country, how can you convince a court that a person practicing Islam has been religiously persecuted?" Mr Sarma told NDTV today.
"Someone give us a formula... how to prove a person has been persecuted in Pakistan for practicing Quran... or even in Bangladesh? If someone can prove that he has been religiously persecuted, then this matter can be considered," he added.
Opposition parties have criticised the bill saying, among other things, that it discriminates against Muslims. The Congress's Shashi Tharoor called it "fundamentally unconstitutional" and Iltija Mufti, daughter of Mehbooba Mufti, detained PDP leader and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, tweeted: "India - No country for Muslims".
The draft CAB - an earlier version of this bill passed the Lok Sabha in January but stalled in the Rajya Sabha - has also excluded large parts of the Northeast; specifically it won't apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura (as in the Sixth Schedule) and area under "The Inner Line" notified under Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.
Party sources said Himanta Biswa Sarma played a key role in consultative meetings between Amit Shah and civil society groups, political parties and Chief Ministers from the Northeast.
When asked if the BJP's agenda was to save Hindus who might be excluded by a nationwide NRC exercise - called for by Amit Shah - Mr Sarma said the latter exercise could only be "proper" after the CAB is passed. He also claimed the public were in favour of the CAB despite protests having erupted in the Northeast once again.
"...people have voted for us... they are the masters. BJP said, in elections, we will bring CAB and people have endorsed our view," he said.