Nearly 1,000 scientists and scholars have signed an open statement, as "concerned citizens", to express their concerns over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to be tabled in parliament today. Citing Article 14 of the Constitution of India, the statement says that while the intent of the bill - to provide refuge to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries - is "laudable", the use of religion as a criterion to determine eligibility to apply for Indian citizenship is "deeply troubling".
In their letter the scientists and scholars - from diverse fields and institutes - remind readers that India emerged from the independence movement as a country that aspired to "treat people of all faiths equally".
"The use of religion as a criterion for citizenship in the proposed bill would mark a radical break with this history and would be inconsistent with the basic structure of the constitution," the statement says, adding, "We fear, in particular, that the careful exclusion of Muslims from the ambit of the Bill will greatly strain the pluralistic fabric of the country".
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, seeks to amend a six-decade-old law to make it easier for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to become Indian citizens. Several opposition parties and leaders, including MPs from the Northeast who are allied with the ruling BJP, have called the proposed law discriminatory and alleged it is contrary to the basic tenet of secularism enshrined in the constitution of India.
There were vociferous protests in parliament last week, with the Congress's Shashi Tharoor calling the bill "fundamentally unconstitutional" and Trinamool Congress leader Derek O'Brien hitting out at the BJP for "cheap and narrow" political gains.
Should it be passed, the CAB will become the first bill under which nationality will be granted on the basis of religion. An earlier version had been passed by the Lok Sabha in January but lapsed after it stalled in the Rajya Sabha.
The statement warns against the passing of the CAB today, citing Article 14 of the Indian Constitution that prohibits the State from denying "to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India."
It also calls for the immediate withdrawal of the CAB and for an "appropriate legislation that will address the concerns of refugees and minorities in a non-discriminatory manner".
Among other provisions the draft CAB also allows the government to cancel registrations of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders who violate provisions of the Citizenship Act, "or any other notified law". It also exempts parts of the Northeast, which has witnessed, and continues to witness, widespread protests against the bill.
The statement is similar in thought and idea to an open letter written by 49 intellectuals, artists and celebrities, including historian Ramachandra Guha and filmmakers Aparna Sen and Mani Ratnam, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year.