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World

Unrest Spreads Across India Over Controversial Citizenship Measure

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So this is what it sounded like when police stormed a college campus in India's capital, Delhi, on Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

GREENE: They were firing tear gas at protesters. This uprising began after India's Parliament passed a bill that provides a path to citizenship for persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. But it does not apply to Muslims. This legislation has made its way to India's Supreme Court, which today refused to strike it down. Critics of the bill say this is part of the government's agenda to marginalize.

SHASHI THAROOR: That religious test being particularly directed at one community, the Muslims, who are the only community excluded from the purview of the bill, has sent alarm bells ringing everywhere because the BJP Party, the ruling party, has had a long history of Islamophobia and demonizing and baiting the Muslim community.

GREENE: That is the voice of an Indian member of Parliament, Shashi Tharoor, and he is speaking there about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political party. He told me he believes Modi's government is finally trying to pursue its agenda.

THAROOR: In their second term, it looks like they have gone in against Muslims, no holds barred. And the problem with the Citizenship Amendment Bill is compounded by their declared intention to introduce a national register of citizens. Now, unfortunately, that requires people to be able to demonstrate when and where they were born. But the vast majority of Indians - particularly poor Indians, slum-dwellers and marginalized people, rural people and so on - have not even had birth certificates. They were not commonplace till well into the '80s and '90s.

So you've got a series of things triggered off by this wholly unnecessary bill, which is purely in pursuance of a bigoted ideological agenda by an Islamophobic ruling party.

GREENE: Modi tweeted this week that this is - this act is to help those who have faced years of persecution outside of India and have no other place to go except India, the argument being that many Muslims in neighboring countries do have a place to go where they are welcomed.

THAROOR: Well, the problem is that's not true. I mean, there are Muslims in Muslim countries that are persecuted. So it doesn't mean that Muslim countries only persecute non-Muslims. They also sometimes end up, for individual reasons, reasons of conscience or political opinion or religious ideology, end up persecuting people whom we in India would regard as other Muslims.

GREENE: It sounds like you see a lot at stake here.

THAROOR: Oh, this is a fundamental challenge. As I said in Parliament, we've already seen a partition in the soil of India; what you are doing is nothing less than the partition in the soul of India. There's a sense of agony and betrayal that goes to the very heart of how Indians feel about their country, and in many ways, it's turning out to be a galvanizing moment for them.

GREENE: But are you worried that you're fighting against the popular will?

THAROOR: No, not really because the BJP party - do not forget - is a party of 37% of the electorate. It's the fragmentation of the opposition in a first-past-the-post system that has given them 67% of the seats in Parliament. But they only have 37% of the vote. And if as a result of what they're trying to do to the country, the other opposition party sync their differences and come together, if we can do all of that, then I think we might well be able to reverse the tide. But the next election is 4 1/2 away.

GREENE: Dr. Tharoor, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Nice talking to you.

THAROOR: Thank you. Nice talking to you always. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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