The Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA, which came into force on December 12, 2019, has been welcomed as a long overdue humanitarian gesture towards non-Muslim refugees compelled to flee from the three neighbouring countries due to religious persecution. The Act states that any person belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or the Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered into India on or before December 31, 2014, without proper documents (passport, visa, etc.), shall not be treated as an illegal migrant and granted citizenship on certain conditions and restrictions, provided s/he has been in India for an aggregate period of not less than five years.
In other words, the Act does not immediately grant citizenship to the six religious communities but merely makes them eligible to apply for the Indian citizenship by naturalisation, provided they can establish their residency in India for five years instead of the existing eleven years. The government stated that amendment to the Citizenship Act was made because the said minorities were subjected to religious persecution and they had nowhere to go but to enter India illegally. While the term ‘religious persecution’ itself is not mentioned in the Act, the government had clarified that “the Bill has been drafted in such a way that it gives reference to the Notifications dated 7th September, 2015 and 18th July, 2016 which mention the term ‘Religious Persecution.’”
The Act, however, has faced opposition from sections of the society including university students, intellectuals, religious communities, and political parties. The primary contention of the opponents is that the Act discriminates against Muslims and undermines the Right to Equality enshrined in the Constitution which, inter alia, stipulates that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, and place of birth. The fact, however, is that CAA does not deal with Indian citizens including Muslims but merely provides for non-Muslim refugees from the three specified countries to acquire Indian citizenship. In no way or by any implication this Act disfavours Indian Muslims and therefore any attempt to link it with the rights of Indian Muslim citizens is erroneous.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has assured that “CAA does not affect any citizen of India of any religion. No Indian has anything to worry regarding this Act. This Act is only for those who have faced years of persecution outside and have no other place to go except India.” Further, CAA has been passed by the Parliament after due process and it is for the Supreme Court, which has been approached in this regard, to rule whether the Act is constitutional or not in terms of its abidance by the Right to Equality.
The opposition to the Act in the Northeast is on account of it not being in the interest of the indigenous people of the region. This contention also does not hold water because CAA is not applicable to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura which are covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as well as in areas covered under the “Inner Line” notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. At present, total 10 autonomous districts and territorial councils are functioning in the states of Assam, Mizoram, Tripura, and Meghalaya with the power of legislation and administration over land, water, soil, community forest, agriculture, and village and town management in addition to the administration of tribal or local laws. States such as Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Manipur, where the Sixth Schedule is not implemented, are covered under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system.
The ILP system offers protection for tribal communities in these states against exploitation by the socio-economically more advanced plains people. Under the system, any Indian citizen (non-tribal) who wishes to enter these protected areas is required to obtain an ILP, which allows him or her to stay in these states for a specified period subject to stipulated terms and condition. The exclusion of tribal areas from the ambit of CAA through the provisions of the Sixth Schedule and ILP system means that the socio-economic and cultural interests of the indigenous people of the Northeast are well protected and the illegal immigrants granted citizenship under CAA cannot own land or settle in these areas. These special provisions have quietened opposition to CAA in most states of the Northeast except in Assam.
Protests are persisting in Assam because of the impression that, by granting citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindu illegal migrants, the Act dilutes the Assam Accord and negates the recently concluded Supreme Court-mandated updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). In response to Assamese concerns, the Centre has stated that CAA does not dilute the sanctity of the Assam Accord as far as the cut-off date of March 24, 1971 is concerned but addresses the concerns of only few identified minorities on humanitarian grounds. It further promised that the linguistic, cultural, economic and political rights of the Assamese people will be safeguarded. In fact, in July 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had reconstituted a 12- member high level committee to examine the effectiveness of the measures taken under Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, suggest appropriate levels of reservation of seats in the state legislative assembly and local bodies as well as employment under the state government for the Assamese people, and recommend measures to protect and promote their social, cultural and linguistic identity. Acceptance and implementation of the recommendations of the committee may assuage the negative feelings of the people of Assam towards CAA.
Of concern, however, is the perceived link between CAA and a nation-wide NRC aimed at rooting out illegal immigrants. The contention of the protesters is that when NRC is implemented, non-Muslims would be able to obtain citizenship under CAA even if they do not produce valid documents, whereas Muslims without documents would be declared illegal migrants and sent to detention centres. To this, the Home Minister has clarified that there is no connection between the detention centre and NRC or CAA. MHA has also released a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Act in which it is stated that “the CAA has nothing to do with NRC.” The efforts of the Centre to allay apprehensions regarding the Act by countering misinformation is a welcome step. A better understanding and appreciation of CAA by the people is expected to reduce opposition to the Act.
The CAA is a humanitarian act and its enactment is in fulfilment of a longstanding demand to provide succour to those minorities who have been compelled to flee due to majoritarian impulses in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Act, as Prime Minister Modi said, illustrates the Indian culture of acceptance, harmony, compassion and brotherhood.