The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 is another bold initiative of the NDA government to tackle the problem of refugees and illegal migrants in India. The BJP is not alone in pushing this controversial legislation relying on its Parliamentary majority. It has the support of many Parties beyond the NDA like the BJD, TDP and YSRCP to fetch 334 votes against 106 in the Lok Sabha. If and when it becomes law and implemented, it will settle for the time being the knotty problem of illegal migrants.
This legislation is one type of answer among many to the long pending problem of illegal migrants through an amendment of the Citizenship Act of 1955. It will grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who came to India before 31 December 2014 without proper documents.
Pertinently, many of them fled from these theocratic countries seeking shelter in India and have continued to stay here even after expiry of their travel permit. They will now no longer be treated as “illegal migrants” for violating the Passport Act of 1920 or the Foreigners Act of 1946. Unable to produce evidence of their Indian origin, such people are presently forced to apply for citizenship by naturalization under the Citizenship Act of 1955.
The mandatory period of stay in India is proposed as six years which signifies reduction of the period by five years hitherto prescribed for naturalization. Legal aid for getting citizenship will also be provided.
This Bill is re-introduction of the one passed by the previous Lok Sabha in January 2019 but not introduced in the Rajya Sabha. Because of the intervening general election, it had to be re-introduced in the Lok Sabha with some changes in response to suggestions from various quarters.
Against the background is a Home Ministry executive order issued in 2015 which had already relaxed the rules for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan for staying in India without proper documents.
Protests against the Bill have erupted in North-Eastern States fearing threats to their land, language and culture. They have a long-standing problem of “outsiders” snatching their employment opportunities.
The term “citizen” appears in the Indian Constitution in the Preamble itself as entitled to justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. The Constitution is enacted to secure certain rights and status to all citizens. Citizenship starts with a law that respects rights of individuals and by it recognizes equal status.
The Constitution guarantees rights to all “citizens” of India which obviously does not include migrants awaiting citizenship. It is a prerogative of the nation to make a policy and enact a law pertaining to citizenship without infringing the rights of citizens of India.
The statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill avers that the three countries have a specific State religion and the communities mentioned have faced persecutions in their country on account of their religion and their rights to practice, profess and propagate their religion are obstructed.
The argument in favour of the legislation rests on the plea that the persecuted minorities are victims of a historical decision to divide the country on religious lines and that India is duty bound to give citizenship rights to these minorities. Instances of persecution mentioned by the Home Minister include killings, rapes, forcible conversions and destruction of places of worship.
Excluded from the purview of this legislation are the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura for which different provisions are made in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution along-with Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland which are protected by the Inner Line Permit issued by the Central Government without which no Indian citizen from outside the State can enter the protected area.
A committee already set up under the Assam Accord is working on measures to protect Assamese language and cultural practices. The Government seems to have taken into account the interests of the North-East Region. Lakhs of people excluded from Assam’s National Register of Citizens published in August would be the immediate beneficiaries under this law.
The Congress opposes the Bill as a violation of the basic idea of our Constitution, namely its secular ethos. In the last Lok Sabha in January when the earlier version was before the House it did not participate in voting. The Party wants a “holistic” and “comprehensive” policy on refugees and illegal migrants — a demand which will effectively block any move in the matter.
The case of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka, Gorkhas from Nepal and Rohingyas from Myanmar living in India are raised on a plea that we cannot discriminate among those persecuted and brutalized and fleeing from tyranny and oppression in their country.
The suggestion, appearing like a simple humanitarian view of treating all persecuted citizens of neighbouring countries equally has the effect of keeping our borders wide open. Even under restricted expansion of citizenship, entry of people other than the six communities including Muslims in various guise cannot be ruled out. Fake religious identity will doubtless become a new problem. India has to take a humanitarian view of problems, but is not a charitable organization to accommodate any and every migrant. It has the right to decide its policy on citizenship.
Strangely, the Bill has two types of protesters — those against expanding citizenship to any migrant fearing deprivation of their rights and resources and those mainly, some Muslim citizens demanding inclusion of Muslim migrants also on the principle of equality as a fundamental right.
The proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) to enumerate all legal “citizens” as distinct from “residents” will help identify infiltrators. It is different from CAB which is concerned only with granting citizenship. By granting citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh who have entered India between 24 March 1971 and 21 December 2014, CAB updates the Assam Accord of 1985 that ended the long anti-foreigner agitation in Assam.
The North-East has always been facing the problem of “outsiders”. Every State in the region is following its own way of dealing with migrant workers. Even a suggestion to grant State citizenship apart from national was mooted in Assam several years ago. The legislation will alter the demographic pattern of India’s population significantly in North and North-East India.
Entitlements deriving from citizenship are given to individuals irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. There is no distinction as substantive citizenship and formal citizenship. However, citizenship is not just political. It is a social and moral function.
India is home for streams of migrants and refugees arriving mostly in search of decent livelihood and peaceful life. They are indeed a burden on the resources of our country and yet cannot be thrown out.
Hence, in adopting a new law and implementing it, consistency with Constitutional rights and principles must go along with our moral obligation to deal with issues that keep appearing from time to time because of the unavoidable Partition on the basis of religion resulting in emergence of one theocratic State and another professing its own version of “secularism”.
The writer is Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi