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Last Updated : Dec 05, 2019 07:39 PM IST | Source:

What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 and why is it in the news?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to considerably ease these conditions. It seeks to nearly half—from 11 to not less than 5 years—the period required to stay in India for claiming citizenship, even after illegally entering India.

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which has sparked widespread protests from the northeastern states and Opposition parties, has been passed by the Cabinet and is likely to be tabled in the Lok Sabha on December 9.

The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in January but lapsed without being cleared in Rajya Sabha. The Modi government has made passing of the Bill top priority and the process to ease the concerns of the Northeastern states is underway with Home Minister Amit Shah meeting with representatives of those states.

Here we look at the major talking points of an amendment which seeks to redefine the definition of nationality of a nation which has been grappling with influx of illegal immigrants:


What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019?

The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for Indian citizenship.

Doesn't the Citizenship Act, 1955 already allow for citizenship by naturalisation?

It does. The conditions are: the applicant or the immigrant should have entered legally, and resided in India past for the past 11 of the 14 years from the date of his/her application.

So, what does the new Bill seek to amend?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to considerably ease these conditions. It seeks to nearly half—from 11 to not less than 5 years—the period required to stay in India for claiming citizenship, even after illegally entering India.

Is that the main problem?

That’s not the central concern. They key worry is that once voted into law, it will allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to become Indian citizens, even if they have entered illegally.

Why is the Bill being panned?

The Bill seeks to introduce a hierarchy of citizenship, a case of some illegal immigrants being more equal than others, on the basis of religion. This may violate Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality.

Is that the only bone of contention?

Clearly not. The Bill seeks to overhaul the definition of “illegal immigrants”, purely on the basis of religion. For one, it seeks to override many rules of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920. Currently, these two laws empower the central government imprison or deport illegal immigrants found to be living in India, regardless of their nationality or religion.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, if passed in Parliament, will imply that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014 will not be deported or imprisoned for being in India even if found to be living without valid documents. So, effectively, anybody belonging to any of these six religions from these three countries can claim Indian citizenship, if they have entered India by December 31, 2014, and have been staying in the country for at least six years, even if illegally.

What seems to be the political proposition behind the move?

The unstated motive, according to some critics, is to make India the natural abode of the Hindus, just as colonial and Zionist projects established Israel as the "global homeland of Jews".

The move has gained momentum after the Modi-government came to power in 2014, although Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress had said in 2013 that he will seek refugee status for people who migrated to India from Bangladesh following religious persecution. “This will mean a central law for those who were forced to leave their homes. It will be on the lines of political asylum,” Gogoi had said in 2013.

What has the Centre proposed to allay the fears of the north-eastern states?

There were fears that Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which "envisaged that appropriate constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people", would be nullified after the Bill is passed.

But after discussions, safeguards for northeastern states have been introduced.

The Bill assures north eastern states and regions under the Inner Line Permit system (ILP), and those granted autonomous administration under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, may be shielded from the Bill, keeping in mind the concerns of the ethno-cultural population in these states.

An Inner Line Permit is an official travel document required by Indian citizens to visit or stay in Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland (except Dimapur).

"Nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, and the area covered under the inner line notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier regulation, 1873," says a provision in the Bill the Cabinet cleared on December 4.

Less than 12 hours before the Union Cabinet led by PM Modi met to pass the contentious Bill, there was a meeting in New Delhi attended by Amit Shah, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal, Himanta Biswa Sarma, Manipur CM Biren Singh and Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio. The meeting was meant to address concerns of the Northeast states.

Shah reportedly comforted them with an assurance that the unique identity of the Northeast will not be altered in exchange for a promise that the groups will not protest the amended Bill.

But why are people of Assam agitating?

There is near undisputable opposition to the Bill’s provision among the Assamese speaking spanning across the length and breadth of the Brahmaputra Valley. It is not animosity for other communities that this behind the resistance. There is a growing fear, in Assam and the rest of the North East, about being reduced to a minority in their homeland, outnumbered by a swarming influx of immigrants from Bangladesh.

There is a fear that the Assamese speaking will be reduced to a statistically weak minority in their own state. This could trigger a rapid cultural erosion. Assam boasts of a very progressive literature, music and cinema movement.

The opposition to the Bill stems from the fear that a flood of Bengali-speaking immigrants, who will legitimately settle down in Assam and rest of North East, can fast alter the existing cultural ecosystem, blurring indigenous identities.

The Bill appeared to violate the Assam Accord, both in letter and spirit. The Assam Accord, signed between the then Rajiv Gandhi-led central government and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), had fixed March 24, 1971 as the cutoff date for foreign immigrants. Those illegally entering Assam after this date were to be detected and deported, irrespective of their religion.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill moved the cutoff date for six religions by more than 43 years to December 31, 2014, something that is not acceptable to the Assamese-speaking people in Brahmaputra Valley, who insist that all illegal immigrants should be treated as illegal.

There is also an economic problem. If tens of thousands leave Bangladesh and start staying legally in Assam and North East, the pressure will first show in the principal economic resource—land.

Also, since these will be legitimate citizens, there will also be more people joining the queue of job hopefuls that can potentially lower opportunities for the indigenous and the locals.

It also boils down to the political rights of the people of the state. Migration has been a burning issue in Assam. There is a view that illegal immigrants, who will eventually become legitimate citizens, will be determining the political future of the state.

But doesn't the Bill enjoy support among those staying in Barak Valley?

The Bill does enjoy a groundswell of support in Barak valley bordering Bangladesh, dominated by Bengali-speaking Hindus. Assam is divided by these two valleys with the hill districts of Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao in between.

What will be the ​after-effects post-NRC exercise?

Assam has just gone through the controversial National Register for Citizens (NRC) exercise, an Assam Accord mandated exercise aimed at coming out with a credible list of bona fide citizens of India living in Assam.

The NRC exercise was carried out under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The first draft of the NRC was released on December 31, 2017 and the second final draft was published on July 30, 2018.

Of 3.29 crore applicants, 2.89 crore people made it to the final draft leaving out 40.07 lakh people.

The final NRC list, published on August 31, 2019, excluded over 19 lakh applicants.

They are fighting for their cases in Foreigners Tribunals.

NRC in Assam is not a linguistic/religious/caste/ethnicity-based population census. Its limited, but extremely important focus is to find out residency status in Assam through legacy data like parents' and grandparents' names in voters' list before March 24, 1971.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill queered the pitch for NRC on three counts. First, by having two cut-off dates for illegal foreign immigrants — December 31, 2014 for Hindus, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains, Christians and Sikhs, and March 24, 1971 for the rest. Two, by making some illegal immigrants more equal than others. Three, it opened up the possibility of Indian citizens from other states to stake claims for their names being included in the NRC.

How is Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 different from Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016?

 The Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 19, 2016 and was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on August 12, 2016. The committee submitted its report on January 7, 2019. The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on the next day but was not introduced in Rajya Sabha at that time.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 prescribed six years instead of 11 years aggregated stay in the country. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 replaces ‘not less than 11 years’ with ‘not less than five years’ for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The revised Bill empowers the Centre to prescribe the condition, restrictions and manner in which such a person will be registered or naturalised. It provides 'immunity to persecuted minorities from any proceedings regarding illegal migration or citizenship before any authority, including foreigners' tribunals and courts.

For national politics, what does it mean for BJP?

The North East states send 25 members to the Lok Sabha. The BJP was eyeing 21 seats but ended up with 15. The move had stirred up the alliance matrix for the BJP in the northeast. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had walked out of the government in Assam and the Meghalaya's Chief Minister National People’s Party (NPP) supremo Conrad Sangma had termed the passing of the Bill in the Lok Sabha as “unfortunate”, clearly voicing his discomfiture at the proposed legislation, amid speculation that NPP may soon severe ties with BJP-led Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA).

The BJP's calculation that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill to bolster its prospects in West Bengal in the Lok Sabha polls. It seems to have worked as the party won 18 Lok Sabha seats.

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First Published on Dec 5, 2019 07:23 pm
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