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EXPLAINER| Citizenship (Amendment) Bill’s key question: Why are some illegal immigrants more equal than others?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that the Lok Sabha has recently passed has sparked off widespread protests in Assam and North East. Here’s a ready reckoner

January 14, 2019 / 09:28 AM IST


What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016?

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, 2016 has proposed to considerably ease these conditions. It seeks to nearly half—from 11 to six 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.

What’s the Bill’s main criticism?

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 2016, 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 the 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 the 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 Narendra Modi-led government rode to power in 2014, although from 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.

But why is Assam up in protests?

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

There is also an economic problem. If tens of thousands of 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 has the Centre proposed to allay the fears of the indigenous Assamese?

The Centre has set up a high-level committee to look into the implementation of 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.”

It has also decided to accord scheduled tribe (ST) status to six tribes—Sutiya, Moron, Motok, Tai Ahom, Koch-Rajbongshi and Tea Tribes, although several tribal leaders have questioned the motive coming as it does just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections

What could be the likely political fallout of this?

The move has come at an extremely critical political period. The state is in the midst of updating the controversial National Register for Citizens (NRC), 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 is being 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 list is now the process of being updated based on claims and objections filed by those whose name did not feature in the final draft.

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 grand parents' names in voters' list before March 24, 1971.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 has 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 will open up the possibility of Indian citizens from other states to stake claims for their names being included in the NRC.

For national politics, what does it mean for the BJP?

The move has made stirred up the alliance matrix for the BJP in the north east. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) has walked out of the government in Assam and the Meghalaya’s Chief Minister National People’s Party (NPP) supremo Conrad Sangma has 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 North East states send 25 members of the Lok Sabha. The BJP was targetting to win 21 of these, a possibility that now looks shaky.

The BJP, however, would be hoping the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 will help the party make significant inroads among the Bengali Hindu votes in West Bengal that has 42 Lok Sabha seats. But will these be enough to offset the potential losses in North East?

As of now, that looks a like calculated risk. But before that, the Bill has to pass the Rajya Sabha test. It does not look like a done deal yet.
Gaurav Choudhury
first published: Jan 14, 2019 07:37 am

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