On Citizenship Bill

On January 8, bandh paralysed most North East States, in protest against the submission of 30-member Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 (CAB, hereafter) in the Parliament.

In most NE states, where Bharatiya Janata Party is in power through alliance –apprehension were expressed, while Assam Gan Parishad (AGP) severed ties with the party. The Bill is viewed as a threat to “the cultural, social and linguistic identity.”

To understand issue, however, it is prudent to know the determination of Citizenship in India. Legally, the Citizenship Act, 1955 “provides for various ways in which Indian citizenship may be acquired – by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and by incorporation of territory into India.”

Who is an “illegal Immigrant” then? The Citizenship Act, 1955 define it as a foreigner who: “(i) enters the country without valid travel documents, like a passport and visa, or (ii) enters with valid documents, but stays beyond the permitted time period.” They are prohibited from acquiring Indian citizenship, barring certain exceptions, and can “imprisoned or deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.”

The original Bill was passed by both the Houses of Parliament and came into force after the day it received the assent of the President of India on December 30, 1955. Since then it has been amended 9 times.

The PRS Legislative Research’s (PRS) tracking of the Bill informed that the CAB was first introduced in Lok Sabha by the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh on July 19, 2016 which later referred to a JPC on August 12, 2016. It submitted the report with ‘dissent notes’ on January 7, 2019 after wide consultations involving different stakeholders. The Lok Sabha passed the bill as the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019, amid widespread protest on January 8.

The immediate bone of contention is the process of Citizenship by naturalisation –the facilitation of “granting of Indian citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on grounds of religious persecution,” a Times of India report noted, adding: “The bill stretches the cutoff date for granting citizenship to December 31, 2014 from March 24, 1971 as mentioned in the 1985 Assam Accord.”

While the original Bill provides that an applicant must “have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years,” the CAB “relaxes the requirement to six years for persons belonging to six religions – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians” from the aforesaid countries. Other ‘prosecuted’ migrants are not privy to such provisions.

There are also apprehensions whether it runs contrary to “The Assam Accord” signed on 15th August, 1985 with the objective of protecting the “cultural, social and linguistic identity of the Assamese people.” The Accord, as the JPC noted, called for “detecting/identifying illegal migrants who entered Assam from Bangladesh on or after 1st January, 1966 but before 25 March, 1971 and removing those foreigners who entered Assam from Bangladesh on or after 25 March, 1971.” The Legislative Department, according to JPC, had clarified that the accord “does not provide for any form of detection, deletion or expulsion of foreigners beyond the said date.”

Does it make the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise redundant? The first draft list was published on 30 July, 2018 and accordance with the directions of the Supreme Court, claims and objections were received till December 31, 2018 and the verification process will commence from February 2019. The JPC “exhorted the Government to make the verification process robust and transparent at all stages so as to ensure that all eligible persons are included in the final NRC.” The NRC exercise is not based on religion, but cut-off year.

Most importantly, it begs the question whether India is determining eligibility for “citizenship on the basis of religion” thereby negating Article 14 – right to equality.

Despite the recurring assurances by the government, including the Prime Minister and Home Minister on January 10, the anxieties and concerns expressed by the civil society groups in Assam and other North-Eastern States are genuine and the Bill should not be taken as a process to score immediate electoral and political gain, thereby, neglecting the long-term impact. The responses of the populace, accordingly, should not be emotive but through cogent approach.

The JPC had urged the State and Central Governments to formulate rules and regulations to “ensure that the identities of indigenous peoples are not threatened in any way by unintended consequences” of the Bill.

It should begin with extensive dialogue and consultations with the ‘affected’ stakeholders, not dismissing their concerns.