The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 which recently lapsed saw opposition from various quarters of the country.
Provisions of the bill
- Definition of Illegal Migrants: The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide that ‘persecuted’ non-Muslim minorities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi & Christian communities) from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014 & living in India without validtravel documents to obtain Indian citizenship, will notbe treated as illegal migrants. However, to get this benefit, they must also be exempted from provisions of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, and the Foreigners Act, 1946 by the central government.
- Citizenship by naturalization: The amendment reduces the aggregate period of residential qualification for acquiring citizenship by naturalization from 11 years to 6 years, along with continuous stay for last 12 months.
- Cancellation of registration of Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs): Bill adds one more provision for cancellationof registration of OCIs for violation of any law in the country.
Issues in bill
- Religious Discrimination: The Bill provides differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion, which may violate Article 14 of the Constitution guaranteeing equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners. Another issue with listing out non-Muslim minorities is that it excludes various persecuted minorities. Example – Rohingyas of Myanmar and Ahamadiya in Pakistan.
- Choice of countries: Many have questioned the rationale for adding Afghanistan with countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, which were a part of India in the pre-independence era and reasons for leaving out other neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar etc.
- Conflict with other government initiatives: Consider National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Assam Accord1985. On one hand NRC and the Assam Accord marks the line of eligibility for Indian citizenship in (March) 1971. But the bill marks the eligibility line at (December) 2014, thus enlarging the scope and number of people who can be eligible for Indian citizenship.
- It also goes against the spirit of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which requires the government to providesafeguards to protect the culture & socio-linguistic identity of the Assamese people.
- Threat to local demography: The local community fears that the prospect of citizenship will encourage migration from Bangladesh and might lead to ‘outsiders’ dominating indigenous population.
- Rise of religious sub-nationalist politics: The Bill has divided the residents of Assam in Brahmaputra Valley (majority of Muslim settlements & mostly anti-Bill) and Barak Valley (Hindu Bengali settlements & pro-Bill).Until now, the sub-nationalist narrative of the North-East focused on opposition to the “foreigners” to preserve ethno-linguistic identities.
- Wide ground for cancelling OCI registration: It grants the central government wide discretion to cancel OCIregistration, even for minor offences like violation of a traffic law (such as parking in a no-parking zone orjumping a red light).
Steps taken by GoI
- High level committee to operationalize Clause 6 of the Assam Accord: The Committee will define the“Assamese people” eligible for the proposed safeguards, which includes reservation of seats in Assembly &local bodies, reservation in government jobs, land ownership rights, etc. It would also examine theeffectiveness of actions since 1985 to implement Clause 6.
- Scheduled Tribes Status: It has announced the proposal to accord Scheduled Tribe status to six major communities (Koch Rajbongshi, Tai Ahom, Chutia, Matak, Moran and Tea Tribes) that are currently classified as OBC. The ST status could turn Assam, with a 34% Muslim population, into a tribal State with a majority ofseats reserved.
- Distribution of immigrants: The Center has promised that the regularized immigrants would not be settledin Assam alone, but be distributed among various states.
Conclusion and way forward
- The government needs to balance its larger vision of providing a homeland to persecutedminorities in the immediate neighbourhood and its promise of non-dilution of indigenous identity of thecitizens of North-East.
- It must seek to address the larger question of illegal migration, which is, now, not limited tothe North-East, particularly with respect to Rohingyas.