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Recently, the Lok Sabha has passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which seeks to ease norms for religious minorities from neighbouring nations (non-muslims) to get Indian citizenship by amending age-old Citizenship Act, 1955. However, it has polarised regions in border states such as Assam since the locals fear that it will result in demographic change due to immigration.
What are the key features of the Citizenship Act, 1955? (refer Indian Polity mindmap – new tab)
In India, the Citizenship Act, 1995 prescribes 5 ways to acquire citizenship viz – Birth, Descent, Registration, Naturalization & Incorporation of the territory.
Who is a citizen?
A person born outside India on or after January 26, 1950, but before December 10, 1992, is a citizen of India if his/her father was a citizen of India at the time of his/her birth.
Who is an illegal immigrant?
- An illegal immigrant refers to the person who enters India without a valid passport or stays in the country after the expiry of the visa permit.
- An immigrant who uses false documents for the immigration process is also an illegal immigrant.
- (In short, illegal immigrants of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan will be imprisoned or deported.)
Who is not a citizen?
- Under Article 9 of the Indian constitution, a person who voluntarily acquires citizenship of any other country is no longer an Indian citizen.
- From December 3, 2004, onwards, persons born outside of India shall not be considered citizens of India except their birth is registered at an Indian consulate within 1 year of the date of birth.
- If an adult makes a declaration of renunciation of Indian Citizenship, then he loses Indian citizenship.
What are the key features of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019?
- It proposes that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will not be treated as illegal immigrants even when they have entered India without valid documents.
- It seeks to include a separate column in the citizenship form for applicants belonging to these 6 communities from those 3 countries.
- They will not be deported as illegal immigrants under the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 and the Foreigners Act of 1946.
- The amendment reduces the period of residency from 12 years (as mentioned in the Citizenship Act, 1955) to 7 years, for acquiring permanent citizenship through naturalization.
- It also empowers the government to withdraw registration as OCI due to any violation of the Citizenship Act or any other laws.
What is the need for an amendment? (Arguments for)
- Many people of Indian origin have been applying for citizenship under the Citizenship Act of 1955, however, they are unable to produce valid proof of their Indian origin.
- These include persons belonging to the 6 minority communities (Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi & Christian) from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
- Hence, they are forced to apply for citizenship through naturalization which prescribes 12 years’ residency in India as a condition. Such a long-term process denies them the opportunities and advantages that may apply only to citizens of India.
- Moreover, they are likely to permanently stay in India. Hence it highlights the need for some legislative safeguard to them.
- It will save the victims of partition (Hindu-Bengalis) who got stuck in East-Pakistan (Bangladesh) in early years.
- Notably, the religious minorities in Bangladesh are being persecuted by non-state actors (Islamic extremists) = many have crossed borders and settled down in Border States illegally and they remain stateless for years now.
- Thus the bill would prove to be a huge relief for those people.
- Bengali speaking region of Barak valley in Assam has largely welcomed the proposal.
What are the arguments against?
- The bill has stirred protests in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam, which has a predominantly Assamese speaking population due to the reasons as follows.
- The bill will only aggravate the illegal migration from Bangladesh which might change the demography of Assam.
- It violates the 1985 Assam Accord, which was signed to end illegal Bangladeshi migration irrespective of religion. Under this accord, any person who came into Assam after March 24, 1971 (just before Bangladeshi war) would be considered as a foreigner. (Click here to know more about Assam Accord – Opens in new tab).
- The bill also violates the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) that excludes nearly 40 lakh people. Because the bill would grant citizenship to all Hindus who came to Assam from Bangladesh even after the NRC cut-off date of March 1971. (Click here to know more about NRC – Opens in new tab).
- So the bill is considered to be a threat to the cultural and linguistic identity of the people of Assam.
- Furthermore, the bill violates the basic tenets of the constitution.
- It violates the Fundamental Right to Equality under Article 14 by distinguishing illegal immigrants on the basis of religion. Notably, the protection of Article 14 applies equally to both citizens and foreigners.
- It also violates the provisions of secularism in fundamental rights, directive principles and fundamental duties of the constitution.
What is the government’s stand on this issue?
- The government claims that these persecuted migrants will be eligible to apply for citizenship only after intense assessment and recommendation of district authorities and state government.
- The beneficiaries under the Citizenship Amendment Bill can reside in any state of India = the burden of these persecuted migrants will be shared by the entire country and not only Assam.
- Moreover, these migrants were earlier given protection against legal action in the years 2015 & 2016. Long term visa protection was also granted to them. Thus the proposed amendment will only extend this benefits further to make these persecuted migrants eligible to apply for citizenship.
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What is the way forward?
- While addressing the rights of Chakma refugees, the Supreme Court in NHRC vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh case provided equal protection before the law and rights under Article 21 (Right to life) to all immigrants including those who are considered as illegal.
- If this bill is passed, then by means of naturalization, these persecuted immigrants would be entitled to enjoy the benefits of rights guaranteed under the constitution of India, including equality, free of speech and expression, life, vote, work, food, etc.
- Hence, the bill should not limit itself to minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but also include refugees from persecuted minorities of all religions who have made India their home.