The Citizenship Amendment Bill
In News : A key amendment in the Bill to grant citizenship to people without valid documents from six minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India, has led to a series of protests in Assam and neighbouring Meghalaya.
- Assam has long resented the influx of Bangladeshi Muslims, citing pressure on its limited land and resources. To weed out migrants, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, which says anyone who entered the state after 1971 would be considered an illegal resident.
- There are an estimated 20 million illegal Bangladeshi migrants in Assam and they have inalienably altered the demography of the state, besides putting a severe strain on the state’s resources and economy.
- The people of Assam — which has historically had the highest migration from what is now Bangladesh — see the bill as an unconstitutional attempt to undermine the current NRC process, and grant Indian citizenship to a large number of people who would otherwise be ineligible. Behind this lies the fear of being swallowed up by a much-larger community.
- There are concerns that the BJP is trying to create a vote bank among Bengali Hindus just as the Congress had done with the Bengali Muslims.
The demography of Assam has been changing ever since the British encouraged landless peasants, mainly Muslims, from (then) East Bengal to migrate and settle in Assam to cultivate vast tracts of fallow land and the fertile ‘chars’ (areas and islands constituted by floodplain sediments). Before Independence, Sir Syed Muhammad Sadullah, the then prime minister of the state, encouraged migration of Muslim peasants from East Bengal. The late 1940s, just prior to and immediately after Independence, saw lakhs of Bengali Hindu refugees settling in Assam. Hindus once again migrated from (then) East Pakistan in large numbers fleeing persecution from the Pakistani army in 1970-71.
Since then, a combination of factors – the porous borders of the state with Bangladesh, a poor country with the highest population density in the world, the ease with which Indian citizenship documents are allegedly acquired from corrupt local officials in the state, and politicians reportedly encouraging this illegal migration in order to cultivate vote banks – has led to unabated influx from across the international border. Not only has the demography of the state changed, socio-economic and ethnic unrest has also risen.
What is it the Assamese fear the most?
It is not hatred for other communities, but the fear of being reduced to a powerless minority in one’s own homeland.
- Assam is already on the edge because of the NRC or National Register of Citizens update process, which seeks to update the 1951 NRC by including the names of those people (and their descendants) who came to Assam till midnight of March 24 1971 — the start of the Bangladesh Liberation war. Even this date is viewed as highly discriminatory by several groups in Assam as the cut-off date for citizenship in the rest of India is July 19, 1948.
- March 24, 1971 is the cut-off date as per the Assam Accord of 1985 for detection and deportation of foreign nationals — regardless of their religion — from Assam. The proposed bill will advance this cut-off date for detecting foreigners to December 31, 2014.
- The Citizenship Act, 1955, already has provisions for citizenship by naturalisation, provided the applicant has entered legally, and resided in India for 11 of the past 14 years — the proposed amendment bill seeks to reduce the period from 11 to 6 years for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, even if they have entered illegally.
- In 2005, the Supreme Court while striking down the controversial IMDT Act (largely due to the efforts of present CM Sarbananda Sonowal), which was seen as actually beneficial to illegal migrants, observed that the state of Assam was facing “an act of external aggression” through unabated influx from Bangladesh.
- It is increasingly being felt in Assam that the only measure that would save the land and its people are Constitutional safeguards in terms of land ownership, jobs and businesses, political representation, and an Inner Line Permit system (something which the rest of the Northeast states already have).
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in the Lok Sabha to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, and raises several issues –
- It makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship based on their religion and clearly violates Article 14 of the Constitution.
- The bill clearly violates the Assam Accord. Whatever one may think of it, the issue of the credibility of an accord signed by the Union of India is not entirely a trivial one. And it may have ramifications for future negotiations.
- The bill has potentially interesting implications for asymmetric federalism. One of the proposals under consideration is to exempt Assam from the purview of the bill while making it applicable to the rest of India. There is not much opposition to this bill in other states. The political consequences of this bill are not nearly as severe as in Assam.
- Assam has borne the brunt of migration in ways that unsettled so many identities and created distributive conflicts. The process of completing the National Register of Citizens is on, and either way its results are going to leave large numbers of people disaffected and vulnerable. The real challenge for India will begin after the process of identifying immigrants is done. What do we do with people we will have declared stateless? How do we address these concerns without a disproportionate burden falling on Assam?
- Instead of simply saying that members belonging to particular religions will be eligible for differential treatment, the bill should have laid down some general secular criteria (persecution history, history of migration etc.) which could, in principle, at least, be applied to all groups. But the direct exclusion of Muslims from being eligible for this pathway under any circumstances makes the constitutional form and citizenship communal.
No solution in Assam is an easy solution. But a cross-party dialogue and consensus, will help avoid any further tragic conflict in Assam, whose consequences will be national.