The Union Cabinet has cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they faced religious persecution there. The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, in order to grant Indian nationality to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who come to India after facing religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over the past weeks, the home ministry has held marathon talks with leaders and stakeholders. A large section of people and organisations in the northeast have opposed the bill. Congress, Trinamool Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a few other political parties have been steadfastly opposing the bill, claiming that citizenship can't be given on the basis of religion. The bill to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, is likely to be introduced in the Parliament in this session. This edition of The Big Picture analyses the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
Edited excerpts from the Debate:
Question: Analysing Citizenship Amendment Bill, and why is there a need to change the Citizenship Act of 1955?
This part of a political promise which BJP had made before the 2014 election – that they will give citizenship rights to minority communities of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh; where they were persecuted on religious grounds and that is why they fled and settled in India.
Essentially, these are stateless entities since we do not have a law for refugees. They are non-citizens, yet they are living here for generations.
One side of the debate is, for example, of Hindus who came from Pakistan and now settled in states like Punjab. The other side of the debate is regarding people who have come to North East from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh – those Bengali Hindus who faced persecution in Bangladesh even after 1971.
The problematic part of the bill is that it makes distinction on the basis of religion; because our constitution doesn’t warrant citizenship on the basis of religion.
Question: Does CAB infringe upon Article 14? (critique)
The characterisation that CAB extends citizenship to non-Muslims is unfair.
The yardstick for this bill is – Which communities constitute as minorities in the neighbouring countries; and these happen to be non-Muslims.
We do not have a Refugee law. What we follow is a ‘Standard Operating Procedure of 2014’, which is primarily based on clearances given from security agencies on the basis of:
Whether or not a particular group is persecuted in a country?
Principle of non-refoulement
A test of whether they pose a threat to India’s security?
Security clearance is given only after the above three tests are passed. This is especially in reference to a refugee.
Revisiting two nation theory: All reports ever since Lt. General SK Sinha’s report, or even before that, also something that even the Supreme Court has taken cognizance of in the Sarbananda Sonowal vs. Union of India decision – there is a clear threat perception from certain communities.
Government of India is within its right to apply its discretion as to which communities can enter the country or not.
For example, today Ahmaddiya community face persecution because the sectarian violence in Pakistan has reached its peak. However, it remains a fact that when the idea of Pakistan was mooted in 1940s and the vote for Pakistan was going on, the Ahmaddiyas voted on mass for being a part of an Islamic Republic. It was there position. Therefore, we must be careful today in opening our hearts and gates to these communities.
North East, Tripura and West Bengal have all faced the brunt. Therefore, CAB must be looked at as a continuum of the existence of the two nation theory which continues to be alive and kicking in other parts of the world, irrespective of whether we believe it or not.
Question: What are the political aspects of the bills? Why it that so many states, especially the North East, are opposing this?
The NRC and CAB have to be seen as a continuum. It sees that CAB is covering up for that which the NRC missed.
There are a few minorities which have not been covered in the bill- For example; there are cases of Jews, though small in number, coming back from Israel to Mizoram. They are not covered.
The ‘Inner Line Permit’ needs to be relooked into. Earlier Arunachal, Assam and Manipur had that. Now it’s extended to Meghalaya. It must be seen whether it will be conducive to the political and socio-economic development of the region.
Question: Are the fears of demographic change in the North East as a result of this bill justified?
At one level the NRC and CAB may seem different exercises, but they are related. NRC is a process of excluding people who have come in and could not prove their citizenship on the basis of documents, and their legacy data.
Cut-off date of NRC – Midnight of March 24 1971. If a Bengali Hindu family could not prove that they had come to India before this date (i.e. before the creation of Bangladesh), they can use the route of NRC to get citizenship of India; citing that they had fled their country from persecution, where they were a minority (Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists; not Muslims). The cut-off date for CAB is 31st December 2014; which means the person must have come to India before this date, and not after.
Example of Tripura: Lakhs of people had come to Tripura from East Pakistan due to violence there, and the indigenous Tripuri Population was outnumbered. Bengali Hindu numbers are more in the region. So this is a very emotive issue for the North East.
The indigenous Kokborok language earlier spoken in Tripura is gone now.
The North East communities are small populations of tribal, varying between thousands and Lakhs. They are in fear of these Acts. There have been cases of ethnic violence; for example, the Nellie massacre in 1983 was a sort of ethnic-cleansing.
Hence, it is a very emotive and explosive issue, and it needs to be handled with great care in the North East.
Question: What will happen to the Assam Accord? What about the right of the indigenous people? Will there be any special provisions?
India had to take a balancing act – some of the constitutional promises made to North East for protection of their indigenous identity have to be taken into account; and you have to balance your civilizational duties who are being persecuted in the neighbourhood.
Do the people being persecuted in the neighbouring countries have the right to expect some relief from India for the reason that the policies behind their persecution continues to be the policies behind the partition in 1947 – It’s a continuing effect, and a recurring cause of action.
Tripura is against the coming in of Bengalis per se, whether they are a Bengali Hindu or a Bengali Muslim, because of their fear of being outnumbered.
But these two categories have different motives to come in – One is coming for sake of better economic opportunities and as a continuum of unfinished agenda in these countries against India, while the other group is running away from these countries because their countries are religiously persecuting them.
When these people could not enter Tripura, they started entering West Bengal and other parts of the country.
Government of India, which is taking the responsibility of the latter group, should share the burden of these people with states, other than North East, who are in a better position to take them.
For example, most of the Pakistani Hindus settle mostly in states of Rajasthan, Delhi and Haryana. Since unlike the North East, these states do not have the threat of dilution of indigenous identity, they are more open the entering of these communities.
NRC and CAB must go hand in hand by design because you want to exclude a population which you believe is illegal immigrant and you also want to provide relief for those people who do not have any other place to go. These communities see India s their natural homeland, therefore they must come here.
Question: What kind of numbers are we looking at, and can it really make a demographic change in any of the states?
The numbers will be huge, and even the other states will not be in an accommodative state to welcome these refugees. The general reaction will be unwelcoming;
Extreme example: In Tamil Nadu there is case of some Hindu Tamils coming, not due to persecution but other constraints; Tamil Nadu itself has not been willing to accept them due to political and economic repercussions.
Was CAB really necessary? Could the Citizenship Act of 1955 not be tweaked or operated suitably? Administrative correction should have been done to care of the issue within the ambit of the act.
Assam is divided into two parts – Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley –
Barak valley is predominantly Bengali speaking population and they have welcomed these acts because there are a large number of families there without a proper status. There was earlier too a proposal of the kind to accommodate these people and give them status.
The distinguishing feature between India and Pakistan is that, while Pakistan went by religion being the criteria for citizenship, India adopted the idea of secular nationhood where anybody of any religious denomination could settle down.
The new bills change the secular idea of the constitution. Hence it would have been better to instead tweak or operate better the existing rules on citizenship for the benefit of people who are presently excluded and are stateless entities.
Question: Is the bill against the Constitution of India? (Critique)
If someone is being targeted on the basis of religion then turning a blind eye to the motivations behind the persecution is to insult the particular people who are already at the receiving end of the targeting.
If, as suggested, the Citizenship Act of 1955 was changed and religious element was introduced into it that would have been deeply problematic and would have opened up lot more constitutional challenges.
However, if we have limited this exercise to three specific countries who have a particular religious identity by virtue of their constitutions, and there is a religious minority in those countries which is being targeted there because of its religion, it is precisely why you need an amendment which is specific to that particular area and that particular audience.
The argument that this Act is against Article 14 of the constitution is not correct because it ignores the essence of Articles 5 - 11. According to Articles 5 – 11, existing citizens cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their religion in the eyes of the law. But vestition of the citizenship to new entrants is different from the citizenship of existing citizens;
i e., when someone chooses to enter the country, government has the right to impose certain conditions, terms of filter, and discretion in granting the refugee status or citizenship.
Assuming the worst condition, if the bill had said, a Christian entering India would first have convert to Hinduism; that would have been problematic. Instead, the bill says the Christian minority targeted in Pakistan, or the other two countries, can come to India on account of being persecuted there.
Case in point from History: Many Pakistani Hindus had converted to Christianity during the riots of 1947 because they wanted to be protected as long as they were in Pakistan as they could not leave the place where they had lived for generations
Every country, as a sovereign state has the right to apply its security considerations before it applies the principal of non-refoulement.
For example, in case of Rohingyas the security clearance already raised a red flag. Even Bangladesh has cited Rohingyas an internal security concern, despite Bangladesh itself being an Islamic state.
Conclusion (Way forward): The right of the sovereign state to apply the filters for granting status of citizenship should have been done within the ambit of the Citizenship Act 1955 and existing institutions. It remains to be seen what this move will do to India’s relationship with other nations, especially Bangladesh. The final impact will pan out in the future
Practice Question: What are the different reasons for opposition of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019? How valid are these opposing views?