Amendment and Endamagement
Two negatives do not necessarily make a positive except maybe in arithmetic, but in the case of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 initiated as “Atonement for the wrongs of Partition” as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi had claimed in a rally held on January 4 at Silchar, Assam, it could prove worse as the Bill could rear the entire northeast region in flames.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill passed by Lok Sabha on January 8, amidst significant protests from the opposition, is yet to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha although it has not been shelved either. It amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship by selectively relaxing the eligibility rules. Under the existing Act, an immigrant must have lived in India for 12 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes this 11-year requirement to six years for persons belonging to the same six religions and three countries.
The Bill also makes amendments to provisions related to Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders; and it amends the Act to allow cancellation of OCI registration if the person has violated any law which might cover a range of violations, including minor offences such as parking in a no parking zone) which has also been a major source of criticism.
But the main issue raised by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is that while the bill is not meant for any specific state, those in the northeast, and especially Assam, are at risk of being affected more. And it had already sparked protests across the whole northeast with the people expressing fears that the prospect of citizenship will encourage migration from Bangladesh. They have cited several grounds for opposing the bill including changes in the Demography across the northeastern states as has already happened in Assam and Tripura over decades of migration. The bill is perceived as a threat to the indigenous peoples of the northeastern region, who fear they will become minorities in their own states.
People in Mizoram fear that the Buddhists Chakmas from Bangladesh will take advantage of the Act; whereas, people in Meghalaya and Nagaland are apprehensive of Bengali migrants. Arunachal Pradesh, which is governed by the BJP, fears that the law would benefit Chakmas and Tibetans.
While Manipur does not share border with Bangladesh, protests have been growing on the basis of what the bill represents - regularisation of the entry of migrants and its implications for indigenous people. The All Manipur Students' Union had called it a “Serious threat to the indigenous people of the northeastern states.”
As for Assam, there is the plausible fear that the bill will legalise infiltration and also the loss of political rights and culture of the indigenous people as asserted by former CM of Assam Prafulla Mahanta, who was the face of the Assam Movement (1979-85) against illegal immigration, and one of the signatories to the Assam Accord at the culmination of the movement. It might be considered here that while the Assam Movement did not discriminate between Hindu and Muslim immigrants, the bill proposes to grant citizenship on the basis of religion, and the protesters have called it unconstitutional and dangerous.
Interestingly, the bill quotes religious persecution as the reason for the amendment, and leaves out Muslims from these countries and the bill's proposal to extend citizenship on the basis of religion is seen as a serious threat to India’s secular ethos. It provides that illegal migrants belonging to specified minority communities which include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan will not be treated as illegal migrants under the Act, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. And, this implies that illegal migrants from these countries who are Muslims, and other minorities who do not belong to the above groups, or Atheists, Agnostics and Secularists who do not identify with a religious group will not be eligible for citizenship; add to this the fact that certain sects of Muslims such as Ahmadiyas are continuously being persecuted in the countries mentioned.
The question now is whether this provision violates Article 14 of the Constitution because it provides differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion as Article 14 guarantees equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners, and it only permits laws to differentiate between groups of people if the rationale for doing so serves a reasonable purpose. Here, the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill does not explain the rationale behind differentiating between illegal migrants on the basis of the religion they belong to.
Even if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, was indeed secular and says anybody facing religious persecution in these countries will be given citizenship, the apprehension and fear resulting from granting Relaxed Criteria to illegal migrants for citizenship has subsequently led to heavy opposition from the people of the northeastern states with the possibility of pushing the entire region into a state of paralysis if the government decides to go ahead with the bill.
Leader Writer: Danny Haobam
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