Why Citizenship amendment Bill is a worrisome legislation
By John S. Shilshi
Given the kind of political culture we have wherein the ruling dispensation and the opposition never agree on anything, all the noises against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 resonating from different states of north-east region may be mistaken as usual political gimmicks. But this time, and for a change, voices of dissent raised are not altogether politically motivated. The fear and apprehension about a legislation that has the potential to adversely impact on the religion, social, economic and political life of people in the region is mutual. There is convergence of views amongst political parties, including partners of the ruling NDA, the Architect of the proposed Bill. Civil Society organisations and student bodies in the region are also on the same plane in their opposition against the proposed Bill. Strange as it may seem, a region usually known for nursing divergent interests and persuasions has stood up as one. What then is that fear-factor in the Bill that motivated the entire region to be up in arms? Here is a cursory glance.
In India, the Citizenship Act-1955 deals with all matter relating to citizenship. Conditions for any foreign national to acquire Indian citizenship are provided for under sections 3-7 of the Act. Though the Act is fairly flexible and accommodating, it does not extend the same privilege and options to illegal migrants. However in 2004, the government of India amended the rules in order to accommodate minority groups who fled Pakistan due to religious persecution. As if this wasn’t good enough, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill -2016 now proposes to accommodate Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh as Indian citizens if they are displaced on account of religious persecution. It seeks to drastically change laws governing citizenship and immigration by relaxing norms and conditions so that the above mentioned minority groups could be easily taken in. To put it in a simple language, Hindus and other minority groups from any of these countries can now cross over to India without valid documents on the plea of being religiously persecuted, and then become eligible for Indian Citizenship.
Such being the objective of the Bill, the spontaneous outburst of protest by people of north-east is not surprising. They fear that when the bill becomes a law, it would facilitate large number of Hindus from Bangladesh to swamp the region and alter the demographic profiles drastically, particularly in smaller states. Some even view it as an attempt to further mess up situations in the region so that states remain politically subservient. Supporter of this Bill however dismissed this sentiment as misplaced apprehensions. But to be fair to the people of north-east, the apprehension is not entirely out of place. Mainstream India would always have the space and resources to accommodate and adjust influx of minority groups from Pakistan or Afghanistan, no matter what their numbers is and they would still be invisible. It is also unlikely that the local population would unduly be hassled or discomforted because of their presence. On the other hand, for migrants from Bangladesh, the north-east region would be their natural choice since it is closest to their place of origin. Therefore, possibilities of the region paying heavy price in the form of fresh conflicts and social unrests, increase in corruption and further resource crunch cannot be ruled out. New Delhi’s attempt to allay this fear with the explanation that the intake would be a pan-India affair doesn’t sound practical and convincing.
The architects of this Bill therefore needs reminding that the region already is neck-deep with problems – some inherited from history and most the outcome of skewed policies by successive governments in the centre. It is a region already struggling to grapple with issues like communal tension, insurgency, social unrest, migration, corruption etc. Facilitating influx of more migrants from Bangladesh through passage of this Bill would be a gross injustice. It will also serve as ammunition for secessionist elements waiting to find some grounds to brainwash the youth. They would most certainly cite this as yet another example of New Delhi’s insensitivity to the sentiments of the people. Already dissenting voices are doing the round, questioning the sincerity of this government over delay in solving the Naga problem and failure to meaningfully conclude the National Registration of Citizens. Ignoring the sentiments of people on the current issue will only add salt to the wound and further alienate the youth.
Coming to the thinking behind the proposed Bill, one is tempted to suspect that the term ‘minority’ as well as names of other religious groups like Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis have been used to conveniently camouflage the real intention. The humanitarian consideration attached to the bill is also flawed by careful omission of other vulnerable groups like the Shias and Ahmediyas who are also facing persecution in Pakistan, so also the Rhohingyas of Myanmar. Therefore, the assertion by the Union Home Minister on the floor of the house that the Bill was mooted ‘to provide shelter to vulnerable and religiously persecuted people, whose fundamental human rights are at risk’ don’t sound convincing. It appears that even at the cost of jeopardizing the secular character of India, a core value derived from the Constitution itself, the Bhartiya Janata Party seems to be bent upon in consolidating its vote bank with Hindu migrants from Bangladesh just like the Congress did with Muslims.
Need of the hour for people of north-east would be to remain vigilant and articulate their concerns in a civilized and peaceful manner. Indulgence in needless Delhi-bashing must be avoided. Instead, elected representatives should be pressurized to speak up on the issue without mincing words. They must not be allowed the comfort of being convenient fence-sitters, but urge to choose a field on either side of the fence. Some Chief Minsters of north-east states had opined that the Bill must not be at the cost of the indigenous peoples’ interests. Such assertions are ambiguously misleading. They need to be reminded that the interests of the indigenous people are best protected only when suitable safeguards are incorporated in the Bill and not otherwise. Verbal assurances from New Delhi mean nothing, therefore should not be taken for granted. The government of the day will do well to realize that if India’s dream to emerge as leading economy in the world is to fructify, and also ensure the success of the much talked about ‘Act East’ policy, the north-east shall have to be accommodated as honoured stake holder, not only now but on all issues.
(The writer is a retired IPS officer, now a strategic Analyst on internal security. Views expressed are personal)
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