Tackling the controversy: Understanding the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016
The Citizenship Act, 1955
In India, we have the Citizenship Act, 1955 that regulates who may acquire Indian citizenship and on what grounds. To become an Indian citizen a person has to be born in India or have Indian parents. Also one can become a citizen if one has been a resident of India for over a period of time. But the Act prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship
Definition of an illegal immigrant: Any foreigner who enters India with forged documents, an invalid passport and without a visa permit is termed as an illegal immigrant (Act of 1955). An amendment was made in 2004 where religion was made an explicit ground for granting citizenship.
After reports of religious persecution were found against the minority Hindus in Pakistan, the government of India amended the citizenship rules of 1956 to specifically accommodate such Hindus from Pakistan.
Why Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016
Thousands of refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan entered India without any valid documents. They were mostly Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who left these countries after facing religious persecution. The Hindus were the prime targets and apart from India they had no other place to take shelter.
As they could not fulfill the criteria of the existing Citizenship Law they have been facing difficulty in acquiring the Long Term Visa (LTV) or Citizenship.
So, it is for these refugees that the government is trying to get the amendment done in the citizenship bill and not to treat them as illegal migrants.
There are many requirements for becoming an Indian citizen under the Act. Naturalisation is one such requirement where the applicant must have resided in India for 12 of the 15 years preceding the date of application. Also, the bill relaxes the 12-year requirement to 7 years for persons belonging to these communities from the said countries.
Protests in Assam against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016
Many political parties and civil society groups are opposing the bill as they feel that it would violate the Indian constitution. Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners. So keeping a particular religion out of the Bill would be gross violation of the constitution. Such an amendment based on religion has never been done before and these groups have termed it as “communally motivated humanitarianism.”
Moreover, this bill will give a bad impression about these countries as places where human rights are violated and will affect the bilateral ties.
The state of Assam has faced the major brunt and load of such refugees mostly after the division of Bengal in 1971 from Pakistan. It has completely changed the demography of the state in major districts bordering Bangladesh and a couple of others. This refugee influx and demographic change threatens the social and political fabric of Assam as the data from Census of 2011 reveals. Hence there are widespread protests against this amendment.
India’s poor stand on international refugee law
The Bill discriminates a refugee on the basis of religion and defeats the very intention of granting refuge on humanitarian grounds. The Rohingiya crisis that saw over 36,000 Rohingiya Muslims landing in India from neighbouring Myanmar due to religious persecution in 2015 is a burning issue and the Bill fails to address this. Reports of Muslims being persecuted in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and China are common and the Bill has no space for these people.
Will introduce religious division in India
When religion gets prominence for gaining citizenship it would divide the Indian society on religious grounds. This amendment will bring suspicion in the minds of the Muslim community who are an integral part of the country. This would bring back bitter partition memories when the country got divided on the basis of religion. It also defeats the principles of inclusion in the Constitution of India and the Citizenship Act of 1955. And the biggest harm is the amendment dilutes the secular foundation of the country.