CAB Protecting Persecuted Minorities
After implementing National Register of Citizenship (NRC) in Assam, another storm that is going to engulf the country in coming months is Citizenship Amendment Bill(CAB). The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 becomes important in the backdrop of NRC issue due to growing demand for deporting the illegal migrants from the North-East. A report was prepared on the contentious issue by the Joint Parliamentary Committee by a majority vote as opposition members in the panel had objected to the provisions saying Indian citizenship cannot be granted on the basis of religion and it is against the Constitution. Then the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in Lok Sabha by the Minister of Home Affairs in July, 2016 and it was passed in Lok Sabha in winter session in January, 2019. But it could not be passed in Rajya Sabha in budget session, due to dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. But after returning to power with a landslide mandate for another term, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance Government is determined to resurrect the Bill. Home Minister Amit Shah has been vocal about reviving it. He has made it clear that government would amend the citizenship norms by re-introducing the Bill before going ahead with a nationwide NRC.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, if passed, would allow illegal migrants from three neighbouring countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan - who are persecuted there due to their non-Muslim religious identity {namely Hindu, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians} to become Indian citizens.
This amendment Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which defines an illegal immigrant as a person who enters India without a valid passport or stays in India after the expiry of the visa permit. Also, the immigrant who uses false documents for the immigration. The act sets some criteria for a person to become a naturalised citizen of the nation:
  • Person must have resided in India for the 12 months immediately preceding the application for citizenship
  • Person must be residing in India for 11 years in the aggregate in 14 years preceding the twelve-months period The Citizenship Act prescribes various ways in which citizenship may be acquired in India. Citizenship by:
  •  Birth, Descent, Registration, Naturalization, incorporation of the territory into territory.
It regulates registration of Overseas Citizen of India Cardholders (OCIs), and their rights. A person with OCI status is not an Indian citizen. The person does not have voting rights in India, nor can he contest elections or hold any constitutional office. However an Overseas Citizen of India is entitled to some benefits such as multi-purpose life-long visa to visit India.

Key Features of the Amendment Bill 2016:

  • The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 and makes provision that persons belonging to the minority communities, such as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, and Hindus from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have either entered India without valid travel documents or the validity of their documents have expired, they shall not be treated as illegal migrants. This Bill proposes to make them eligible for applying for Indian citizenship.
  • The Bill seeks to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalisation for these communities belonging to these 3 Nations.
  • The Bill provides that the registration of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cardholders may be cancelled if they violate any law. This is a wide ground that may cover a huge range of violations, including minor offences like violation of a traffic law.
  • Illegal migrants may be imprisoned or deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920. The 1946 and the 1920 Acts empower the central government to regulate the entry, exit and residence of foreigners within India. In 2015 and 2016, the Central Government issued two notifications exempting certain groups of illegal migrants from provisions of the 1946 and the 1920 Acts. These groups are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who arrived in India on or before 31 December, 2014. This implies that these groups of illegal migrants will not be deported or imprisoned for being in India without valid documents. An illegal migrant is a foreigner who: (i) enters the country without valid travel documents, like a passport and visa, or (ii) enters with valid documents, but stays beyond the permitted time period.
However, there are certain issues in the bill as it makes refugees eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion. Citizenship Amendment Bill has not been sitting well with the Assamese as it undermines the Assam Accord of 1985, signed between Indian government and All Assam Student’s Union and All Assam Gana Parishad to end a six-year long mass movement demanding detection and deportation of illegal immigrants. Assam accord seeks to deport all the illegal migrants threatening the culture, identity and economy. It clearly states that illegal migrants, majority being from Bangladesh, who entered Assam after March 25, 1971 would be deported.
Another set of people annoyed calling CAB against the basic tenets of secularism and an attack on secular soul and secular fabric of our nation. They are opposing the CAB on the ground that illegal migrants cannot be made eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion. It is in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees the right to equality.
But that's not the true story. The then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha, had said this bill is for immigrants who faced “discrimination and religious persecution”. The proposed law would “provide relief to persecuted migrants who have come through western borders of the country to States like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and other States.”
Also it may be noted that India is not a signatory to UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and our Constitution from Articles 5 to 11 under (Part II) empowers the Parliament to enact a law to provide for any matter relating to citizenship. These people are highly perturbed as they had assumed that implementation of NRC and CAB is just an electoral gimmick. But now it's clear that NDA Government is determined to implement both NRC and CAB. In fact, NRC will be extended to states even outside Assam. Many BJP governed states have shown keen willingness. Another interpretation of CAB is that the one community that NRC is going to affect the most is that of Muslims. The Muslim Indians have to establish that they or their ancestors entered India lawfully. The same may not be applicable to the above said communities as they will be given citizenship even if they lack documents. The reason is that these six minority communities are persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. That’s why they are forced to come to Bharat but other majority community does not suffer or face such persecution. So the amendment bill does not violate the basic structure of Constitution.

What Supreme Court has to say over the issue:

On March 5, 2019, the Supreme Court had sought a response from the Centre on a plea seeking to quash laws which allow the naturalisation of illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians fleeing religious persecution in three neighbouring countries - Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The petitioners have claimed that illegal immigration has caused huge demographic changes in Assam. Also a bench comprising Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Sanjiv Khanna issued notice on the plea filed by Assam State Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind.
The current government deserves appreciation for its relentless efforts in national interest. Home Minister Amit Shah has asserted this in Parliament that the government is determined to deport every “infiltrator” from every square inch of Indian soil. He has also assured to pass the CAB in ways that protect the interests of states of the North East. So all we need to do is to wholeheartedly support this bold move of current government.
(The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court)