The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have finally passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the current winter session. Soon it will become an Act when the President of India gives his assent to it. The journey of CAB from November 2016 to the joint parliamentary committee report, to its reintroduction and passage in Lok Sabha on January 8, 2019 and finally to this session and now towards an Act is a hard work to set right a historical wrong. This 9th amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 will ensure that people belonging to the six minorities communities—Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who had entered India before December 31, 2014 and no more considered illegal in the context of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 can apply for Indian citizenship under naturalisation after ‘the aggregate period of residence or services of a government in India’ after spending 5 years instead of the existing 11 years.
The amendment is a major achievement of the Modi 2.0 Government and Prime Minister & Home Minister have both done considerable hard work to get it passed in both houses of the parliament despite all sorts of concerns and objections often premised on false alarms and pretensions. To summarise all these attempts to criticise the bill, they can be clubbed under three threads-a) it violates the principle of secularism and equality before the law as enshrined in our Constitution, b) it will harm the demography and culture in northeast India and c) it will impact the relations with Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Needless to say, these concerns have often been misrepresented by vested interests that the bill is communal in spirit and wrong in law. In fact it is the other way round and thus explained below.
The principle of secularism as applied to Indian citizens is never in question as there is no change in Article 25 of the Constitution, which allows a person to freely profess, practise, and propagate his religion subject to public order, morality and health. The amended Citizenship Act is meant to address the issue of persecuted minorities from three neighbouring countries who have been living in India for quite some time and wouldn’t go back considering the reasons for which they have fled. Also, the amendment upholds the test of reasonable classification which was defined by the seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in the State of West Bengal vs Anwar Ali Sarkar case (AIR1952 SC 75) and thus Article 14 of the Constitution is not violated. The Supreme Court has held that “the principle of equality does not mean that every law must have universal application for all persons who are not by nature, attainment or circumstances in the same position, as the varying needs of different classes of persons often require separate treatment. It would be inexpedient and incorrect to think that all laws have to be made uniformly applicable to all people in one go’. Also, the Home Minister in his interventions in both the Houses has reassured that Muslims from those three countries can also apply for Indian citizenship and in the last 5 years more than 560 applications have been granted to the Muslims from those 3 countries. Besides citizenship, Long Term Visa are also granted after due security verification if any Muslim seeks refugee status in India as defined in the Standard Operating Procedure issued on 29 December 2011 by MHA to the state governments.
The CAB has been welcomed by the people as they have seen how difficult life was for the refugees and migrants who were there for years without any identity
As for the northeastern region which has seen an influx of illegal immigrants for a few decades, most of the concerns were factored in and addressed by the Union Home Minister who personally met more than 140 groups before the union cabinet approved the Bill. Many specific provisions have been incorporated in the CAB whose ambit is nationwide. All the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura as covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution as also the states under Inner Line Permit like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and now also Manipur with the new gazette notification, have been exempted from the CAB. So, the issue of demographic changes and culture being eroded doesn’t arise. Moreover, even those people who would be able to apply for citizenship post this act, would not be confined to the region only and will seek greener pastures like anyone else is doing from the northeastern region. Also, these people have already been living in the region and so the question of fresh influx or additional burden doesn’t arise. Assam and Tripura have seen senseless violence and vandalism in the protests against the CAB for the last few days and it will be imperative for the government to handle the situation more closely and allay all the remaining fears. On top of all this, the Bill applies to all of the country and not confined to northeastern states only.
Improvement in relations with Bangladesh has been one of the hallmarks of the Modi Government and the potential to realise that further doesn’t get impacted by the passage of the bill. The bill is clearly not casting aspersions on the current government in Bangladesh which is doing its best to make the minorities feel secure. Land grabbing and destruction of temples have been regularly reported and recorded besides the rapes of young girls. On the other hand, no one can deny that people have come in the past from that country facing and fearing persecution and have lived here without proper identity and the CAB just enables them to apply for Indian citizenship. On the other hand, it helps to improve the bilateral relations as the matter will be closed once and for all for Bangladesh taking back all these people. Diplomatic and civil sector conversations between the two countries touch on all the issues and even around the NRC updation in Assam, reasonable clarifications were provided to the friendly neighbour at the highest levels.
Despite the concerns in the north-east region, in states like Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat, the CAB has been welcomed by the people as they have seen how difficult life was for the refugees and migrants who were there for years without any identity. Even in Delhi, there are more than 15000 Sikhs from Afghanistan living for more than 30 years and their children have grown up here and studied but unable to get jobs and benefits because of not having Indian citizenship. Likewise, migrants from Pakistan who have faced persecution in Pakistan have also been welcome in many parts of India and the CAB is seen as a way to respect their human rights. Once the Act is notified, the next step will be to lay the conditions, restrictions and manner for granting a certificate of naturalisation to these persecuted individuals. Meanwhile, another positive step has been taken by the Modi Government to address a long-standing issue in a humanitarian ground with the most secular approach.
(The writer is Director JOOKTO and works in grassroots in Barak Valley. He was former country head of General Dynamics)