Analysis: Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016

Reading time: 6-7 minutes.

The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 19, 2016. The Bill was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee which submitted its report in January this year. The Bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha.

The Bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 with regard to two categories of persons- illegal migrants and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders.

How can Indian Citizenship be acquired? Who are Overseas Citizens of India?

Under the Citizenship Act, a person can acquire Indian citizenship by being born in the country or by being born to Indian parents or by residing in the country over a period of time (i.e. by naturalization). The Act prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring citizenship. An illegal migrant is a foreigner who either enters the country without valid travel documents like Passport or enters with valid documents but stays in India beyond the permitted period of time. Illegal migrants are liable to be imprisoned or deported under the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.

Overseas Citizens of India, in simple terms, are foreigners who are persons of Indian origin or who are spouses of persons of Indian origin. Compared to others foreigners, OCI enjoy various benefits like right to travel to India without a visa and to work or study in the country. Under the Citizenship Act, 1955 the central government may cancel OCI registration on various grounds and in case of cancellation, an OCI residing in India may be required to leave the country.

What are the Salient features of the Citizenship Bill?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to provide citizenship to those Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who fled to India before 31st December, 2014 because of religious persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries. These people were treated as illegal migrants by the Citizenship Act, 1955.  

The Bill also relaxes the minimum years of residence required for obtaining citizenship through naturalization from 11 years to 6 years for immigrants of these six religious communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

With respect to OCI card-holders, the Bill introduces an additional ground on which the government can cancel the registration of OCI card-holders viz. violation by OCI of any law of the land. Earlier, their registration could be cancelled only if, within five years of registration, the cardholder was sentenced to imprisonment for two years or more for violation of any law. The effect of the amendment would be that the registration of an OCI card-holder will get cancelled if he breaks any law of the land, irrespective of whether it is a major or minor violation, and even if he has stayed in India for more than five years after registration.

What are reasons behind the introduction of this Amendment Bill?

The main reason for this amendment was the atrocities that the six religious communities faced in the three neighbouring country, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which forced them to migrate to India. The Citizenship Act, 1955 treated them as illegal migrants and denied citizenship. It was in order to alleviate their plight that these amendments were proposed.

In September, 2015 and in July, 2016 the Central Government issued two notifications by which illegal migrants belonging to six religious minority communities of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who had migrated to India on or before December 31, 2014 were exempted from the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.This implies that these illegal migrants cannot be imprisoned or deported for not having valid papers.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016 seeks to grant further benefits to these migrants by making them eligible for citizenship.

What are the criticisms against the Bill?

The Bill has been staunchly opposed by the North-Eastern states. It is argued that continuous migration from surrounding areas has increased the population of the North-East in such a way that the average size of land holding in the region is only about one hectare. While the population of ‘India of 1901’ (which comprises of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) increased by about 5.4 times between 1901 and 2011, the population of North-East increased by more than ten times during the same period.

The opponents of the Bill also stress that Assam cannot accommodate any more immigrants and that the Bill goes against the 1985 Assam Accord signed between the Rajeev Gandhi government and leaders of the Assam movement spear headed by the All Assam Students Union (AASU). Under the Accord, any person who came to Assam after midnight of March24, 1971, were to be identified as a foreigner. Opponents in Assam also argue that the National Register of Citizens (NRC) which would declare those who had entered Assam illegally after 25 March 1971 as foreigners will also be nullified by the Bill.

Another major criticism against the Bill is that by limiting accelerated citizenship to non-Muslims it tends to be discriminatory and violative of Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality to citizens as well as foreigners. Article 14 requires that a law can be justified of treating persons differently only if there is a reasonable rationale for doing so. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Citizenship Bill does not provide any such rationale for restricting its benefits to only six religious communities. As the Rohingya crisis may have highlighted, even Muslims are fleeing persecution from neighbouring countries. Unfortunately they will not be eligible for Indian citizenship under the Bill. It is clear that the differentiation between illegal migrants on the basis of religion does not meet the Article 14 standards of equality protection.

The proposed change regarding Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders has also evoked criticism. Making their registration liable to be cancelled for violation of any law of the land, irrespective of the gravity of violation, leads to a situation wherein OCI registration can be cancelled for even minor offences like parking in a no parking zone or jumping a red light. The amendment is worrying given that the consequence of cancellation of registration is drastic as the person would be required to leave the country.

The North-eastern states have been marred by two waves of protest for some time now – protest in support of the Bill and protests against the Bill. During and after the visit of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to Assam and Meghalaya to collect feedback regarding the Bill, the Brahmaputra Valley saw protest opposing the Bill while the Barak Valley saw counter-protests in support of the Bill. In Guwahati, 135 groups submitted memorandums objecting the Bill and one of the memorandums was even signed in blood.

Union Home Minister Mr. Amit Shah has tried to pacify the protestors by assuring that the people of North-East had nothing to fear from the Bill and that it will not dilute Article 371 of the Constitution which grants autonomy to the North-Eastern states. He also assured them that the Bill will not affect any rights of the indigenous people nor will it affect the requirement of Inner-Line Permit that any visitor to Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland has to possess for temporary stay in these places. Mr. Shah also pointed out that the proposed Bill had December 31, 2014 as the cut-off date and that no illegal immigrant arriving after this date would be granted citizenship.

Probable future…

The Bill would have both positive and negative consequences. The positive consequence is that the people of minority religious communities of the three neighbouring countries who flee to India from persecution can be assured of safety and peace. They would be treated as Indian citizens and would get food, livelihood, shelter and most-importantly, identity.

The negative effect of the Bill would be faced by the people of North-east as increase in population due to illegal immigrants would put stress on the scarce resources of the states. Moreover, there is a deep fear that the indigenous people of the states would become a minority if more outside people come and settle there. There is also apprehension of ethnic violence, which will hinder progress of the states.

A solution for alleviating the negative impact of the Bill on the North-eastern states is to shift the immigrants to other state also so as to ease the pressure on the resources of the North-East.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Rishabh Dixit from New Law College, Pune.

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