It’s been raining in Assam this week, but the protest against the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, makes the situation somewhat warm here. A joint parliamentary committee (JPC) visited Assam from May 7-10, 2018. Earlier, the bill had been introduced in the Lok Sabha after the BJP-led-NDA came to power at the Centre. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to allow illegal migrants from certain minority communities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship. Simply put, the proposed bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955.
Consequently, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the influential students’ body, which also has a platform of 28 student bodies representing various indigenous communities of the state, appealed to the people of the state to stand united against the bill. Even the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is an ally in the present BJP-led government in Assam and the NDA, has opposed the bill. The AGP leaders have clearly stated that though they are with the government, they cannot agree to this proposed bill.
According to the Citizenship Act, 1955, illegal migrants are prohibited from acquiring Indian citizenship. An illegal immigrant is identified as one who either enters the country without valid travel documents (like passport and visa). The category also includes those people who have the valid travel documents but stay beyond the permitted time period.
On the other hand, the Foreigners Act, 1946, and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, put forth the provision that illegal migrants can be imprisoned or deported. These acts empower the central government to regulate the entry, exit and residence of foreigners within the territory of India.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, grants residence and citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, Christian or other religious communities coming from neigbouring countries (mostly from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan) According to the bill, those migrants who arrived in India deported who arrived in India on or before December 31, 2014, cannot be deported or imprisoned.
The proposed bill also makes the required changes so that these people can be made eligible for citizenship. It also specifies that the minimum number years of residency in India to apply for citizenship should be lessened from at 11 to six years for such people. Interestingly, the bill’s provisions do not seem to extend to illegal Muslim migrants, as of now. Neither does it talk about other minority communities in the neighbouring countries, such as Jews, Bahais etc.
According the Assam’s Cabinet minister, Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarmah, “The BJP has a reason to grant citizenship to Hindus who migrated to India from Bangladesh after they were subjected to persecution in the neighbouring country. India is the largest Hindu-inhabited country in the world. So it is natural for harassed Hindus to seek shelter here. Muslims and Christians from countries like Bangladesh can go to other Islamic and Christian countries in the world. But Hindus cannot go to such countries. Thus, the BJP is going to do humanitarian work by providing shelter and citizenship to them.”
Currently too, the ruling party has maintained the same voice in favour of bill. According to the BJP state spokesman, Rupam Goswami: “Our party has been clear since the beginning that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Christians forced to leave the neighbouring countries should be given shelter in India. The notion that is being spread that crores of Hindus from Bangladesh will land in Assam is unfounded.”
The Citizenship Amendment Bill is not sitting right with the Assamese as it violates the Assam Accord of 1985, According to the Assam Accord, illegal migrants who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, were to be deported. But this bill sets very different terms, as the voice of several protesters will probably attest. The ongoing NRC-updating process will also be badly affected, if the bill is passed as has been proposed.
Regarding the issue, Samujjal Bhattacharyya, chief advisor of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) said, “Assam will be the worst affected because while a large number of Hindus from Bangladesh have already illegally entered the state in the past several decades, more would come and seek to stay here, in the process causing a further damage to the state’s demography and reduce the Assamese and other indigenous communities into a minority.”
A group of citizens, including a group of intellectuals, asked all groups and parties cutting across ideologies to stand united against the Centre’s move. “This Bill will endanger language and culture of Assam and change the state’s demography once for all,” they had said, in an appeal.
Similarly, the main ally of the NDA in Assam, the Asom Gana Parisad (AGP), has also shown their unhappiness about the bill. They are also severely against of the passage of the bill. Condemning government’s support of the bill, they stated that it would render the Assam Accord meaningless and directly affect the identity of the Assamese and the other indigenous communities of the state.
The proposed bill’s provisions apply only to six communities from three countries. It excludes the Muslims, Jews and others communities. This raises serious questions over India’s supposed secularism and also leads to doubts over the argument that this bill has been proposed on humanitarian grounds.
The bill also seemingly violates Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners. Differentiating between the people along religious lines, especially when it comes to citizenship issues, would be in violation of the Constitution. In their protests, the activists had also termed the intentions of the bill as ‘communally-motivated humanitarianism’.
It would seem that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, fails to adhere to the provisions of the international refugee law. Here, it’s also important to mention that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, according to which granting refuge based on humanitarian considerations is arguably a norm of the customary international law.
According to a Wire article, there is confusing terminology associated with the bill. First, the bill seems to term minority religious people as migrants, when the matter isn’t as simple as one would imagine. A significant of these people are refugees, not migrants. The word migration refers to the voluntary movement of people from one place to another, primarily for the purpose of better economic prospects. On the other hand, seeking refuge is an act of involuntary, often enforced shifting of people from one place (or nation) to another, due to situations like war, ethnic cleansing, etc. The concerns of the refugees are mainly based on human rights and safety, not economic advantages. The purpose of the introduction of the Bill, as stated by the government, is to provide shelter to vulnerable, religiously-persecuted people whose fundamental human rights are at risk. But here, the correct terminology is most important, because the laws and policies for migrants and refugees are completely different.
Again, if we agree with the government that the motive of the government is to protect religiously-persecuted people in neighbouring countries, the question arises as to why the government is ignoring the Muslims. Muslims are also considerably discriminated against and exploited in the neighbouring countries of China, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. But their demands for seeking asylum in India have often fallen on deaf ears. The attitude of the government towards the Rohingya Muslims issues is one of the more recent and blatantly-shocking examples.
The proposed act also violates a tenet of India’s long-standing refugee policy, which mentioned that refugees should return to their homeland, once things turned normal again. The proposed law not only provides citizenship rights to such refugees, but also greatly relaxes the procedure of availing them.
It’s also important to realise that India does not have the resources to absorb anyone and everyone who crosses the border. The demography of the Indian territory is a large one. Population-wise too, India stands in the second position. Therefore, we need to think and plan wisely before opening our borders to every single refugee out there. Needless to say, giving asylum to refugees on humanitarian grounds and providing permanent citizenship to them are two very different things.
For a state like Assam to prosper economically, social and ethnic harmony also have to be maintained. As it is the state has lost several years worth of progress to movements, bandhs and militancy – and these have affected the economy badly. Therefore, the government needs to deal with the bill with maturity and wisdom.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.