The Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 introduced by the government in parliament looks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955. The bill has received a lot of flak from all sections of society particularly in the Northeast. It faces strong resistance in the Northeast and even NDA allies are threatening to break ties if the bill becomes an act.
1. Amending the Citizenship Act 1955 and changing the definition of an illegal immigrant. According to the previous act, any person who doesn’t have proper documents will be termed as an illegal immigrant. According to the new act, people of the following religions from three countries will not be treated as an illegal immigrant: Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
2. The previous act had provisions for people living in India to receive citizenship through naturalization. According to the previous act a person must have lived in the country for 11 years preceding the application submission of citizenship. This bill reduces that to 6 years.
3. This bill says that registration of OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) cardholders will be canceled if they violate any law.
This bill has passed in the Lok Sabha but is receiving major criticism across the country especially in the Northeast. The biggest drawback of this bill is that it divides people on the basis of religion which is against the values of our constitution.
Illegal immigration has been a major issue in the Northeast. The region has witnessed many agitations against illegal immigrants for decades now. The citizenship bill has tried to redefine the definition of illegal immigrant and that has caused a lot of concern in Northeast.
The bill tries to discriminate between religions and ignores Muslim minorities in neighboring countries. But, the biggest concern of people in Northeast is that the bill undermines the effect of the Assam Accord signed in 1985. According to the Assam Accord, any person who can’t prove their ancestor’s presence in India before March 24 1971 will be deemed as an illegal immigrant.
The Assam Accord didn’t discriminate on the basis of religion and it ended the 6-year long agitation against illegal immigration in the state of Assam. However, the Citizenship Amendment Bill has tried to change the definition of illegal immigrants and excluded religious minorities from the illegal immigrant list.
Bengali Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh to India constitute a major chunk of illegal immigrants in Assam. According to the new bill however, they will no more be illegal immigrants and can be granted citizenship.
This has caused a lot of distress in Assam as it violates the Assam Accord. Asom Gana Parishad, an NDA ally in the state has threatened to break ties if the bill is passed. This bill has caused communal divides in Assam to resurface which is not good for the growth of the Northeast.
The bill looks to provide a safe home to prosecuted refugees in neighboring countries of India. Many religious minorities in neighboring countries have to face a lot of discrimination and violence due to their identity. The want to provide a safe shelter to them can be understood.
The problem arises when the government ignores Muslim religious minorities like Shias and Ahmadiyyas. Muslim minorities also face a lot of discrimination on the basis of religion. This can raise a question on the intention of the government behind the bill. The ideological leanings can also be seen through this bill. This bill promotes a hardline approach to the problem rather than a humanitarian one.
National Register of Citizens is a register containing names of every genuine Indian citizen. It is currently being updated in Assam. The NRC is being updated to identify illegal immigrants and send them back to their country of origin. But this bill changes the scenario now, as the definition of illegal immigrants changes.
Bengali Hindus who were declared illegal immigrants by the NRC are now legal by the current clauses of the bill. This nullifies the process of NRC and seriously affects the demographic of the region. This bill does not clear the plan and leaves the future of people undecided.
Confusion regarding the NRC can prove fatal for the process as it is coming to an end. This bill can undo a lot of hard work and can destroy the hopes of the people of Assam. The dilemma has been caused due to this process and what lies ahead is still a big question mark for the people of Assam.
The two of the most important valleys of Assam, the Brahmaputra valley and Barak valley have always witnessed tensions. Barak Valley has a concentrated population of Bengali refugees and Brahmaputra valley has a population of indigenous Assamese people.
People in the Barak Valley complain that they have been termed infiltrators wrongly. People here are in favor of the bill and want it passed which will make them a citizen of the country. Assam people are afraid that opening the floodgates for refugees will destroy their culture and make them a minority.
The bill has brought back tensions between these two valleys and it will be important that things are resolved as soon as possible. People in Barak Valley are unsure of their future and where they will they go if they are termed an illegal immigrant.
The scene in the Brahmaputra Valley is different as they protest against the bill. All Assam Students Union, a strong student body which led the 6-year agitation in the 1980s and was instrumental in the legislation of Assam Accord says that the agreement is final and there will be no further talk on this issue. They claim that that they don’t want the state to become a dumping ground for foreigners.
The road ahead for the BJP is difficult as pressure builds on them. Allies like AGP have already voiced their concern. Sarbananda Sonowal, CM of Assam who also comes from AASU is in a tough position. Going against the bill puts him against the party line.
Protests have continued in the Northeast and it will be interesting to see how the BJP responds to this. As our country has followed a set of liberal traditions when it comes to refugees, people prosecuted in different countries can find shelter here without threatening the core principle of our civilization.
India has always accepted diverse groups of people and provided help when needed. But, discrimination on the basis of religion has never been a tradition of Indian society and it should not affect who we accept as a refugee.
Every person who wants to find a safe home for themselves can come to this country without the cultural fabric of the land being threatened, because the basic principle of our culture is acceptance.
India can prove to be a leader in the subject of humanity if it can rise above the religious division. No bill which discriminates on the basis of identity should be made into an act by the parliament. Our social fabric has always remained strong and will continue to remain so only if we understand, accept and respect the diversity we have.
On another note, the bill does not make it clear what level of charges will lead to the cancellation of the OCI cardholder registration.
Various other factors and strong resistance has caused a bumpy ride for the government to pass the bill. It now remains as an ideological promise of the ruling government.