Citizenship Act: What You Need To Know To Understand Why India Is Protesting

On December 12, 2019, the BJP-led Government of India passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that offers citizenship rights to “any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014.”

The Citizenship Amendment Act is an amendment to the earlier Citizenship Act of 1955 which was created in the aftermath of the partition of the country to define lines of citizenship within the territory of newly-formed India.

A nationwide uproar erupted right after the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) 2019 was tabled at the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and with the passage of the Act, deeming it to be unconstitutional, divisive, unsecular, and a threat. Northeastern states, and especially Assam, erupted in protests against the threats to identity and culture posed by the Act with the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh.

Muslims in the country opposed the Act because of the threat of being reduced to minorities with the significant influx of non-Muslims (through fast track citizenship under the provisions of the 2019 Act as per Citizenship Act 1955) and the way Muslims from the three countries have not been included in this process.

However, according to the Citizenship Act 1955, Muslims from these three countries or any other country can still acquire Indian citizenship through the existing naturalisation rule, which is a lengthier process. In the wider context, it was seen as a threat of right-wing propaganda towards the creation of imagined Hindu rashtra (nation) through divisive politics and expanding the vote bank on religious lines.

This article systematically dissects and analyses the Act and the repercussions it holds from different perspectives.

Legal And Political Ambiguities:

1. The Bill was tabled with the two underpinnings that the Act would safeguard and provide citizenship rights for only the ‘religiously persecuted‘ (implying all the Non-Muslim communities) in the three Islamic states while also keeping with the spirit of Article 14 of the Constitution, i.e. Right to Equality. The government, therefore, claimed not to undertake any activity or measure to violate any person’s right to neither equality, nor withholding any current citizen’s citizenship, on the grounds of religion within the country.

Cover Image
A woman shouts slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Photo: Reuters

However, an inherent flaw occurs when the same Bill, passed under President’s discretion into an Act, uses the phrase ‘any person…’ and has no mention of the previously used term ‘religiously persecuted’. Therefore, apart from broadening the category of those who are eligible for citizenship from a section of affected non-Muslim communities, it tends to expand it all.

The question then, is what justifies providing citizenship to the entire sections of Hindus or Christians, or Parsis? More importantly, the government’s basis of “reasonably classifying” persecuted religious groups, i.e., the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians needs clarification.

If the Government still holds on to ‘religious persecution’ as an inclusion-criteria, how does one prove persecution that dates back to 1947, and what is the mechanism of implementation? The Act holds no answers. Similarly, the date of rolling out implementation of the Act has also been left to the government’s discretion. The Act, published in the official Gazette of India, is merely a notification, with no explanation on the strategies of implementation.

2. While CAA and NRC are separate agenda, to understand the context, one has to look at the NRC and trace it to the CAA. The NRC exercise was undertaken under Supreme Court orders to sort out ‘genuine citizens’ from the undocumented who are termed ‘illegal’ setters in Assam, following the writ petitions seeking for addressing the problem of illegal immigration of Bangladeshis, as per the Assam Accord.

Throughout the years, several ambiguities emerged in terms of documents that were seen as acceptable for NRC, especially as it meant linking affiliation to ancestors who came to India before March 24, 1971. This back-and-forth resulted in the elimination of several low-income families from the list due to a dearth of available documents.

Moreover, no implementation decision was taken on what was to be done with those identified as ‘illegal‘ through the process. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) that followed the flawed NRC exercise throttled the entire underpinning on which NRC was undertaken, which incurred an expenditure of ₹1220 crore. CAB, in-turn, decided to include an entirely new set of communities from three countries within the Indian territory. Thus, the threat to political, ethnic identities, which necessitated the NRC, was snapped by a CAB that clearly poses a threat.

3. There is a major gap between what is on paper and in implementing the provisions as promised. The Act excludes areas covered by the Inner Line Permit (ILP) and those under the Sixth Schedule. What we need to remember is that with a porous border shared by the North-east states with Bangladesh, that has not been sealed and strengthened for decades now, the influx will continue ‘illegally’.

Secondly, as the 2012 ethnic tensions between Bodos and Bengali Muslims showed, there is no clear terms or systems by which areas under Sixth Schedule will be protected from ‘illegal‘ settlements. Having said that, Assam will not fall under the ILP and only 7 out of 33 districts will be under the Sixth Schedule.

Implications On The Economy And On Development

A higher influx of population in one region would cause several backlashes to the economy and development of the state.

1. Within the multidimensional poverty index, Assam is counted among the poorest. In 2018, the Finance Ministry had released a statement concerned with Assam’s low per capita GDP (₹67,620) much less than the national average (₹1,03,780): “Demographic diversities give rise to myriad socio-cultural conditions and contingencies offering developmental challenges of various forms.”

A road, completely waterlogged in Assam. (Photo: Monjit Bora/Facebook)

While there has been no real improvement in the economy (and, on the other hand, a tremendous slowdown of the tea industry due to high production costs), ironically the statement echoes to the repercussions that CAB holds.

2. Assam is struggling with an equally abysmal unemployment rate, with about 17 lakh-educated youth being unemployed. Close to unemployment, is the issue of land. Assam is predominantly an agrarian economy, and an influx of population implies a crisis in the access to land, increasing the chances of encroachment.

3. The state has the worst health outcomes, with a high Maternal Mortality Rate and very high Infant Mortality Rates. Only 43% of the total population utilise public health services and at the same, time incurs higher out-of-pocket expenditures, both at public and private institutions (higher than the national averages), according to the NSSO, 75th round.

4. The geography of the state makes it volatile, due to changes in the river course, makes it susceptible to several environmental hazards such as annual floods and high risk of earthquakes. A state that grapples with these hazards clearly does not have the bandwidth to accommodate more.

5. In terms of protection, only those under the Sixth Schedule are outside the ambit of the Act. However, the Act clearly overlooks the marginalised populations, including the tea labourers, the communities residing in inaccessible riverine islands, the urban poor and the rural, and those in remote areas of the state. With an overall scarcity of resources, and with changes in demography because of the influx, marginalised groups will further be alienated from the discourse of development.

With constraints in resources, public facilities and provisions that are affecting the current population of the state, the influx will have a huge overbearing, pushing the state several milestones backwards.

Socio-Demographic And Cultural Implications

This is one of the biggest predicaments that challenge the Act. The second-most populous country, with an already 1.3 billion population, 70% living in rural areas and 22% under poverty, the country talks of accommodating a significant proportion of the population of three neighbouring countries!

Demographically, Assam’s core argument is the threat the mass influx will have on its identity, language, and culture. Currently, 48% of the population of the state is Assamese-speaking, and with the Act, the state, with its ethnic identity, will have the proportion of Assamese-speaking population reduced with the inclusion of Bengali speaking population from Bangladesh. This will have implications on identity assertion, that could lead to ethnic identity clashes.

Meanwhile, Muslims see it as a threat of being systematically excluded with a mass influx of non-Muslims. This implies them being further shrunk to a minority that could undermine their religious identity, with their presence in a predominant Hindu populated nation run by a right-wing government.

The communal tensions that shroud the country will lead to several similarities like what the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar faced, with the passage of the Act.

The Act also has repercussions on the lakhs of individuals who find themselves excluded from the NRC. Impinging on citizenship as the prime basis, and the outcomes stated in the NRC for those excluded who will be deemed as ‘illegal’, and threats of deportation, will affect this section adversely. At the same time, one needs to be aware that, in the entire exercise of the NRC, flaws in the process led to the exclusion of several eligible members from the list.

There are implications on the way voting would be shaped, with the selective inclusion of certain populations within the country. This clearly is a deja vu moment for the Assamese community, a reminder of the 1978 elections leading to massive agitation and massacres (such as the Nellie massacre) leading to a huge setback in terms of loss of lives, injury and effect on the politics and economy. The Act is also being seen as a betrayal of the Assam Accord signed by the then-government and the representatives of the movement. Conveniently enough, the Accord (by its very nature not having a legal mandate for implementation) has been thwarted and replaced by the CAA.

The question then is – is India so developed a nation and so self-sufficient in resources, so low in the index on violence that it can undertake a mammoth ‘humanitarian task’ of granting citizenship to millions of foreigners on vague undefined grounds, without clarity on proof, by dint of ‘being religiously persecuted’ in their countries? And at what cost? The cost of several uprisings and massive outbreaks in the country creating a dent in the overall health and economy of the existing citizens, of the many deaths and injuries meted by the citizens during a surge of protests against the Act? With the entire nation and its people saying no to the Act?

About the authors: Manisha Dutta is a development professional, and Stutee Bordoloi is a legal practitioner.

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