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Bengal political rivals tie up on Citizenship Act

The Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - arch rivals in the political theatre of West Bengal - have come together to oppose amendments to the Citizenship Act that aims to allow non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens.

india Updated: Nov 28, 2018 10:25 IST
HT correspondent
HT correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Bengal politics,TMC bengal,Congress TMC
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee(HT file photo)

The Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) - arch rivals in the political theatre of West Bengal - have come together to oppose amendments to the Citizenship Act that aims to allow non-Muslims from three neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens. Their demand is that no further changes should be allowed in the law.

The amendments relax the deadline for minorities - Hindus, Sikhs and Christians - from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have taken shelter in this country to become Indian citizens. According to the original law, only those minorities who came to India from these countries before 1958 are eligible to become Indian citizens.

During the Assam Accord in 1985, the deadline for minorities from Bangladesh to register was extended to March 25, 1971. Then came the new amendment.

“The new law allows citizenship for immigrants who have come till December 31, 2014,” said an Opposition leader.

The bill, pending before Parliament, also aims to amend the current act’s section 2 by adding the a proviso.

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The proviso is: Provided that persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan…. shall not be treated as illegal migrants for the purposes of this act”- in clause (b) sub-section (1). It also reduces the time that the migrant has spent in India from the mandatory 12 to six years.

The three Opposition parties have decided to jointly demand the exclusion of the term “minority communities” (and the bit about “Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan”) from the bill. “The phrase minority community is the core of the bill and removal of this term effectively means that the bill is rendered useless,” said a senior member of the Trinamool Congress, which wants the bill to be scrapped. The three Opposition parties are also opposed to the bill because they believe any effort to pass it may create a volatile situation in Assam.

In Assam’s Brahmaputra valley, there have been widespread protests against the bill because locals are apprehensive that citizenship to Bangaldeshi Hindus might distort the social fabric of the state that is already battling the large-scale influx of people from across the border. But the Barak valley, or the lower part of the state which has a substantial Bengali-speaking population of Hindus from Bangladesh, wants the citizenship law.

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“The whole edifice of Indian Constitution and its democratic fabric is based on the notion of citizenship being decided not on the basis of any religious background. The BJP now wants to grant citizenship on the basis of religious identity and that will be inimical to the legacy of freedom struggle. We will oppose the bill tooth and nail,” said CPI(M) politburo leader Nilotpal Basu.

The Trinamool leader added, “We don’t want the specific community names such as Christians or Hindus to be part of the bill. This is a polite way of rejecting the entire bill. Wherever possible, we will move amendments.”

Opposing the “very idea” of the bill, senior Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, “The proposed amendments go against the roots and identity of India. We were created out of partition as we refused to accept a theological identity. Today, if you define citizenship on basis of religion, then you defeat the very idea of our Constitution.”

While the three Opposition parties have decided to move amendments to the bill, the Biju Janata Dal has decided to oppose the inclusion of Bangladesh. “We have toured different border states and the sense is that states such as Rajasthan or Punjab are ready to welcome any immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan but Assam is dead against immigration from Bangladesh. So, I will move an amendment to exclude Bangladesh and include Sri Lanka in this bill,” said Bhartruhari Mahtab, BJD’s Lok Sabha floor leader.

A government official refused to comment saying that the bill is in Parliament. Earlier, the BJP had planned a campaign across the states in support of the bill.

In the last Budget session, minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijiju informed Rajya Sabha that, “Though India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol thereon, its track record in dealing with or providing protection to refugees has been internationally acclaimed. There is a provision for grant of Long Term Visa (LTV) under various instructions issued by the government from time to time. As per the available information, 486 Myanmar nationals (Rohingyas) and 2,154 Afghanistan nationals are staying in India on LTV as in 2016.”

The Rajya Sabha was also informed that more than 11,000 Pakistani nationals have been granted LTVs by the government during the last four years.

Former parliamentary affairs secretary Afzal Amanullah maintained that the government should not rush into passing the bill but try to build a consensus. “If there are serious objections to the bill that deals with immigration, it is always beneficial to have a wider consultation with stakeholders and try to push the bill only through a political consensus.”

First Published: Nov 28, 2018 10:25 IST