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Changes to Citizenship Act stuck over inclusion of Bangladesh

The Congress and the Left are not in support of the bill in its current form and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has made it clear that it wants Bangladesh to be excluded from the purview of the bill, people in the know said.

india Updated: May 27, 2018 23:43 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Citizenship Act,NDA government,Assam
Demonstrators hold placards during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 proposal to provide citizenship or stay rights to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan in India, in Guwahati on May 7, 2018.(AFP File Photo)

Caught between apprehension by some Opposition parties and public protests in parts of Assam, the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act may hit a roadblock unless the government is willing to remove refugees from Bangladesh as beneficiaries, according to people familiar with the developments.

The Congress and the Left are not in support of the bill in its current form and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has made it clear that it wants Bangladesh to be excluded from the purview of the bill, the people in the know said.

The joint House panel headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Rajendra Agarwal cancelled its latest meeting on May 25, which according to a panel member who asked not to be named, was “an indication that the panel wants to tread cautiously and not prepare the report in haste”.

The amendments aim to 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. During the Assam Accord, the deadline for Bangladeshis was extended to March 25, 1971. “The new law allows citizenship for immigrants till December 31, 2014,” explained a senior member of the panel.

The bill was introduced in July 2016. It is pending with a joint panel.

“Under the Act, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The Bill relaxes this 11-year requirement to six years for persons belonging to the same six religions and three countries,” said a PRS legislative research analysis.

Members of the panel went to Assam, Rajasthan and Gujarat last month to talk to the stakeholders about the bill. “In meetings held in Jodhpur, Ahmedabad and Surat, people welcomed the bill. In Guwahati, people waited till 12.30am to meet us to oppose the bill,” said a second panel member on condition of anonymity.

In Assam, people in the Brahmaputra valley have opposed to the bill on the grounds that citizenship to Bangaldeshi Hindus might take a toll on the social fabric of a state that is battling the large-scale influx of people from across the border. But the Barak valley, or the lower part of the state which also shares its border with Bangladesh, wants the citizenship law.

“There is a vertical divide in Assam and it’s a sensitive issue,” said Bhartruhari Mahtab, the BJD’s Lok Sabha leader. Another leader added that the Opposition parties had indicated that the bill could be passed if the Bangladesh issue was kept aside for the time being.

Currently, the government has a scheme to grant long-term visas for such refugees to live in India. There has been a long-standing demand to grant them citizenship.

In a reply to Rajya Sabha question in the last session, minister of state for home affairs Kiren Rijijju had said, “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 Long Term Visas by the government during the last four years.

A government official refused to comment as the bill is pending before Parliament.

First Published: May 27, 2018 23:41 IST