Contentious citizenship bill approved by Cabinet
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, gives Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians if they entered India from the three nearby countries on or before December 31, 2014. It may be placed before Parliament next week.Updated: Dec 04, 2019 23:24 IST
The Union Cabinet cleared on Wednesday a draft legislation that proposes citizenship for religious minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, fulfilling a key election promise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and setting the stage for a parliamentary showdown with opposition parties that have called the move divisive.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, gives Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians if they entered India from the three nearby countries on or before December 31, 2014. It may be placed before Parliament next week.
The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 but is likely to stoke protests in the north-eastern region that has long complained of an influx of illegal immigrants and opposed a previous version of the bill earlier this year.
The government said the draft bill was aimed at three goals: equity, accountability and innovation; and that the bill would apply to those people “who were forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the ground of religion or fear of such persecution in his country”.
Union minister of information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar told reporters that the proposed legislation addressed everyone’s interests. “People will welcome it as it is in the interest of the nation,” he added.
The proposed legislation treats religious minority groups who seek refuge in India as “deemed citizens”. The draft bill says all criminal cases against them for illegal migration will stand abated and they will be deemed to be an Indian citizen from the date of their entry into the country. Such people will be naturalised citizens.
In addition, the number of years required for obtaining naturalised citizenship of India is proposed to be reduced from the current 11 years to five years.
There are two notable exceptions that were absent in the previous version of the bill that passed in the Lok Sabha in January but triggered massive protests. The first are the tribal areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, which deals with autonomous tribal-dominated regions in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
The second are areas covered under the inner-line permit (ILP) regime, under which non-locals need prior permission before visiting these areas. Such regions exist in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram.
The draft bill also empowers the government to withdraw someone’s Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status if they violate any provision of the new Citizenship Act or provisions of any other law.
Providing citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan was a key election promise of the BJP, which has been vocal in the past about the alleged persecution of Hindus in these countries. The bill was first introduced in 2016 and passed the Lower House in January but was stalled in the Upper House, where the government lacks a majority.
A top official said the bill was reworked by the Union home ministry after home minister Amit Shah held several rounds of negotiations with social groups, political groupings and representatives from the north-east.
But several Opposition parties said they continue to oppose the draft bill, which they said linked citizenship to religion and therefore violated the Constitution. “I think the bill is fundamentally unconstitutional because the basic idea of India has been violated in the bill,” said senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. Three-time Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the Congress will move the Supreme Court against the amendments that he called “unconstitutional” and “divisive”.
“The Congress will move the SC because we believe that CAB is unconstitutional and against the spirit of secularism. It is divisive, and violates the constitutional provision - equality for all. There cannot be division on basis of religion, caste or creed,” he said in a tweet.
But a number of BJP leaders said they had worked hard to get many parties on board and were confident of the bill’s passage in the Rajya Sabha. “There was huge outreach by Amit Shah. In a span of three months, and over 110 hours, he met at least 600 individuals and organisations and political leaders to hear their concerns. We are hopeful that the passage of the bill will be a smooth affair and there will be no anger in the north-east,” said senior BJP leader and Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
In the north-east, especially in Assam, many civil society groups said they will hit the streets to protest against the bill because it made a distinction between illegal immigrants on the basis of faith. “It is an insult to the injury of the people of Assam. We will continue to oppose it,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, the chief adviser to the All Assam Students Union (AASU), a signatory to the 1985 Assam Accord.
The protesters feel that the draft bill will dilute the Assam Accord that promises deportation of any illegal foreigners who arrived after March 24, 1971, a day before the war of liberation in Bangladesh began. The AASU and 30 other organisations said they will hold demonstrations against the bill.
Groups in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh said they will join the protests. “We are opposed to the bill. The move to exempt some areas is an attempt to divide the people of north-east,” said Hawa Bawang, president of the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union.
(With inputs from Sadiq Naqvi in Guwahati)