What is the Controversy Behind Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019?

Home Minister Amit Shah had introduced the controversial Bill in the Lok Sabha on Monday, 9 December.

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A file photo of an activist being detained by police personnel during a strike against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, in Dibrugarh, on  8 January.
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Snapshot

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act came into being on 11 December 2019 after the controversial Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha. The Bill had earlier been passed in the Lok Sabha on 9 December, after Home Minister Amit Shah introduced it in the House.

Amid the political uproar, regional clashes, and the Opposition’s belief that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is using the Act to appeal to Hindus ahead of the 2024 elections, here’s all you need to know about it.

What is the Controversy Behind Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019?

  1. 1. What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019?

    The erstwhile Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha on 19 July 2016.

    It aims to make illegal migrants – who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – eligible for citizenship, on the basis of religion. It offer citizenship to these six identified non-Muslim minorities who reportedly fled from India’s neighbouring countries due to ‘religious persecution’.

    This aims to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which did not allow citizenship to any kind of illegal migrants. The Act seems to be a follow up of the promise made by the BJP in 2014, to grant citizenship to Hindus persecuted in the neighbouring countries. In the BJP manifesto for the 2014 elections, the party had promised to welcome Hindu refugees and provide shelter to them.

    It also relaxes the Act’s requirement of an applicant securing citizenship by naturalisation, where for people belonging to the same six religions and three countries, it relaxes the 11-year requirement for the applicant to reside in India to six years.

    It also states that the registration of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders can be cancelled if they “violate any law”. The OCI is an immigration status which allows a foreign citizen of Indian origin to live and work in India, indefinitely. The Act, however, will only take into account the grant of citizenship to those who migrated to India before 31 December, 2014.

    In many ways, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 aims to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which has specific provisions listing out who can be considered eligible for citizenship.

    Expand
  2. 2. What is the Citizenship Act, 1955?

    The Citizenship Act 1955 grants citizenship by birth based on birth dates, a TISS research paper noted. By its definition:

    A person born between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 is seen as a citizen of India by birth, while those born between 1 July 1987 and 3 December 2004 is a citizen by birth only if either of their parents was a citizen of India at the time. Similarly, those born on or after 3 December 2004 is a citizen of India by birth, only if both parents were citizens of India at the time, or if one of the parents was a citizen and the other was not an illegal migrant.

    An illegal migrant is one who enters India without valid travel papers or those whose travel papers have expired – and thus cannot acquire Indian citizenship as per the Citizenship Act 1955.

    Apart from this, the government, by the virtue of this Act, allowed for citizenship by registration to a person of Indian origin who has lived in India for seven years before applying for registration, a person of Indian origin who resides in any country outside undivided India and a person married to an Indian citizen and who has lived in India for seven years. The government may also allow a minor child to be registered as a citizen, if it is satisfied that there are special circumstances

    Along with this, the Citizenship Act can allow a foreigner to also acquire citizenship by naturalisation, provided he or she is not an illegal migrant and has stayed in India for a certain period of time:

    • For 12 consecutive months before the application for citizenship was filed.
    • For 11 of the 14 years before this 12-month period.
    Expand
  3. 3. What is the Constitutional Validity of the Proposed Amendment?

    The main objection by those protesting the Act is that it harms the ideals of the Indian Constitution.

    For starters, the fact that the Act seeks the grant of citizenship to these six specific religions – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – and omits other religious minorities like Muslims and Jews, goes against the very clause of secularism professed in the Constitution. This provision stands to violate the right to equality that is guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution, as it provides “differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion”, the PRS report states.

    The relaxation of the 11-year criteria to six years for citizenship by naturalisation for persons belonging to these specific religious communities, also poses a similar ousting of people belonging to other such communities.

    Apurva Thakur, Assistant Professor in Law, observes in EPW:

    “This kind of religious outlook is antithetical to the concept of secularism espoused in the Constitution. Moreover, the provision of relaxing of the criteria of 11 years to six years to gain citizenship by naturalisation, for the persons belonging to these religious communities, is on similarly orthodox lines. Such a condition makes it tough for persons of other religions, most notably, Islam and Judaism, to enter the fold of Indian citizenship, making it seem like a targeted ousting practice of these religions.”
    Expand
  4. 4. Why Is Assam Against the Act?

    The Act has particular repercussions for Assam (which shares a border with Bangladesh – one of the three countries specified in the Act), because it affects the Assam Accord. The Assam Accord is a Memorandum of Settlement that was signed on 15 August 1985, which marked the culmination of a prolonged agitation that was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979, seeking the deportation of illegal immigrants in the state, a UN report stated. According to this Accord, it was decided that those immigrants who entered Assam after 1971– the year of the Bangladeshi War of Liberation, which witnessed a massive influx of Bangladeshi migrants – would be deported.

    Members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti staging a naked protest against the Bill being passed.
    Members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti staging a naked protest against the Bill being passed.
    (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@DrLakhimiGogoi)

    The protesting organisations in Assam, led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, have maintained that the Assam Accord must be preserved, as the reason it was signed in the first place was due to the fear among those originating from the state, that they would be overpowered by the Bangladeshi immigrants – who were predominantly Muslim. Back then, they had accused Pakistan of attempting to change the state’s demography.

    Expand
  5. 5. What Were the Opposition's Objections to the Act Earlier

    Protesting against the passage of the Bill, Opposition parties have pointed out that the BJP-led government has used the face of ‘religious persecution’ of these minorities, as its basis to have this Bill passed in the Parliament, all the while claiming that it is India’s ‘duty’ to protect them. Simply put, since the Act seeks to offer protection to all non-Muslim migrants, Opposition parties have claimed that the BJP-led government is using the Bill to appeal to Hindu voters ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

    Calling it ‘divisive’, some of the parties, including the Congress and the TMC, have asked for it to be sent back for re-examination by a parliamentary committee and said that it should instead be a “secular Bill”, which would offer citizenship to any minority community facing religious persecution, IANS reported.

    Congress workers protesting against Bill being passed.
    Congress workers protesting against Bill being passed.
    (Photo: ANI)

    “Citizenship Amendment Bill will set fire to Assam and the Northeast. No objection for refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan but make this a secular Bill. Why mention only six religions. Do not mention only three countries,” said TMC leader, Sougata Ray, Hindustan Times reported.

    They have also claimed that the erstwhile Bill will further the alienation of the Northeastern states from the rest of the country, especially Assam as the Bill went against the Assam Accord of 1985.

    Expand
  6. 6. How Does the Act Affect NRC List?

    The National Register of Citizens (NRC) list set out to detect Bangladeshi nationals who may have entered the state illegally after the midnight of 24 March, 1971 – a cut-off date that was decided in the Assam Accord.

    According to those protesting against the Act, it goes against the process of updating the NRC list – while the Act aims to provide non-Muslim refugees persecuted in neighbouring countries the grant of citizenship, the NRC does not distinguish migrants on the basis of any religion, and is expected to deport any such migrant who entered the state after the cut-off date, The Hindu states.

    Furthermore, several detention camps have been set up in Assam for these illegal migrants whose names are not on the NRC list, with the process for their deportation being set up by the government, The Hindu reported. With the Bill being passed, it could mean that out of these, the Non-Muslim migrants need not go through this process of deportation at all, which would indicate this government’s clear-cut bias against the undocumented Muslim migrants.

    (This was first published on 9 January 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on account of the Bill being cleared in Parliament.)

    Expand

What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019?

The erstwhile Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha on 19 July 2016.

It aims to make illegal migrants – who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – eligible for citizenship, on the basis of religion. It offer citizenship to these six identified non-Muslim minorities who reportedly fled from India’s neighbouring countries due to ‘religious persecution’.

This aims to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which did not allow citizenship to any kind of illegal migrants. The Act seems to be a follow up of the promise made by the BJP in 2014, to grant citizenship to Hindus persecuted in the neighbouring countries. In the BJP manifesto for the 2014 elections, the party had promised to welcome Hindu refugees and provide shelter to them.

It also relaxes the Act’s requirement of an applicant securing citizenship by naturalisation, where for people belonging to the same six religions and three countries, it relaxes the 11-year requirement for the applicant to reside in India to six years.

It also states that the registration of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card-holders can be cancelled if they “violate any law”. The OCI is an immigration status which allows a foreign citizen of Indian origin to live and work in India, indefinitely. The Act, however, will only take into account the grant of citizenship to those who migrated to India before 31 December, 2014.

In many ways, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 aims to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, which has specific provisions listing out who can be considered eligible for citizenship.

What is the Citizenship Act, 1955?

The Citizenship Act 1955 grants citizenship by birth based on birth dates, a TISS research paper noted. By its definition:

A person born between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 is seen as a citizen of India by birth, while those born between 1 July 1987 and 3 December 2004 is a citizen by birth only if either of their parents was a citizen of India at the time. Similarly, those born on or after 3 December 2004 is a citizen of India by birth, only if both parents were citizens of India at the time, or if one of the parents was a citizen and the other was not an illegal migrant.

An illegal migrant is one who enters India without valid travel papers or those whose travel papers have expired – and thus cannot acquire Indian citizenship as per the Citizenship Act 1955.

Apart from this, the government, by the virtue of this Act, allowed for citizenship by registration to a person of Indian origin who has lived in India for seven years before applying for registration, a person of Indian origin who resides in any country outside undivided India and a person married to an Indian citizen and who has lived in India for seven years. The government may also allow a minor child to be registered as a citizen, if it is satisfied that there are special circumstances

Along with this, the Citizenship Act can allow a foreigner to also acquire citizenship by naturalisation, provided he or she is not an illegal migrant and has stayed in India for a certain period of time:

  • For 12 consecutive months before the application for citizenship was filed.
  • For 11 of the 14 years before this 12-month period.

What is the Constitutional Validity of the Proposed Amendment?

The main objection by those protesting the Act is that it harms the ideals of the Indian Constitution.

For starters, the fact that the Act seeks the grant of citizenship to these six specific religions – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – and omits other religious minorities like Muslims and Jews, goes against the very clause of secularism professed in the Constitution. This provision stands to violate the right to equality that is guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution, as it provides “differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion”, the PRS report states.

The relaxation of the 11-year criteria to six years for citizenship by naturalisation for persons belonging to these specific religious communities, also poses a similar ousting of people belonging to other such communities.

Apurva Thakur, Assistant Professor in Law, observes in EPW:

“This kind of religious outlook is antithetical to the concept of secularism espoused in the Constitution. Moreover, the provision of relaxing of the criteria of 11 years to six years to gain citizenship by naturalisation, for the persons belonging to these religious communities, is on similarly orthodox lines. Such a condition makes it tough for persons of other religions, most notably, Islam and Judaism, to enter the fold of Indian citizenship, making it seem like a targeted ousting practice of these religions.”

Why Is Assam Against the Act?

The Act has particular repercussions for Assam (which shares a border with Bangladesh – one of the three countries specified in the Act), because it affects the Assam Accord. The Assam Accord is a Memorandum of Settlement that was signed on 15 August 1985, which marked the culmination of a prolonged agitation that was launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in 1979, seeking the deportation of illegal immigrants in the state, a UN report stated. According to this Accord, it was decided that those immigrants who entered Assam after 1971– the year of the Bangladeshi War of Liberation, which witnessed a massive influx of Bangladeshi migrants – would be deported.

Members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti staging a naked protest against the Bill being passed.
Members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti staging a naked protest against the Bill being passed.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@DrLakhimiGogoi)

The protesting organisations in Assam, led by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, have maintained that the Assam Accord must be preserved, as the reason it was signed in the first place was due to the fear among those originating from the state, that they would be overpowered by the Bangladeshi immigrants – who were predominantly Muslim. Back then, they had accused Pakistan of attempting to change the state’s demography.

What Were the Opposition's Objections to the Act Earlier

Protesting against the passage of the Bill, Opposition parties have pointed out that the BJP-led government has used the face of ‘religious persecution’ of these minorities, as its basis to have this Bill passed in the Parliament, all the while claiming that it is India’s ‘duty’ to protect them. Simply put, since the Act seeks to offer protection to all non-Muslim migrants, Opposition parties have claimed that the BJP-led government is using the Bill to appeal to Hindu voters ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Calling it ‘divisive’, some of the parties, including the Congress and the TMC, have asked for it to be sent back for re-examination by a parliamentary committee and said that it should instead be a “secular Bill”, which would offer citizenship to any minority community facing religious persecution, IANS reported.

Congress workers protesting against Bill being passed.
Congress workers protesting against Bill being passed.
(Photo: ANI)

“Citizenship Amendment Bill will set fire to Assam and the Northeast. No objection for refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan but make this a secular Bill. Why mention only six religions. Do not mention only three countries,” said TMC leader, Sougata Ray, Hindustan Times reported.

They have also claimed that the erstwhile Bill will further the alienation of the Northeastern states from the rest of the country, especially Assam as the Bill went against the Assam Accord of 1985.

How Does the Act Affect NRC List?

The National Register of Citizens (NRC) list set out to detect Bangladeshi nationals who may have entered the state illegally after the midnight of 24 March, 1971 – a cut-off date that was decided in the Assam Accord.

According to those protesting against the Act, it goes against the process of updating the NRC list – while the Act aims to provide non-Muslim refugees persecuted in neighbouring countries the grant of citizenship, the NRC does not distinguish migrants on the basis of any religion, and is expected to deport any such migrant who entered the state after the cut-off date, The Hindu states.

Furthermore, several detention camps have been set up in Assam for these illegal migrants whose names are not on the NRC list, with the process for their deportation being set up by the government, The Hindu reported. With the Bill being passed, it could mean that out of these, the Non-Muslim migrants need not go through this process of deportation at all, which would indicate this government’s clear-cut bias against the undocumented Muslim migrants.

(This was first published on 9 January 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives on account of the Bill being cleared in Parliament.)

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