The Citizenship Amendment Bill is ready for legislative test in Parliament. It is expected to be tabled early next week. This Citizenship Amendment Bill differs from the one that was passed by the Lok Sabha earlier this year but lapsed with the term of the previous Lok Sabha.
The new draft of the Citizenship Amendment Bill has left out areas mentioned in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution in Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura, along with areas requiring Inner Line Permit, that is, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill, if and when passed by Parliament, will amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 introducing exceptional provisions for acquiring citizenship for non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
WHAT IS NEW IN CITIZENSHIP BILL?
The existing Citizenship Act offers a foreigner living in India to apply for citizenship provided she meets some conditions, including that she has stayed in India or served the government for 12 months immediately preceding the application and must have stayed for 11 of the preceding 14 years in India.
The new Citizenship Bill reduces this number to six years for non-Muslim foreigners from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The government says such persons would be granted citizenship if they left their parent country due to persecution on religious ground – simply put, if they faced harassment at the hands of Muslims.
The existing law prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship. The new Citizenship Bill allows them to acquire citizenship even if they entered India using illegal means if the illegal immigrants are non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
WHY THIS RUCKUS?
The Citizenship Amendment Bill led to furore among political parties as well as in the civil society. They accused the Narendra Modi government of working on a divisive agenda by discriminating against Muslim immigrants from the three countries.
There is no concrete data to tell exactly how many illegal immigrants are there in India and their religious affiliation is also not conclusively known. However, the popular assumption is that majority of the illegal immigrants – refugees as well as intruders – are Muslims.
This assumption gains from the fact that Bangladeshis comprise the largest bloc of illegal immigrants in India. In July 2004, the UPA government had told Parliament that there were 1.20 crore illegal Bangladeshis in India.
ILLEGAL IN INDIA
West Bengal had maximum 57 lakh of them followed by Assam, where 50 lakh Bangladeshis lived illegally, then Union minister Sriprakash Jaiswal had told Parliament but withdrew his statement following an outcry.
The number of Bangladeshis living illegally in India was put at 2 crore by Union minister Kiren Rijiju in the Rajya Sabha in 2016. He did not get into numbers for specific states.
Besides illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, there are estimates of around 13,000 people from Afghanistan living illegally in India. Some 7,000-10,000 people from Pakistan are in India without valid documents.
Then there are around 40,000 Rohingya and between 50,000 to 1 lakh Chin people from Myanmar are staying in India illegally. While the government has said it would deport the Rohingya – an ethnic Muslim community who fled their homeland in Rakhine province of Myanmar following persecution at the hands of government agencies – from India, not much is heard about Chin immigrants, most of who are in Mizoram.
However, both these groups remain unaffected by the Citizenship Amendment Bill which has raised concerns for misuse. Since the Citizenship Amendment Bill provides for citizenship to any Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain and Christian if she has been persecuted for her religious belief.
THE GORDIAN KNOT
This bill relies too heavily on the claim of religious persecution at the hands of Muslims in the applicant’s parent country.
It is not yet clear as to how the Government of India will ascertain whether the applicant was actually persecuted in her parent country for following a particular religion.
None of the three countries – for that matter no country in the world – admits that it encourages religious persecution. India’s neighbouring country Myanmar has never accepted that it resorted to or shielded those persecuting the Rohingya.
What if a person leaves her parent country and enters India through fraudulent means in the hope of finding better economic avenues and later claims that she was persecuted on religious ground in her parent country?
And, if the claim of the applicant is the sole criterion for judging her citizenship case, will not it throw open a humanitarian law to possibility of gross misuse?
For instance, over 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population is Hindu or roughly around 1.75 crore people. What if they enter India for better economic opportunities and claim they were being persecuted for being Hindus?
There is another possibility. What if Muslims living in these countries or those who have already come to India illegally, convert to any of the six religions and claim they were persecuted and forced to leave their parent country?
Will they all be granted Indian citizenship for being non-Muslims and persecuted in their parent countries? If so, will it not encourage the fringe groups campaigning for ghar wapasi or reconversion -of those who or whose forefathers converted to Islam – to Hinduism?
And, if it gets to that stage, will the Citizenship Amendment Bill not become a license for ghar wapasi – to be used by both sides for different reasons?
These questions are being asked by people and also some of parliamentarians. Answer to these questions will actually determine the future of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which besides offering to grant citizenship to non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, also provides for stripping off a person’s Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) if it is found to have been obtained in violation of the Citizenship Act or any other notified law.