The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, December 2nd, with 293 ‘Ayes’ and 82 ‘Noes’.
The Bill amends the Citizenship Act 1955, which specifies that citizenship may be acquired in India through five methods – by birth in India, by descent, through registration, by naturalization (extended residence in India), and by incorporation of territory into India. Illegal migrants may be put in jail or deported under The Foreigners Act, 1946 and The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.
However, in 2015 and 2016, the government exempted specified groups of illegal migrants from provisions of the 1946 and 1920 Acts. They were Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who reached India on or before December 31, 2014.
This meant that these particular categories of illegal migrants would not be deported or jailed for being in India without valid documents.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in Parliament to amend The Citizenship Act, 1955, so that these people could be made eligible for citizenship of India. It could not be done so, because the bill lapsed after the Lok Sabha was dissolved that year.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 seeks to provide Indian nationality to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The Bill aims to protect these people from proceedings against them in the claim of illegal migration.
A person belonging to any of these faiths from the three nations can apply for Indian citizenship after six years of residence in the country, without having to prove his/her birth.
Under The Citizenship Act, 1955, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, as well as for 11 of the previous 14 years.
The amendment relaxes the second requirement from 11 years to 6 years as a specific condition for applicants belonging to these six religions, and the aforementioned three countries.
This bill, on making illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion, violates the spirit of equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
The Bill also amends the provisions on registration of Overseas Citizens of India (OCI). OCI cardholders are foreigners who are persons of Indian origin. An OCI enjoys benefits such as the right to travel to India without a visa, or to work and study here. At present, the government may cancel a person’s OCI registration on various grounds specified in the Act. In case of a cancellation, an OCI residing in India may be required to leave the country. The Bill adds another ground for cancelling OCI registration — violation of any law notified by the central government.
The Bill clarifies that the proposed amendments on citizenship to the specified class of illegal migrants will not apply to certain areas. These are: (i) the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Tripura, as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, and (ii) the states regulated by the “Inner Line” permit under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations 1873. These Sixth Schedule tribal areas include Karbi Anglong (in Assam), Garo Hills (in Meghalaya), Chakma District (in Mizoram), and Tripura Tribal Areas District. Further, the Inner Line Permit regulates visit of all persons, including Indian citizens, to Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland.
Opposition parties say that the bill is unconstitutional as it bases citizenship on a person’s religion, and would further marginalise India’s 200-million strong Muslim community. In the Northeastern states, the prospect of citizenship for massive numbers of illegal Bangladeshi migrants has triggered deep anxieties, including fears of demographic change, loss of livelihood opportunities, and erosion of the indigenous culture.
Some groups in the state feel that CAB could nullify the 1985 Assam Accord, which had set March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of illegal refugees.
While the NRC was aimed at deportation of illegal immigrants irrespective of their religions, the CAB is likely to benefit non-Muslim migrants, according to some activists.
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