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Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: A positive step but BJP govt must justify religion-based provisions in proposal

The release of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, containing names of 1.9 crore citizens out of 3.29 crore applicants, has brought up questions about the contested idea citizenship in India, and its evolving nature. Assam is the only state to have come out with such a list, and its most recent draft is being seen as a new chapter in addressing the influx from Bangladesh.

This issue has brought to the surface important questions about citizenship, and how we view it in the Indian context. The debate is not in any way new and can be found in the discussions of the Constituent Assembly. While discussing the provisions relating to citizenship in the draft Constitution, Dr Ambedkar remarked, "I do not think that any other article has given the Drafting Committee such a headache as this particular article."

Thus, bringing to view the complexity of devising a citizenship law. Article 11 of the Constitution designated the Parliament to decide on a permanent law of citizenship.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The Parliament, in 1955, passed The Citizenship Act which regulates the acquisition and determination of citizenship. It established jus sanguinis, or right of blood, as the primary form of citizenship determination in India meaning that a person's citizenship is determined by their parents' citizenship.

It also provides the conditions for naturalisation or the process by which one may come to acquire Indian citizenship. Finally, it includes the provisions for dual citizenship, in the form of Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) and Person of Indian Origin (PIO). The Act has been amended five times since its origin to account for the evolving nature of citizenship in India.

It is within this dynamic nature of citizenship that we need to view The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 which, if passed, shall see the dawn of a new era of citizenship in India. It contains two major provisions. Firstly, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and Parsis coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh would not be treated as illegal immigrants, thus making them eligible for citizenship.

Secondly, it reduces the time required for naturalisation for these communities from the current twelve years to seven years. The process of naturalisation usually has a time requirement with regards to the permanent residence in India so that the applicant becomes well versed with the nation's laws, culture, spirit, customs, and way of life.

The introduction of this Bill has sparked off a debate around the religiously biased manner in which this Bill gives preferential treatment to minorities coming from these Muslim majority countries. It must be clarified, however, that this Bill does not immediately grant citizenship to said minority communities. It merely makes them eligible for applying, something that illegal immigrants cannot do as per the current provisions. This Bill also does not comment on whether or not they will definitely secure citizenship, a process which is often protracted and highly rigorous.

As per the government, this exception has been created because these minorities are fleeing persecution and have no other option aside from coming to India illegally. It is clear that this Bill, in spirit, addresses refugees, people who are forced to move out of a well-founded fear for their lives, and not immigrants, people who voluntarily move often seeking economic opportunities.

While the intention of this Bill, in terms of addressing the plight of these mistreated people, is positive, it begs the question of why Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan and Uighur Muslims from China have been overlooked. For these communities are also fleeing from government pogroms en-masse. The religious criteria being installed in the Citizenship Act has drawn criticism from the Opposition and the BJP ally Asom Gana Parishad in Assam.

Indeed, the debate on refugees is not local to India and it has been a contentious topic in many nations. The ramifications of this debate were seen in important world events like Donald Trump's election and Brexit. At the heart of this debate lies the question: who can call a country home? This Bill seeks to answer this question in the Indian context.

It proclaims that these communities, in addition to not being illegal, are more 'Indian' than other applicants because of the reduced time requirement of permanent residency in India. It goes on to say that these minorities have shared certain values with Indians and that is why they need lesser time to be naturalised. The Amendment pushes the idea of an India which gives preferential treatment to mostly non-Muslim communities.

Commenting on the same, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said that the present Bill is a gross transgression of the idea of India as envisaged by our founding fathers. The Indian idea, he said, is that people that are different in all respects come together and rally around the Indian democracy. A democracy which has endured differences of caste, creed, conviction, and culture and agreed on the ground rules of how everyone will disagree. Therefore, we must pause and ask important questions, not just to our government, but to ourselves as well. What is the India that we call home? Who can call themselves an Indian and why?

This Bill is the fulfilment of a promise that the ruling BJP government had made in its 2014 Lok Sabha election manifesto. The promise read, "India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here". The initial steps to this were the notifications issued in 2015 and 2016, which excluded religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh from being deported, as illegal immigrants are, under the Passports Act, 1920, and The Foreigners Act, 1946. This Bill is the final step of the process.

In fulfilling this promise, the central government is implicitly defining India as the Hindu homeland, something that the Hindutva brigade have done since a long time.

The only other country that makes such a claim is Israel, which claims to be the homeland for all Jews. This Amendment also takes India closer to the Law of Return in Israel, which gives all Jews a right to return to Israel. According to Tharoor, this Bill approves Jinnah's two nation theory of a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, something that we as a nation have rejected time and again.

It must be noted here that a national spirit to give shelter and refuge is noble. Indeed, India has had a long history of hosting the victims of persecution. Be it the Zoroastrians in the 12th century, or more recently, the Tibetans, India has always shown humanity and generosity in opening her arms for people seeking refuge.

The Bill must be seen in a positive light to the extent that it legalises the existence of these asylum seekers in India. However, just as suffering and cruelty are not partial to some, we must not be partial in our generosity. The central government must look to accommodate the Ahmadiyyas, Uyghurs and Rohingyas who are persecuted minorities and have knocked at India's door in times of need. Further, the central government must also outline how it shall provide opportunities for employment, education, and a better life that these people have been bereft of.

We must reason and discover the true meaning of citizenship. Citizenship is not only the legal tether between the state and the individual, it also embodies a sentimental and aspirational meaning. This Bill addresses those who aspire to live in an environment that is free from persecution and a land where these people can envision a future for themselves.

Tharoor remarked that this Bill failed to explain why minority communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh have greater aspirational stakes for citizenship, as compared to persons, either from other parts of the world or of majority faith in these countries.

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the national poet of Pakistan, had wondered in his song, "Saare Jahan Se Accha", why is it that Indian attributes have survived when those of the Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilisations have not. Perhaps, we need to ask ourselves this question again, given that we see an onslaught on our idea of India.

The debate on the Citizenship Bill is in no way over yet. The Bill is being examined by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. The constitution of such a Committee is rare in Indian parliamentary history, having been constituted only 10 times before this.

The Bill could be brought up for discussion in the upcoming Budget Session of Parliament. Thus, it remains to be seen whether or not this proposition shall become law. In any case, the government must justify the faith-based provisions in the current Bill.

The author studies Political Science at Ashoka University and works with Idiog Consulting, New Delhi.


Published Date: Jan 10, 2018 16:45 PM | Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 16:45 PM

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