Religion column in citizenship application form allows Centre to dodge NRC; ordinance route open for making Hindu foreigners Indian
The ordinance route remains as an option left for the Modi government to achieve the primary objective of the bill –- granting citizenships to the six non-Muslim minority communities in Assam.
The window for submitting applications for claims and objections seeking inclusion or exclusion of names in the final updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has been extended and will close on 31 December. However, an amendment in the Citizenship Rules already notified by the Ministry of Home Affairs on 18 October will keep open a window of possibilities in respect of over 40 lakh NRC applicants excluded from the complete draft of the updated NRC list published on 30 July.
Till 11 December, altogether 11.40 lakh have submitted claims when the initial deadline for claims and objections was on 15 December. This triggered speculations about the fate of more than 25-28 lakh applicants excluded from the final draft but have not filed their claims even as the previous date was closing in. The Supreme Court on 12 December extended the last date till 31 December following a plea by the Assam government.
The apex court in its directive also relaxed the date of issuance of documents that are required to be submitted along with the application for claims for proving residency prior to 24 March, 1971. The standard operating procedure for disposal of claims and objection earlier allowed the NRC authorities to accept documents issued prior to 31 December, 2015 which was the last date for filing the application for inclusion in the updated NRC.
“Having considered the prayers made and the circumstances set out, we direct the NRC authority to accept List B documents (linkage documents) that are found be legally valid, regardless of the date of issuance of the same,” stated the Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Rohintan Fali Nariman in its order. The court also directed the NRC authority to facilitate the filing of objections against wrongful inclusion in the complete draft by making the copies of the draft available for inspection and filing of the objections at the district headquarters.
While the number of filing claims and objections is expected to pick up following the apex court directives, speculations are rife about the voting rights of these applicants pending publication of the final NRC list after disposal of all claims and objections. Media reports, quoting officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, say that disenfranchisement may be the first possible step in respect of those electors among those excluded in the complete draft who fail to submit the claim, supported by documents related to Indian citizenship, for inclusion in the NRC.
The Ministry of Home Affairs on 18 October notified Citizenship (Amendment) Rules, 2018 making it mandatory for a person applying for Indian citizenship to declare his or her religion. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, on the other hand, seeks to remove “illegal migrants” tag on Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan so that they are eligible to apply for Indian Citizenship. Declaration of religion will make it easier for the MHA to segregate the applications of Muslim applicants from other applicants belonging to six religion groups. Earlier on 23 December, 2016 the ministry notified amendment in the Citizenship Rules under which applicants belonging to these six communities from these three countries will be required to pay Rs 100 with citizenship application and Rs 100 for grant of the certificate of registration. For other applicants, the fee is Rs 500 with application and Rs 5,000 under Section 5 (1) (a) and Section 5 (1) (b) and Rs 10,000 under Section 5 (1) (c) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 for grant of certificate of registration.
A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) headed by BJP MP Rajendra Agrawal which is examining the bill is yet to present its report to Parliament. The last meeting of the JPC failed to arrive at a consensus on recommendations to be made by the committee. This triggered speculations in the political circles that BJP-led government at the Centre may adopt the ordinance route as the bill is not going to be tabled in the winter session from 11 December to 8 January, 2019. The term of the JPC is scheduled to come to an end on the first day of the last week of the current session of Parliament.
The bill does not figure among 45 bills listed by the Narendra Modi government for the current session. In such a situation, the ordinance route remains as an option left for the Modi government to achieve the primary objective of the bill –- granting citizenships to the six non-Muslim minority communities in Assam.
An ordinance can be issued only when both the Houses of Parliament are not in session. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 will automatically lapse after the current Lok Sabha is dissolved after completion of its term. Therefore, the window for issuing an ordinance will now be kept open only after 9 January till the commencement of the last budget session of the Narendra Modi-led government which will be sometime in February next year. Besides, the Model Code of Conduct comes into force from the day the election dates are announced by the Election Commission which normally happens 30-45 days ahead of polling.
The final NRC will exclude names of all those who fail to prove residency anywhere in India prior to midnight of 24 March, 1971. Naturally, a new window will be opened for those who fail to submit claims before the NRC authorities for want of required documents to prove their citizenship but would be eligible to apply for Indian citizenship under the amended citizenship laws. Declaration of religion in the application form will help expedite disposal of applications and grant of citizenship.
Verification of the claims and objections will commence on 15 February, 2019. While the date for publication of final list is yet to be set by the Supreme Court, given the fact that verification will involve hearing of applicants, the compilation of final NRC list is not likely to be over before 2019 Lok Sabha polls which are due in April-May.
After the publication of the final list Election Commission will have both NRC final list and the citizenship registrations issued to these applicants to fall back on for reference for deciding on inclusion or exclusion of electors among them.
Pending publication of the final NRC list the Election Commission is not likely to refer to the complete draft of the NRC as the Supreme Court had issued a directive that “the Complete Draft NRC which naturally being a draft cannot be the basis of any action by any authority”.
However, the Election Commission will be open to referring to citizenship registration certificates that might be issued based on an ordinance promulgated in lieu of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
The Election Commission's "Manual on Electoral Rolls" published in October 2016 states: "Although currently, there is no standard and uniform document throughout the country to determine citizenship, there are some documents that could be referred to by the Electoral Registration Officer while inquiring the question of citizenship of the concerned person. These documents are (i) The National Register of Citizens, wherever it exists; (ii) A citizenship certificate issued by a competent authority; (iii) A valid passport issued by the Government of India; and (iv) A birth certificate."
If the ordinance is issued, then the MHA will just have to segregate the applications for citizenship applications of Hindu Bangladeshis and five other non-Muslim communities by referring to the ministry’s 18 October notification in respect of Assam and grant citizenship certificates to the applicants belonging to these six communities who do not have documents to prove residency prior to the cut-off date of 24 March, 1971 for inclusion in the final NRC.
In accordance with the law, an Indian citizen can register his or her name till the last date of submission of nominations by candidates notified by the Election Commission of India for the general election or any bye-election. However, the application is to be filed 10 days prior to the last date of nominations to enable the Electoral Registration Officer to act on the application to decide on inclusion or exclusion ahead of the scheduled election.
All eyes are now on Modi government on its next move vis-à-vis the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill as ruling the BJP has been aggressively campaigning in support the bill despite stiff opposition in Assam and other northeastern states.
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