The Citizenship Act was amended by the mighty Narendra Modi government fairly smoothly, but it is far from being a settled issue
The recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act has led to a lot of tense drama and raging debate in the country over the past few days. There was never any doubt that it would, given the history and politics it involved.
Starting with the history: Back in the year 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s promise ahead of the general elections about bringing Hindu refugees from Bangladesh and Pakistan had already raised some eyebrows nationwide. Two years after wresting power from the Congress-led UPA, the BJP began working on that promise and introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha.
What with its controversial nature the Bill was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee, which took almost two and a half years to submit its conclusions on the matter. Just a day after the report was submitted, the Bill was passed comfortably in the Lok Sabha on January 8 but massive protests in the northeast prevented the government from introducing it in the Rajya Sabha anytime soon. Eventually it lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha ahead of this year’s general elections.
However, this time around, the saffron party wasted no time and spared no efforts to action the unfinished business of making good on its long-made electoral promise. And the reaction to that – both public and political – has also been stronger than ever before.
On December 9, when the Narendra Modi government once again introduced the CAB in the Lok Sabha, the Opposition was already up in arms, calling it “unconstitutional” and being in “violation” of Article 14 of the Constitution.
After over an hour’s debate over the Bill’s legislative competence, the House allowed it after division of votes with 293 in its favour and 82 against.
After introducing the Bill, Union Home Minister Amit Shah brushed aside the allegations of opposition members, saying the Bill was a move to “end the atrocities against crores of migrants”.
“I assure that the Bill does not violate any article of the Constitution and that no citizen will be deprived of one’s rights. Every citizen has been given a place in the Bill on the basis of reasonable classification.”
He explained that the Bill sought to provide Indian nationality to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, adding that the Bill had been introduced after analysing the Constitutions of its Islamic neighbours.
Referring to the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Khan agreement signed in 1950 after the partition of India and Pakistan, Shah said it was agreed by all to protect the rights of minorities, but only India followed it. And Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists faced atrocities in those three Islamic countries, he added.
The Minister once again clarified that since the Muslim community was not persecuted in those three countries, the Bill specifically mentioned providing citizenship to only the six religious persecuted minorities.
Shah also stated that the Bill was not against Muslim community and that if any Muslim sought citizenship in India based on rules, he or she would be entertained as per the Article of the Bill.
Major opposition parties, including Congress, Trinamool Congress, Revolutionary Socialist Party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam (DMK), All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), opposed the Bill citing various articles of Constitution.
As per the Bill, those illegal migrants who had entered India up to the cut-off date of December 31, 2014 to seek shelter, and continued to stay here even if their travel documents expired or they had incomplete or no documents, would be eligible for Indian citizenship.
Under the existing provisions of the Act, migrants from Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Bangladesh who entered India without valid travel documents or if the validity of their documents had expired were regarded as illegal migrants and ineligible to apply for Indian citizenship under section 5 or section 6 of the Act.
The Centre exempted these migrants from the adverse penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 and rules or orders made there under vide notifications, dated September 7, 2015 and date July 18, 2016.
Subsequently, the Centre also made them eligible for long-term visa to stay in India as per orders dated January 8, 2016 and September 14, 2016.
And now, the government, through the Bill, proposed to make these migrants eligible for Indian citizenship. “For this purpose the Central Government or an authority specified by it, shall grant the certificate of registration or certificate of naturalisation subject to such conditions, restrictions and manner as may be prescribed,” Shah said.
“Since many of them have entered India long back, they may be given the citizenship of India from the date of their entry in India if they fulfil conditions for Indian citizenship specified in section 5 or the qualifications for the naturalisation under the provisions of the Third Schedule to the Act.”
The Bill also sought to grant immunity to the migrants of the six communities so that any proceedings against them in respect of their status of migration or citizenship did not bar them from applying for Indian citizenship. The Bill proposed the migrants of the six minority communities of the three countries would be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation if they could establish their residency in India for five years instead of the existing eleven years.
The Bill further sought to protect the constitutional guarantee given to indigenous populations of northeastern states covered under the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the statutory protection given to areas covered under “The Inner Line” system of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.
Congress party leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, describing the Bill as regressive and against minorities of the country, pointed out that the proposed law violated the preamble of the Constitution which sought to establish India as a social and secular republic as envisioned by framers of the Constitution and the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
“It is a very unconstitutional legislation,” he said, adding the concept of citizenship could not be read in isolation but in alignment with various provisions that guarantee fundamental rights without any discrimination on the basis of religion.
TMC’s Saugata Roy recalled that the Home Minister had said in Parliament at the time of abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir that it would be “one law, one nation”.
“But now you are bringing a law which is different for different religions and regions. The Bill is divisive and unconstitutional and is in violation of Art 14 which provides for equality to all citizens,” he said.
Congress’s Shashi Tharoor said the Bill was an assault on the fundamental rights of the people of the country as religion was the determinant of the legislation.
AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi (Muslim Majlis) said secularism is the basic structure of the Constitution and the Bill was arbitrary in nature and was in violation of fundamental rights. “The Home Minister should be prevented from carrying out this enactment. Otherwise, he will be compared with David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the Jewist state of Israel, and Hitler,” he added.
RSP’s N.K. Premachandran said he opposed the Bill on grounds of its legislative competence as it was in violation of the preamble of the Constitution. “Religion is the main factor in the legislation which is in violation of Art 14 of the Constitution.” He said he was sure the courts will strike down this law.
The heated debate in the Lok Sabha continued beyond midnight until the Bill was finally passed after division of votes with 311 in its favour and 80 against it.
Next up was the Rajya Sabha. Many political analysts averred that the BJP government would have a far tougher time getting the CAB passed in the upper house because the number of legislators from the party and its NDA allies stood at 94, a fair bit short of the 120 votes needed to pass the Bill.
However, many BJP leaders expressed confidence that their party would be able to rake up the required numbers by leveraging their equations with the nearly dozen nominated MPs, as well as MPs from other important regional parties such as Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal.
Their confidence was not misplaced. In the evening of December 11, the Rajya Sabha passed the CAB with 125 members voting for and 105 against it.
Earlier in the day, while requesting opposition not to use politics to divide the society, the Home Minister said: “This Bill should have not been brought. There was no need to amend the Citizenship Act if country was not divided. Also, had some previous government acted, we would have not brought the Bill.”
Highlighting how Chidambaram as the Home Minister had accorded citizenship to Hindus and Sikhs in Rajasthan, Shah asked the opposition to stop misleading minorities.
“I have always said minorities in India need not be scared of anything. This CAB will not affect any Muslim brother and sisters. Why is the opposition creating a divide?” Shah asked, before substantiating his arguments by reminding all that Mahatma Gandhi himself had on September 26, 1947, said Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan could fearlessly come to India and it was the duty of the nation to give them shelter and job.
BJP leader Bhupender Yadav criticised the Congress, saying the party was in power for 10 years but did nothing for the persecuted people. “This Citizenship Amendment Bill was discussed during the UPA and the NDA governments. The UPA ignored it and the NDA took up the issue and is ensuring that immigrants should be treated with equality,” Yadav said.
Opposing the Bill, Kapil Sibal (Congress) said the CAB had a legal colour of the two-nation theory and added, religion could not be a factor in acquisition of citizenship.
Terming the CAB “blatantly unconstitutional”, Congress leader P. Chidambaram said the government was introducing a new category called citizenship by arbitrary executive feat.
“I dare the government to lay the opinion of the Law Department. I dare the government to invite the Attorney General to answers the questions. What we are doing today is breaking the Constitution from within. A small part of the Constitution is being racked and being demolished by these insidious people,” Chidambaram said.
While these political debates were under way, some horrible events had been unfolding in the northeast – stemming from local concerns that the Act would lead to an influx of migrants from Bangladesh that would change the demography of their region.
A protester was killed in Tripura and curfew was imposed in Guwahati as the stirs in the northeast further intensified for the third consecutive day with various parties and NGOs, including the influential North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), calling on the central government to “respect the sentiments of the people of the region”.
A senior police official said that the curfew was imposed in Guwahati after the protest against the CAB turned violent and as the agitators set ablaze some vehicles in the city. The district administration asked the Army to remain on standby. Huge contingent of central paramilitary and state security forces were deployed in Guwahati, Dispur and other troubled places in Assam.
Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) general secretary Jagadhish Debbarma told media that one of their protesters Mantrilal Kaipeng (55) was killed at Tuichindrai Bazar (under Khowai District) following the attack of the “rival group people”.
In view of the anti-CAB agitations, examinations in schools, colleges and universities were postponed in as many as four northeastern states – Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
In Assam, as protests erupted in different parts of the state, security forces resorted to lathi-charge in Dispur, Guwahati, Dibrugarh and Jorhat to disperse the protesters. At least 25 protesters including women and some journalists and television crews were injured in the lathi-charge and clashes.
Normal life in many parts of the state was badly affected due to the agitations and cancellations of many trains and buses, besides shutting down of shops and business establishments.
In Tripura, the Joint Movement Against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (JMACAB) – a conglomeration of many tribal local and regional parties, NGOs and student and youth organisations of the state, led by Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT) – held sit-in-demonstrations against the CAB in different parts.
Mobile-based internet services remained suspended across the state. Prohibitory orders under section 144 of the CrPC were promulgated in some parts of West Tripura, Sepahijala, Dhalai and North Tripura districts after the previous day’s violence, clashes and attacks.
Fortunately, the JMACAB eventually called off the stir the same night after a marathon meeting with Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb.
“The Chief Minister assured us that he would take up the CAB issue with the union Home Minister Amit Shah. He promised us that Deb would convey the sentiments of the indigenous people to the central government. Following Chief Minister’s assurance, we have withdrawn the protest for the time being tonight” JMACAB convener Anthony Debbarma said.
However, Assam remained on the boil. As protesters hit the streets in thousands, burning tyres and wooden logs, mobile internet services were suspended in 10 districts of the state. The army undertook a flag march in Dibrugarh.
Later, two protestors died in police firing and thousands defied the curfew in Guwahati to hit the streets as the house of an MLA and a circle office were set ablaze.
Meanwhile, Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal saw organisation of celebrations, protests, rallies and counter-rallies on the streets. While the Congress and a number of civil rights groups railed against the legislation, the BJP workers broke into celebrations outside their state headquarters on Muralidhar Sen Lane.
The police had some nerve-racking time after a few hours in the area when some students of Presidency University tried to march to the BJP office with copies of the Constitution in their hands. The police, however, stepped in and stopped them. The students said they wanted to give the Constitution to the BJP leadership to make them understand they were flouting it by passing “divisive bills like the CAB”.
In the small hours of December 13, at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, President Ramnath Kovind gave his nod to the CAB, effectively making it an Act with its publication in the national gazette.
However, with the Act all set to be challenged in the Supreme Court in the near future, not to mention the ongoing protests against it, much of the drama and debate is yet to play out.