A Political Dilemma – Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016

This article was written by Shrishti Vatsa, student of Symbiosis Law School, Noida. 

The past few months saw a surge in protests in the North-eastern states owing to the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. As soon as the last date for tabling the bill in Rajya Sabha passed, the entire Assam brimmed with enthusiasm and joy. With unnumbered civil groups, political parties and student unions severely protesting against the amendments brought to The Citizenship Act, 1955, it is but integral to throw light on the consequences that the bill would have brought to the north eastern states. The most integral change that the central government sought to bring about was to allow illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Parsi or Christian religious communities residing in Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan to gain citizenship in India legally. It also sought to change the requirement for the minimum years of residency in India to apply for citizenship; to be reduced from eleven to six years for such migrants.

Emergence Of Assam Accord

The Citizenship Amendment Bill disturbed the citizens of Assam on various other grounds, one of them being the violation of the Assam Accord of 1985. As per the Assam Accord, illegal migrants who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971, were to be deported since they did not have the right to gain citizenship. This bill seemed to be on a different vein, as the huge number of protests had signified. Not only would it have changed the demography of the state notably, the current NRC-updating process would also have been negatively affected.[1]

Ever since the 1971 Indo -Pak war drove a wedge between the neighboring countries, the contentious issue of invasion of immigrants from Bangladesh has been a cause for communal violence. The Assam movement which began in 1979 to protect the existence of the indigenous people, their language, culture and heritage from the illegal invasion of Bangladeshi migrants eventually ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord. The six-year agitation concluded with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, clearly stated that all those who came from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971, have to be deported irrespective of their religion.[2] The citizenship bill was in clear violation of the Assam accord which was signed with the intention to maintain harmony, protect the fundamental rights of the citizens of Assam and pay reverence to the ones who fought for the independence of their state. Clause 6 of the Assam Accord puts an obligation on the central government to bring about constitutional, legislative and administrative measures to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the indigenous communities of Assam.

It is now evident that it was not just the constitution that denied the government to make such a law but also the Accord which could apprehend the repercussions of allowing illegal migrants to gain citizenship on the basis of religion alone. This has also been an admitted fact that the Bangladeshi Hindus are distinct from our own, since the divide between the two countries had been created centuries ago. The basis of religion alone does not stand good in law since it not only violates the grundnorm, but is also in violation of certain legislations which intended to protect the rights of its own countrymen before others.

Secularism In Indian Context

The most striking feature of the bill was that it did not allow for the persecuted Muslims, Jews or Bahais and other such unknown minority communities to seek shelter in our country. Secularism in our country is more of a way of life than merely a conceptual feature of our constitution. In a country where there exist at least 12 religions, over 300 castes, nearly 4000 sub-castes and over 20 languages, the only way to maintain harmony is to imbibe the core essential value of tolerance and co- existence. [3]

On the same lines, there was one terminology that created an ambiguity within the bill. The bill seemed to term minority religious people as migrants, while the issue was not as simple as one would imagine. A significant number of these people are refugees, not migrants. The word ‘migration’ refers to the voluntary movement of people from one place to another, dominantly for providing better economic prospects and opportunities. On the other hand, seeking refuge in another country is an involuntary act, often forced upon people, due to situations like war, ethnic cleansing, etc. It is to be noted that the basis for concern for the refugees are fundamental human rights and not better economic opportunities. The purpose of the introduction of the Bill, as had been emphasized by the government, was to provide shelter to vulnerable, religiously-persecuted people whose fundamental human rights were at risk.

While the most dominant concern for Assamese was for their state to turn into a dumping ground once the bill was passed, most people did not seem concerned about the religious minorities (Muslims, Jews, Bahais) who had been excluded on no rational basis. Since the government aims to bring about peace for the religiously persecuted, the exclusion of certain communities raises some grave doubts. While the migration should not be given a legal status at all, the basis for exclusion discloses the communal bias that exists within the country even today. Considering the current status of our country, where the existing Muslims have also been subjected to such immoral and unethical biases, it makes us ponder if we could protect the further influx of such minorities within our country.

Secularism has been one of the most controversial and essential features of the basic structure doctrine and lays down that firstly, state has nor religion, secondly, all citizens have the basic and underlying right to propagate their own religion and thirdly, it an obligation on part of the state to protect the life and property of all citizens, provide the requisite security to them and ensure that their fundamental rights stays protected.[4]  In the present case, there was a gross violation of this feature since it blatantly denied the Assamese their fundamental right to live with security and simultaneously enabled the State to discriminate on the basis of religion alone.

Enabling the minority groups to enter the state and gain citizenship when legislations strictly prohibit it is coalescing religion and political administration. This certainly does not bode well for a country which is ostensibly as secular as ours since interference in political matters can further the cause of a ‘Hindutva state’ that our constitution never intended to do. The argument by the central government emphasized that the harassed Hindus did not have an option other than our country to enter and live in. Hence, while people belonging to the Muslim sect could have migrated to other Muslim dominant countries, Hindus would seek abode in India only.[5] Such a remark further caused one to believe that the grounds used for the sought amendments were influenced by religious and political factors particularly.

Not too long ago, the central government had turned its back on the Rohingya Muslims who had been facing persecution in in Myanmar. Refusing to provide refuge, it was emphasized that an unnumbered entry of such immigrants may cause tensions within the locals, thereby causing a threat to the internal security of the country.[6] Ironically, the status of the North Eastern states after the Lok Sabha passed the bill was in no better condition. The condition had further deteriorated with protests in certain part of the states turning violent with the central government not willing to change its stance.

Consequences Of The Act

Internationally too, it has been observed that illegal migration has resulted in a host of destabilizing political, social, economic, ethnic and communal tensions. Considering the humungous change in demography, the Bangladeshi migrants would have been well placed to influence the results of the elections in a large number of constituencies in the North East. The bill being a consequence of an election promise would have increased the influx of votes for the BJP in the north eastern states where it has never been able to hold steadfastly to. Economically, increased pressure on land, resulting in depletion of forest wealth, forcible occupation of Government land by the migrants and a host of other such issues, causes an enormous amount of effect in the entire North East.[7] These are only few of the consequences that migration has resulted in in the past few years which clearly would be continued if the bill became an act.

A major consequence that this act shall have on the international relations is also something the central government had bypassed in order fulfill its long standing promise. The act would have presented these countries as institutions of repression and persecution and further worsened the bilateral ties in an already critical regional social- political atmosphere.[8] Since our ties with Pakistan seem to be deteriorating, it is hardly affordable for India to begin a cold war with its other regional partners.

Current Status

Considering all the consequences and effects that the bill would have had if made into an act, the central government eventually decided to not table it in Rajya Sabha. It can be presumed that the outbursts of the citizens forced the government to retract on the bill. The bill is now set to lapse on June 3rd since the term of the present Lok Sabha ends this summer. Despite repeated assurances by the government, the government could not pacify the agitations of the citizens which ended up in a huge chaos and disorder in the state. The fate of the millions of immigrants now hangs in the air.

[1] Kishalay Bhattacharjee, Why the Citizenship Bill can tear Assam Apart, The Quint, May 18, 2018.

[2] From Assam Accord to NRC Discord: A Deadline, The Economic Times, Aug. 2, 2018.

[3] Ashok, N., Secularism Re-Examined, 68(3) The Indian Journal of Political Science, 607-614(2007).

[4] Jagdish Swarup, Constitution of India, 56-97 (1984).

[5] Basanta Nirola, The Real Reason People in Assam are Against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, Youth ki Awaaz.

[6] Wamika Kapur, The Trouble with India’s New Citizenship Bill, The Diplomat, March 11, 2017.

[7] Das J, Talukdar D., Socio-Economic and Political Consequence of Illegal Migration into Assam from Bangladesh , Journal of Tourism and Hospitality(2016).

[8] Lovish Garg, If India Wants To Remain Secular, The New Citizenship Bill Isn’t The Way To Go, The Wire, Sept. 21, 2016.

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