Decoding the Shrouded Citizenship Amendment Bill and Its Likely Impact

Aside from addressing concerns like how the amendment would affect the secular nature of the Indian nation-state, there are several more factors to consider.

New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government, in keeping with its standard of maintaining secrecy around all controversial decisions, chose to keep the clauses of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill also under wraps. The details will be made clear when the Bill is tabled in the ongoing session of parliament.

The Bill, the earlier version of which had been forwarded to a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) and ultimately shelved due to massive disagreement over its contents, particularly in the Northeast, is now to be introduced in one of the houses of parliament before any of its contents are to officially be made public.

It is a piece of reworked amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955, which has so far failed to satisfy the concerns of a large swathe of people in Assam and the rest of the Northeast even after a few rounds of discussion with the Union home minister – thus triggering street protests all over again, and risking a breach of peace – the rage over the last attempt to push the Bill through caused the deaths of five poor, innocent Bengali Hindus in Assam (at the hands of unidentified militants).

Naturally then, the aim behind the government’s cautious move must be to make it a law – without much deliberation. The idea is only to push the BJP’s Hindutva-based agenda in an effort to keep the vote bank intact before one can even gauge issues like the Bill’s long-term socio-political impact on Assam, Manipur and Tripura, among other northeastern states – and thereby the fragile peace in that region.

Also read: Citizenship Bill: The Communal Aftershocks That Shook India’s Neighbours Post Babri

Aside from addressing concerns like how the amendment would affect the secular nature of the Indian nation-state, there are several more factors to consider: how it may make many Bengali Hindus residing in the Northeast vulnerable to violence while also leaving several non-Muslim pockets of Pakistan and Bangladesh exposed to their country’s communal forces. More so, its impact on India’s bilateral relations with a friendly neighbour like Bangladesh must also be considered.

BJP’s brute majority in the Lok Sabha and the confidence of the party’s top echelons to engineer a few ‘walk-outs’ and ‘cross-overs’ of members outside of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the Rajya Sabha, where it doesn’t have a majority, will certainly help achieve the intended end goal by December 13, the last date of the ongoing session.

However, despite of the government’s attempt to keep the contents of the Bill under wraps till it reaches parliament, a few bits and pieces have trickled out into the public domain. It turns out that the categories of beneficiaries have not been tweaked within the reworked version. So, even though the Bill is high on the Hindutva agenda, Hindus from Sri Lanka – however persecuted they may be in their country – will remain outside the Bill’s ambit.

Only Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and Christian citizens from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are to benefit from the Bill – even if they entered India illegally. The cut-off date for their entry into the country is the same as in the last Bill – until or before December 31, 2014.

Let’s look at what more we know so far about the reworked Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019:

  1. The modified version of the Bill has reportedly reduced the existing mandatory requirement of 12 years of continuous stay of a person to be eligible for Indian citizenship to five years;
  2. It will also enable a person who can’t provide to the authorities any proof of birth of his/her parents in India to claim Indian origin to apply for Indian citizenship by naturalisation after staying six years in the country in continuation;
  3. All cases against a person belonging to these six religious groups from the three countries pending before any authority, including foreigners’ tribunals and courts, will stand null and void;
  4. The new version of the Bill also says that it will not be applicable to three states – Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh – which are under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. As per that Act, anyone entering the state, including an Indian citizen but a resident of a different state, requires an inner line permit (ILP).
  5. The terms of the Bill will also not be applicable where the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution is in place. This means most parts of Meghalaya, and bits of Tripura, Mizoram and Assam will not have any effect of this Bill.   

Now, let’s look at decoding the above clauses of the Bill.

As per the Bill, the basis for Indian citizenship to these six religious groups is that they will have to enter on or before December 31, 2014 from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Though the basis for granting them citizenship is “religious percussion” in their countries, significantly, like in the earlier bill, this one too seems to have cleverly kept out those words. This is clearly to avoid attracting legal loopholes.

Instead, it has referred to “those exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners’ Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder”. It basically points at the notification issued by the Modi government in September 2015 to various states to protect this set of people from these Act even though they may have entered the country illegally.

Also read: A Common Thread in the Centre’s Plans on the Brewing Citizenship Question

Essentially, those looking at challenging the amendment at a court of law as going against the secular nature of the constitution, may find it hard to do so because of the absence of these words in the Act itself.

If the period of stay is reduced for this set of religious groups from 12 years to five years to claim Indian citizenship, it can clearly make a lot more people eligible for it. It also means that a substantial number of Hindus might have crossed over to India without papers from these countries in the last five years. In states like Assam and West Bengal, which will be going to polls in 2021, will this lead to creation of new voters? If it does, is BJP eyeing at creating a new voter base in these border states?

Additionally, the Bill also says that an applicant who can’t provide proof of his/her parents’ birth in India in order to verify their Indian origin can be granted Indian citizenship by naturalisation if they continue to stay for six years in the country. It means that this clause will make a section of people who may originally belong to Pakistan and Bangladesh eligible for Indian citizenship.

This is significant because the Citizenship Act presently has a clause which says anyone born in India till July 1, 1987 will be an Indian citizen. So this lot of people, who are not eligible under it, will be accommodated under this new clause.

Students hold placards during a protest rally against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati on December 3, 2019. Photo: PTI

This part of the Bill can particularly be detrimental to the interest of smaller communities, particularly the plains tribes in Assam whose areas are not protected. Unlike in the rest of India, the exclusive cut-off date for citizenship in that state is March 24, 1971. While those born outside of independent India can’t claim citizenship in the rest of India even if they were born before or by July 1, 1987, the separate cut-off date in Assam essentially gave a general amnesty for nearly 20 years to anyone from Bangladesh, not necessarily those born in India, who may have entered the state without papers to be Indian citizens.

That March 1971 cut-off date will now be extended further to December 2014 for Assam too, which means the state will have to take another set of citizens, after the 1971 date. In a state which is losing its landmass to the annual floods, leading to landlessness in many residents already, in coming years, it can lead to conflict on the ground over sharing resources.

The Bill also says that all cases against a non-Muslim undocumented migrant pending at any court and foreigners’ tribunals shall stand abated. This means only the Muslims who are presently out of the updated NRC will have to go through the process of proving their citizenship at the Tribunals. This provision will only help the Hindu Bengalis though, as tribals, Assamese caste Hindus, etc. out of the NRC, can’t possibly claim to be from these three countries.

Also, if the amendment comes though, only Bengali-speaking Muslims will be nabbed by the state’s border police in suspicion of being an ‘illegal immigrant’.

Importantly, even the Bengali Hindus who are out of the final NRC in Assam and will make use of the amendment, will have to now officially admit that till now they were not Indian citizens, rather ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh. Effectively, they will also admit that the documents they had submitted to the state authorities to be part of the NRC were fake. Many of those who might have come to settle in Assam prior to or in the run-up to creation of Bangladesh but couldn’t prove it due to lack of papers will forever lose the right to claim so.

Also read: Why the Proposed Citizenship Amendment Runs Foul of Constitutional Provisions

In a state where sentiments against ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ is raw and overriding and doesn’t quite differentiate between a Hindu and a Muslim ‘Bangladeshi’, this is a dangerous proposition.

The Bill also keeps out the areas under the ILP and the Sixth Schedule, applicable in some north-eastern states. This declaration is just a formality. Even after a Supreme Court order to grant citizenship to Chakmas and Hajongs (they are Hindus and Buddhists mostly), the central government has not been able to grant it to them simply because of the complexities of an area under ILP and also vociferous local opposition to tweaking it.

Northeastern India is the most diverse area of the country in terms of communities, language, customs, cultures. Though the exact figure of beneficiaries of this Bill in the region is still unknown, yet the vulnerability of many smaller communities, particularly when it comes to protecting their economic and political rights, can’t just be written off as yet. For instance, the Meiteis of Manipur may be the state’s majority community, but in all, they may be not more than 13-15 lakh.

What is of particular concern is that the Bill may put a specific community – Bengali Hindus – widely seen to be the sole beneficiaries of the amendment, more vulnerable to assaults in different north-eastern states based on their ethnicity.

Finally, the exemption of tribal areas under the Sixth Schedule, however, doesn’t apply to all tribal belts of the country. Outside of the Northeast, the adivasi areas are under the Fifth Schedule, which the Bill doesn’t mention.