Explained: The Nuts and Bolts of Indian Citizenship

A brief textbook on the basic tenets of citizenship, with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act having brought who is a citizen and who is not into direct debate.

What is citizenship?

The population of a state is divided into two categories: citizens and non-citizens. A citizen of a state enjoys all civil and political rights. A non-citizen, on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy these rights.

Under the Indian constitution, certain fundamental rights are available only to the citizens, namely: Right against discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth (Article 15); right to equality of opportunity in matter of public employment (Article 16); freedom of speech and expression, assembly, association, movement, residence and profession (Article 19); cultural and educational rights (Article 29 and 30); and right to vote and become members of the union and state legislatures.

Several offices can also be occupied exclusively by citizens: president (Article 58(1)(a), vice-president (Article 66(2)), judges of the Supreme Court (Article 124(3)) and high court (Article 217(2)), governor of a state (Article 157), attorney general (Article 76(1)) and advocate general (Article 165).

Equality before the law or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India (Article 14 ) and protection of life or personal liberty (Article 21) are applicable to non-citizens as well.

What are the constitutional provisions relating to citizenship in India?

The Indian constitution doesn’t prescribe a permanent provision relating to citizenship in India. It simply describes categories of persons who are deemed to be citizens of India on the day the Indian constitution was promulgated on January 26, 1950, and leaves citizenship to be regulated by law made by the parliament.

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Article 11 of the constitution confers power on the parliament to make laws regarding citizenship. The Indian Citizenship Act, 1955 was enacted in exercise of this provision.

Who were the persons who were deemed to be citizens of India when the constitution was promulgated?

There are four categories of persons, identified between Articles 5 and 8 of the constitution, who were deemed eligible to become citizens of India when the constitution came into effect.

i) Citizenship by domicile (Article 5): A person who was born in India or either of the person’s parents was born in India or the person must have been an ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately before the commencement of the constitution. Domicile of a person is in that country in which the person either has or is deemed by law to have his/her permanent house.

ii) Citizenship of migrants to India from Pakistan (Article 6): Persons who have migrated from Pakistan to India have been classified into two categories: i) those who came to India before July 19, 1948, and ii) those who came on or after July 19, 1948.

Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Bengaluru on December 15, 2019. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

In the case of persons migrating before July 19, 1948, if the person has been ordinarily residing in India since the date of her migration, and in case of a person migrating on or after July 19, 1948, if he/she has been registered as a citizen of India, after residing for at least six months immediately before the date of applying for registration, by an officer appointed by the government of India, shall be deemed to be a citizen of India.

iii) Citizenship of migrants of Pakistan (Article 7): If a citizen of India has migrated to Pakistan after March 1, 1947, but returned to India on the basis of permit for resettlement in India, the person is entitled to become a citizen of India if he/she registers herself as a citizen of India, after residing for at least six months immediately before the date of applying for registration, by an officer appointed by the government of India.

iv) Citizenship of persons of Indian origin residing outside India (Article 8): Indian nationals (whose parents or any grandparents were born in India as defined in the Government of India Act, 1935) residing abroad shall be conferred Indian citizenship, as if they have been registered by the diplomatic or consular representatives of India in the country where they are residing.

What are the provisions under the Citizenship Act, 1955?

The Act provides for acquisition of Indian citizenship in the following ways:

i) Citizenship by birth: Anyone born in India on or after January 1, 1950, would be deemed a citizen by birth. This limit was further amended to include those born between January 1, 1950 and July 1, 1987.

By the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2003, persons born after December 3, 2004, would be deemed to be citizens of India if either of the parents is Indian or one of the parents is a citizen of India and the other was not an illegal migrant at the time of the person’s birth.

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“Illegal migrant” means a foreigner who has entered India: without a valid passport or travel documents; or with a valid passport or travel documents but remained in the country beyond the permitted period of time.

ii) Citizenship by descent: A person born outside India shall be deemed to be a citizen of India if either of the person’s parents was a citizen of India at the time of his/her birth provided that the birth is registered within one year of its occurrence or commencement of the Act, whichever is later, at the Indian consulate.

iii) Citizenship by registration: A person may be registered as a citizen of India, if the person is married to a citizen of India or has been a resident of India for five years immediately before making an application for registration.

iv) Citizenship by naturalisation: A person is granted a certificate of naturalisation if the person is not an illegal migrant and has resided in India for 12 months before making an application to seek the certificate. Of the 14 years preceding this 12-months duration, the person must have stayed in India for 11 years.

v) Citizenship by incorporation of territory: If any new territory becomes a part of India, the government of India shall specify the persons of the territory to be citizens of India.

If the central government is of the opinion that an applicant is a person who has rendered distinguished service to the cause of science, philosophy, art, literature, world peace or human progress generally, it may waive all or any conditions specified to attain Indian citizenship.

What are the provisions in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019?

The newly amended law provides for granting of Indian citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who came to India on or before December 31, 2014.

The law will not be extended to Rohingya Muslims persecuted in Myanmar; Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan; Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan; Tamils in Sri Lanka; and atheists in Bangladesh.

Is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 unconstitutional?

Prior to 2019, the amendments in the Citizenship Act, 1955 never explicitly restricted grant to citizenship to certain religious communities. The previous governments had a holistic approach – either they never provided for citizenship to illegal migrants or provided citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to all the communities.

Omitting certain religious communities has raised questions about whether the secular credentials of the constitution were being discarded. More so, specific denial of citizenship to Muslims, by the BJP government that has been very vocal about its Islamophobic stances, hints that a larger communal agenda of the BJP and RSS is at play.

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Legal experts say that the new citizenship law violates the fundamental right under Article 14 of the Indian constitution that guarantees equal protection of laws, even to the aliens, in the territory of India.

What about citizenship for Indian Muslims?

In the new citizenship law, Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Afghanistan have been excluded. However, there remains sufficient reason for worry for Indian Muslims who could be stripped of their citizenship by means of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) – as in the case of Assam – following which they would not be granted Indian citizenship under the latest Citizenship Amendment Act as it explicitly excludes members of the Muslim community.

Are there any states exempted from the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019?

Parts of north-east under the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime and those included in the sixth schedule to the Indian Constitution have been exempted from the application of Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The bill states, “Nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the area covered under ‘The Inter Line’ notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873.”

To enter Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland (excluding Dimapur) and Mizoram, one requires a special permit ILP. Therefore, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram along with parts of Meghalaya, Assam and Tripura have been kept out of the purview of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.