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Citizenship Bill Represents the First-of-its Kind Progressive Step by the Government

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The government has recently tabled, in the Lok Sabha, the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, with the objective of facilitating Indian citizenship for religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have faced persecution in their home countries. With around 400 Pakistani Hindu refugee settlements in cities like Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, Raipur, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, Kutch, Bhopal, Indore, Mumbai, Nagpur, Pune, Delhi and Lucknow, the government has been consistently flagging this issue since early last year, and also made it a part of its election manifesto in 2014.

Background

The move by the Centre, last year, was in response to a 2012 petition by two NGOs – Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation – pleading that minority Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh migrating to India to escape religious persecution must not be bracketed with illegal migrants and sent back1 under the Assam Accord which provides for deportation of illegal migrants that have come in since 1971. The verification of the identity of the migrants will be traced, by making 1971 the cut-off year, to the ‘legacy data’ to be ascertained through the 1971 voters’ list.2 The matter came up for hearing in the Supreme Court and became a national issue in 2013, with the bench observing that the problem of religious minorities coming from Bangladesh to India was not confined to Assam alone.3

Prior to this, in April 2015, the government had also facilitated an online system for Long Term Visa Application that allowed the minority migrants from neighbouring countries to reside in India for a period of five years, and allowed them to reside in the country even after their visas expire. The government has already granted 4300 citizenships to minority migrant Hindus.4

Proposed Relaxations

The changes will involve a two-track process whereby the minority migrants will first be admitted as refugees in the country and will then be able to claim their citizenship rights. The following relaxations have been proposed:

  • Cancellation of the requirement of a renunciation certificate from the home country (in this case – Pakistan).
  • Relaxation in registration fee – While the registration fee for each member of the family is 5000 INR under registration and 15,000 INR under naturalisation, in the proposed amendments, it could be made as low as a uniform fee of 100 INR for the entire process.
  • Delegation of procedure – The process of dealing with citizenship rights will be delegated to the district level, under the supervision of the District Magistrate and the Superintendent of Police.
  • Allowances –

    > Applicants eligible for such citizenship claims will be subsequently able to avail of Driving License, Aadhar Card, PAN number and conditional opening of a bank account without prior approval from the RBI.

    > They will also be able to take up self-employment and get permission for doing business, subject to the security requirements, without needing to register with the foreigners’ registration office.

    > They can buy property.

    > Freedom of movement within the state/UT of the allotted residence, besides allowing conditional movement across states.

The Key Issue

The proposed bill has been widely welcomed, except in some political and intellectual circles that seek to politicize any issue to appease the Muslim lobbies. The key issue that the bill addresses is the poor plight of the refugees, in India, who have migrated from Muslim-majority countries. Under the current provisions, they can be granted citizenship only after they have stayed in the country for 12 years, through ‘naturalization’ – and even then their future remains precarious. Now, the time period will be shortened to 7 years.

These people – mainly Hindus – have fled from religious persecution in our Muslim-majority neighbours and, yet, when they enter India, they continue to suffer discrimination – they cannot access basic public services, have no identity, and live in ghettoized conditions or ‘mohallas’. This is the first time that a government has made consistent efforts to improve their plight and has taken up the responsibility to better the condition of 2 lakh refugees who have been living as second-class citizens in India. The previous government had tried to deport them to Pakistan.

This was unfortunate, since, while the expedient, minority-driven Indian politics ensured that India fully respected the protection of minority rights under the Liaquat-Nehru pact of 1950, Pakistan did not do the same. The Indian government is also set to flag this issue with Pakistan.

The bill will ensure that they no longer have to live like refugees. They will get Aadhar card, voter ID card and a right to buy property and start their own businesses.

The issue was raised by the government in early 2015 with the BJP President, Amit Shah, clearly declaring that, “Some Hindus have come from Bangladesh due to religious disturbances. The BJP will give all of them citizenship once we come to power in Assam next year.”5 Recently, the BJP refugee cell urged the government to expedite the Citizenship Bill for the Hindu refugees and to start granting citizenship to Hindu refugees under Section 18 of the Citizenship Act.

The government did not shy away from declaring India a ‘natural home for persecuted Hindus’. This is important, given the historical pattern of immigration from Bangladesh. Assam has borne the burden of illegal – mainly Muslim – immigration from Bangladesh, which has occurred mainly due to economic reasons. This bill gives us an opportunity to clearly distinguish this illegal economic immigration from the genuine need of Hindu refugees who are seeking shelter in India due to religious persecution.

The problem has become even more severe in the last two years. The world is seeing an expansion of Islamic radicalism and, in Bangladesh, we are facing a major national security threat because of the added danger of homegrown terrorism in that country. Incidents of machete-wielding radical Islamists brutally hacking and murdering Hindus and Buddhists have become a regular phenomenon. The recent Dhaka attacks – where those who could not recite Koran, mainly the foreigners, were killed by terrorists in a Dhaka café – were just the tip of the iceberg. The worst part is that in localized incidents where minority individuals are hacked to death on nearly a daily basis, are not the work of ISIS – increasingly we have a tendency of complacently siphoning off everything to the ISIS, as if that were an entity not representative of Muslim radicalization – but, as per Bangladeshi intelligence reports, that of home-grown terrorists, including the sons of educated, rich elite.

This is the larger framework through which the issue needs to be seen.

Challenges

But the government is set to face hurdles on several counts:

First, when the Citizenship Bill was proposed and debated in India, the minority Hindus living in Bangladesh began to confront a fresh onslaught of hate crimes, facing the prospect of being forcibly evicted from their lands and asked to go back to India, since the government was already making provisions to accommodate them, through the bill. According to a Bangladeshi minority organization, Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad, the move may intensify the torture and travails of religious minorities in Bangladesh, enabling the extremists to forcibly evict them from their lands and send them back to India.6

Second, in the context of the Citizenship bill, the issue of Rohingyas in India – who have fled religious persecution in Myanmar – has also been raised, with the community demanding that India protect its interests too and take the issue to the United Nations on their behalf.  They are demanding that they be treated like victims of religious persecution rather than as illegal (economic) immigrants.

Finally, it will complicate the BJP’s Assam alliance. This issue is important and Assam is the key state since the major part of ‘illegal immigration’ to India is from Bangladesh, followed – to much lesser extent – by Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1986, the Parliament amended the Citizenship Act, 1955, and added Section 6A to apply specifically to immigration from Bangladesh. The amended Act stated that persons of Indian origin, residing in India, who had come to India before 1 January, 1966, would be regarded as citizens. Persons of Indian origin who came between 1 January, 1966 and 25 March, 1971, would be regarded as foreigners under the existing foreigner laws and would require registration.7 Those who came after 25 March, 1971 would be ‘illegal immigrants’.

The politics of citizenship that played out behind this history was dominated by the mobilizations around the consolidation of an Assamese cultural-national identity, spearheaded by the AASU, its political party, the AGP and the ULFA. These discourses were both pitted against the Indian state and against the influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of whether they were Hindus or Muslims. In fact, early this year AASU had filed a court petition seeking revocation of the central government decision to grant citizenship to persecuted Hindus.

Steadily, the current government radically altered this discourse. Prior to this, the Tarun Gogoi government had also petitioned, in 2012, for protecting the rights of the people fleeing religious persecution from neighbouring countries, and had consolidated its Hindu base. But the BJP, by pitching Mr. Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate during the recent Assam elections, allying with the AGP and, at the same time, wooing away from the Congress the majority of Barak Valley Hindu vote-base by promising citizenship to persecuted Hindus, has carved out an expedient, but temporary space, for persecuted Hindus within the dominant discourse of Assamese identity.

However, this patchwork of expedient alliances cannot last forever. Just after the bill was tabled, about two days ago, a pro-Assamese NGO led by Upamanyu Hazarika protested against it, arguing that it will encourage illegal immigration and threaten the Assamese identity. So if the bill is enforced, the government will have to consider the political ramifications carefully.

Despite all these challenges, in the final analysis, the bill represents a progressive and bold legislation by the government. It is not only a response to the severe, and mounting, persecution faced by minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also the first time that the Indian state has acknowledged open support and measures for the Hindu community overseas. The public discourse in India has, for far too long, been skewed in favour of the argument that was made by Manmohan Singh few years back – Muslims have the first right over the country’s resources. This minority-driven politics of secularism has prevented the state from working, objectively, in the national interest, thereby harming the interests of all communities and stoking communal fires.

References:

1 Sriram 2015.

2 Devi 2016.

3 Sriram 2015.

4 Bhalla 2016.

5 Sriram 2015.

6 The Daily Star 2016.

7 Roy 2016

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