Narendra Modi-led government introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 with much fanfare but it is now facing serious opposition from its allies. It has become a major issue especially in Northeast India. The opposition to the bill is growing. Meghalaya and Nagaland governments, of which BJP is a part, have opposed amendment in the Citizenship Act of 1955. Even Assam government is facing a crisis. The ministers of Assam Gana Parishad (AGP) have opposed Modi government’s move in the presence of BJP President Amit Shah at the third North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) summit held last month in Guwahati.
The bill was a follow-up of what Modi had promised during election campaign of 2014. He had assured granting citizenship to the Hindu refugees. The bill aims to ‘save’ religious minorities from persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. It was also a matter of concern. The issue is why confine it to only three countries and that too only to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains and Christians. Few organisations opposed the bill even in 2016, saying it is against the principle of secularism enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The bill is absolutely silent on the persecution of Muslim communities like Ahmedias. It was designed to communalise the issue. So from the beginning, the bill became controversial. It primarily catered to Hindu communities from Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are a couple of lakh illegal Hindu migrants, refugees living in Rajasthan and in few states in the Northeast. India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. There is, in fact, no move to join the UN Refugee Convention. When the issue of Rohingya Muslims arose, the Central government opposed their entry into India and said they will deport Rohingyas.
The Citizenship Act of 1955 prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship. Illegal migrants are those people who entered India without valid documents or who stayed beyond the permitted time. Under the Foreigners’ Act, 1946 and Passport Entry into India Act, 1920, illegal migrants may be imprisoned or deported.
AGP chief Atul Bora threatened the Central government by saying, “His party will withdraw from the government with BJP in Assam if the Centre goes ahead with the bill. AGP is of the opinion that if the bill becomes a law, then it will violate the Assam Accord signed in 1985 between then Rajiv Gandhi government and the AGP & All Assam Students Union (AASU). The Accord decided March 24 1971 as the cut-off date for granting citizenship to migrant settlers. It did not make distinction between Hindus or Muslims. The bill seeks to grant citizenship rights to minority communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan if they arrived in India by December 31, 2014. It also seeks to bring down the residency period for eligibility from twelve years to seven years. It clearly violates the Assam Accord. The bill is now being examined by the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Bora further said, “We cannot accept the bill that seeks to grant citizenship on the basis of religion. Also, the move will have an impact on our language, culture and change our demography. We want Assam Accord to be implemented.”
If the bill is passed, it will alter the demography of few border states and subsequently it has potential to influence the election results. BJP came to power in Assam in 2016 by assuring people of the state that they will end illegal migration from Bangladesh. There is pressure on Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal. Home Minister Rajnath Singh assured Sonowal that people of Assam should not be apprehensive and nothing will be done without taking them into confidence. The people of Northeast feel that if the bill becomes a law, then illegal immigrants from Bangladesh will get citizenship. Under pressure, Sonowal said he would have no moral authority to hold on to power if he could not protect the interests of the people.
Sonowal says he will clarify his stand after the publication of final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) currently being updated in Assam. Supreme Court directed NRC authorities to publish it on June 30. The reality is that NCR is not being updated on the basis of religion but on the basis of Assam Accord. It requires post 1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants to be identified, their names deleted from voters’ list and deported from the country.
The issue is too serious. The issue of illegal migrants is also a humanitarian one. The Citizenship Act needs to be relooked. The amendment if necessary has to be according to the secular principles of Indian Constitution.