A Joint Parliamentary Committee submitted its report on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha on January 7, which was the eve of its closure for the Winter Session. Introduced two years ago, the changes proposed to India’s citizenship laws soon became a national talking point for its underlying premise: granting citizenship on the basis of religion. The bill claims to offer nationality to people belonging to minority communities from neighbouring countries.
With the revival of the bill after the JPC report, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government is keen on passing it ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, but the bill faced tremendous opposition in the lower house, from allies like Shiv Sena, AGP and JD(U), as well as the Congress.
The Bill was referred to a joint select committee in August 2016, after it was discussed in the lower house of Parliament. Its adoption by the parliamentary committee itself was quite controversial, coming as it did after the JPC had rejected all amendment proposals proposed by the Opposition.
Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Mohammad Salim, Biju Janata Dal (BJD)’s Bhartruhari Mahtab, and Samajwadi Party (SP)’s Javed Ali Khan, all of whom are members of the joint committee, submitted dissent notes after their recommendations were overridden.
What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. In doing so, it aims to grant citizenship by naturalisation to immigrants who were persecuted in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and entered India before December 31, 2014. According to reports, the idea driving this amendment was to make good on BJP’s 2014 election promise—to grant shelter and citizenship to Hindu refugees persecuted in neighbouring countries.
The law would thus extend to refugees hailing from religious communities of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs— thereby changing the definition of illegal migrants and making it legal to deny citizenship to Muslim immigrants.
The Bill also seeks to reduce the mandatory requirement of 11 years to six years of Indian residence, in order to obtain citizenship. According to the amendment, anyone who has lived in India for six or more years is entitled to citizenship, even if they do not have the required documents.
The government has argued that the bill is not intended for economic migrants and refrained from charting the road map for deporting newly-rendered illegal immigrants.
How has the opposition responded?
A day after protests over the bill broke out in Assam, where the draft National Register of Citizens had stripped 40 lakh people of their citizenship overnight last August, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) threatened to dissociate from the BJP’s state cadre if the bill gets Parliamentary nod. Considering that AGP does not have a single member in the Lok Sabha, the party appealed to Shiv Sena to oppose the proposed legislation on Monday for greater heft.
The Maharashtra-based party on Sunday declared it would side with AGP when the bill comes to a vote. JD(U) national general secretary Sanjay Verma also said his party will oppose the bill because it will do no good to the identity and culture of Assam and the rest of northeast. Most opposition parties, including the Congress, TMC, and CPI(M) have steadfastly opposed the proposal of granting citizenship on religious grounds, further arguing that the move would interfere with the process of updating and reverifying the NRC, perhaps even rendering it redundant.
What’s happening in Assam?
Several indigenous organisations and student bodies in Assam have been agitating to dissuade Lok Sabha members from voting for the bill, saying it would be detrimental to their cultural identity and would nullify provisions of the 1985 Assam Accord, which fixed 1971 as the cut-off year for deportation of illegal immigrants irrespective of religion. Around 70 organisations, led by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), took out protest rallies in the north-eastern state on the morning of January 7, 2018.
A shutdown has also been called to condemn PM Modi’s recent statement that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 would be passed in Parliament soon. In a recent rally in Assam, Modi had announced his confidence in the passage of the bill, claiming it would serve as a “penance against the injustice and many wrongs done in the past.” On Sunday, Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma further stirred up controversy when he said that Assam will go to ‘Jinnahs‘ if the Bill is not passed.
The Mizo Zirlai Pawal (MZP), the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU), the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), and the All Assam Students Union (AASU) have extended their support to the 11-hour “bandh” call by the North East Students’ Organisation (NESO).
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.