As the Narendra Modi government gets ready to defend its Citizenship Amendment Bill in both Houses of Parliament against a misguided opposition, there are several things it must keep in mind to ensure a repeat of Article 370-like success.
It’s possible but only if the Modi government makes itself heard amid all the wrong noises being made over what is essentially a humanitarian attempt to give rights to persecuted minorities in India’s three neighbouring countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
And this is what the government needs to do.
Put out the truth
The Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to take into consideration the poignant reality of persecution on religious grounds in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It promises to give Indian citizenship to six communities — Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists who had to take refuge in India (on or before 31 December 2014) after escaping persecution in the three neighbouring countries.
The Modi government must clearly explain the bill’s main point – that it distinguishes between exodus due to religious persecution and displacement of people due to political upheavals.
This explains why a number of people from neighbouring Sri Lanka, who escaped the LTTE terror to take refuge here and are living in camps in Tamil Nadu for the past couple of decades, have been kept out of the purview of the bill.
Moreover, the bill provides for enabling individuals who may not have proof of birth in India but are considered persons of Indian origin by virtue of their parents being Indians, avail citizenship rights. All they would need to do is show proof of six years of continued residence in India.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has accorded top priority status to the bill and equated to it the dilution of Article 370. This likely suggests that the passage of the bill by both Houses of Parliament is as important for the Modi government as was the one that ended the ‘special’ status of Jammu and Kashmir.
The defence minister’s emphasis on the persecution of minorities in India’s immediate neighbourhood may be required to be diplomatically handled by another minister in the Modi government so as to not jeopardise the “neighbourhood first policy”. Rajnath Singh’s contention that “giving citizenship to six minorities will be yet another push from the Modi government to the spirit of sarva dharma sambhav” also needs to be elaborated by the government.
Tackle the northeast
The provisions of the bill will not be applicable in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland that come under the provisions of Inner Line Permit (ILP) as well as to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura (as specified in the 6th Schedule of the Constitution).
The ILP restricts Indian citizens from settling down in the protected areas by buying land or property and/or taking up jobs. Needless to say, the “new citizens” too will not be exempted from ILP provisions. Incidentally, there is an argument that the ILP itself, a legacy of the British Raj, needs to be revisited, tweaked and made more relevant and responsive to modern needs of economic development and opportunities.
But the non-tribal areas of Assam are very much under the ambit of the bill. This provision is likely to benefit a large number of ‘illegal’ entrants, mainly from Bangladesh. The contentious aspect of this particular provision could be seen to be the reason for the opposition to the Bill in large parts of Assam, which feel the brunt of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
The infamous “green revolution” and local political factors contributed to the vote bank politics, encouraging influx of migrant Muslim workers to settle in the fertile agricultural belt and tea gardens of Assam. The issue got further complicated when a large number of Hindus in Bangladesh, who were victims of atrocities by the occupation army of Pakistan, began pouring into India in the late 1970s. There was an attempt to classify Hindus as sharanagat (asylum seeker) and illegal migrants, mostly Muslims, as bahiragat (foreigner).
Manage perception, opposition
Political parties appear to be taking a stand on the Citizenship Amendment Bill from the point of view of their respective vote banks rather than considering the merits and demerits of the bill from national security and humanitarian point of view.
A large section of the people who have migrated to India as a result of extremely hostile living conditions in the countries of their adoption or birth due to Partition, religious extremism and social differences will be able to live without the humiliation of being tagged as ‘refugees’.
But the argument by some parties, especially the Left, holds no water considering the flaw in their argument that the bill violated the basic tenets of the Constitution.
The issue of illegal immigrants has to be seen and understood in the light of social, security, demographic and financial dimensions and not looked at merely through a narrow political prism. It is imperative for all political parties to rise above such narrow consideration and conduct the debate on broader aspects of citizenship in an atmosphere of trust and with the conviction that the intent and content of the bill has to be far above party politics.
The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.