We have all heard of NRI families who consciously choose to have their baby in the United States so that the child is automatically a US citizen from day one. For this ‘privilege’ of jus soli, or citizenship by birth, NRIs must thank this man:
In 1857, when Indians were mutinying against the British Raj, Dred Scott was a slave in the United States who appealed to the US Supreme Court for his freedom and that of his family. The US Supreme Court ruled that African Americans like him were not US citizens, even if they were born in the US and lived all their lives there, in slavery.
The Dred Scott case accelerated the anti-slavery movement that led to the US Civil War. Thereafter, in 1868, the United States passed the 14th amendment to the US Constitution that said, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside…”
Words of Unity
Some 79 years later, in 1947, the Constituent Assembly of a newly independent India was debating citizenship. There were those who felt India can’t offer citizenship as a birthright because that might encourage anyone to come to India and get Indian citizenship for their children.
One gentleman strongly disagreed.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel thought this was a “narrow view”. Patel said, “There are two ideas about nationality in the modern world, one is broad-based nationality and the other is narrow nationality. Now, in South Africa, we claim for Indians born there South African nationality. It is not right for us to take a narrow view.”
He went on to argue, “I suggest for your consideration how many foreign men and women come to India for giving birth to children to acquire Indian nationality. It is a curious idea that for that purpose you introduce racial phraseology in our Constitution. It is important to remember that the provision about citizenship will be scrutinised all over the world. They are watching what we are doing….
“Our general preface or the general right of citizenship under these fundamental rights should be so broad-based that anyone who reads our laws cannot take any other view than that we have taken an enlightened modern civilised view. The citizenship clause has been taken from the American model, which is more or less consistent with the English.”
It was this view that eventually prevailed. Anyone who was born in India was a citizen of India, or at least had the option to be. Re-affirming jus soli in the Citizenship Act of 1955, then Home Minister Gobind Vallabh Pant said, “The mere fact of birth in India invests with it the right of citizenship in India…we have taken a cosmopolitan view and it is in accordance with the spirit of the times, with the temper and atmosphere which we wish to promote in the civilised world.”
Xenophobic home ministers
This “civilised” and “cosmopolitan” view of Indian nationality was changed first in 1986 and then, even more stringently, in 2003.
In 1986, India amended its Citizenship Act, decreeing that anyone born in India won’t automatically get Indian citizenship. At least one of your parents had to be Indian. That’s how India moved to the “narrow” view of nationality, known as jus sanguinis or citizenship by blood.
Who made this change and why? Meet the Minister of State for Home Affairs in the Rajiv Gandhi government:
He did it because of the same old fear of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, and especially under the pressure of Assamese sub-nationalists. Leftists, activists and Muslim leaders could immediately see the dangers of this move. Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI(M) had said, “This bill is another sickening instance of surrender to chauvinistic elements and forces of disruption and divisiveness.”
The change in law came into effect from 1 July 1987. So, if you are born after 1 July 1987, the government can strip you of your Indian citizenship if you are unable to prove the Indian citizenship of at least one of your parents.
We are often told India is over-run by crores of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. But we manage to find and deport only a few hundred every year. The hyper-exaggerated fear of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants was a particular obsession of another Home Minister of India:
L.K. Advani pushed through another amendment to the Citizenship Act in 2003 in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years. This one decreed that if you are born on or after 3 December 2004, at least one of your parents must be an Indian citizen and the other parent must not be an illegal immigrant.
Why blame the child?
Effectively, that means you have to prove the Indian citizenship of both your parents if you were born on or after 3 December 2004. In other words, you may be a 15-year old in India today, born and raised in this country, never been abroad, but the government can strip you of your Indian citizenship just because you can’t prove both your parents are legit Indians (or one is a legit foreigner who did not enter India legally).
What is the fault of a child who is born in India, raised in India, with Indian culture and values, salutes the flag, sings the national anthem, and appreciates the Constitution? Let us say the child’s parents were both illegal immigrants, is it really fair to blame the child for it and make him/her a stateless person?
Even if nothing unites us, geography does. We are all Indians because we were born within its borders and we live here. Our future is a shared one because we live here. The fact that we were born and live here should be enough to earn us Indian citizenship. (It’s another matter if some of us want to ditch it for a stronger passport like patriot Akshay Kumar did.)
Threatening to strip people of their citizenship just because they can’t prove their parents’ nationality is a violation of fundamental human rights. Article 15 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights reads, “Everyone has the right to a nationality. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”
Those 19 lakh people staring at statelessness in Assam? The BJP’s solution is to offer them citizenship on the basis of religion. Sardar Patel would not have called this “enlightened modern civilised”. He would have baulked at the “racial phraseology” of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act.
A better solution would be to revert to jus soli, and let everyone who can prove they were born on Indian soil automatically become Indian. That should cover almost all of these 19 lakh people.
The BJP’s threat of an all-India NRC, along with CAA that excludes only Muslims, is seeing Muslims across the country run helter-skelter to obtain copies of birth certificates of their parents and even grandparents. It is fair to ask people to prove they are Indian, but to prove their parents were Indian is absurd.
Views are personal.