As I was watching and commenting on the unfolding political drama in the Parliament over reservation for the economically disadvantaged upper caste, I received an SMS from a friend in Assam: “While Assam is burning today on Citizenship Amendment Bill, the national media is discussing only about the 10% Quota Bill”.
He was right. I am not sure if the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill is such a momentous event in our republic, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would like everyone to believe and the media to play out. It’s a lot of posturing with very little real-life consequences. But if the Citizenship Amendment Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha on the 8th, becomes a law, it would indeed be an event to mark in history.
It might be remembered as the day the Parliament of independent India resuscitated the two-nation theory. And it has real life consequences.
Also read: Citizenship Amendment Bill: Atoning for Partition or religion a criterion in secular India?
The consequences were there for everyone to see throughout the northeast. The passage of this Bill was marked by an Assam-wide bandh against it called by Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti in association with a number of organisations and movement groups. The protesters are not mainly from the Muslim minorities, but from organisations representing the dominant Hindu Ahom community and various indigenous tribes. There are reports of violent protests in Tripura involving the indigenous tribes.
If for nothing else, the developments associated with this Bill should have been noticed for its electoral significance. The Assam Gana Parishad has quit the NDA on this issue, leaving the BJP-led government in the state with a precarious majority. The AGP was left with little option, with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) joining what is clearly a very powerful grassroots protest by the Ahom and other indigenous communities in the state.
In Tripura and Meghalaya too, the BJP partners have registered their protest against this Bill, as has the MNF-led government in Mizoram. The northeast was one of the few pockets in the country where the BJP could look forward to adding to its 2014 tally. At the very least, the political upheaval over the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act has halted the BJP’s onward march in the region.
The real significance of this Bill is much deeper, not limited to the northeast. Sadly, while the national media had the space for intricacies of the Indira Sawhney judgment, there was little information on the content of this disturbing legislation that seeks to change the nature of citizenship of our republic. The Bill has been around for more than two years. It was introduced in Lok Sabha on 19 July, 2016.
While all forms of threats to secularism have been noted and commented upon, the far-reaching implications of this Bill have largely escaped even the liberal and secular intelligentsia outside Assam.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, passed by the Lok Sabha seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. This Act lays down the various ways in which the citizenship of India may be acquired. The contentious issue is citizenship by naturalisation, vis the process by which a foreigner can become an Indian citizen.
Also read: Pakistan doesn’t give citizenship on religion, but India is dangerously tilting towards it
The original Act prohibits illegal migrants from applying for Indian citizenship. Illegal migrants are defined in the Act as those foreigners who entered India without a visa or valid travel documents or those who enter legally but stay beyond the permitted time. It meant that lakhs, or perhaps millions, of Bengali immigrants, both Hindu and Muslim, who crossed over to India and have settled in Bengal, Assam, and other states of the northeast, could not apply to be Indian citizens.
They were meant to be imprisoned or deported under the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920. The Assam movement wanted these laws to be enforced strictly, and illegal migrants to be identified and deported.
The Assam Accord had set 24 March, 1971 as the cut-off date. Illegal immigrants coming into India after this date were to be identified and deported.
The amendment introduced by the Modi government basically exempts the non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh from these strict provisions and opens the door for illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh to be absorbed as full-fledged Indian citizens while keeping the door firmly shut on the Muslims.
So, while the National Register of Citizenship process is screening out all illegal migrants, the Citizenship Amendment Bill provides a backdoor for the Hindus to escape being declared as foreigners.
On paper, the Bill has a wider scope, it applies to migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But the migration from the first two is by now a trickle. Formally, the Bill creates an exception not just for Hindu, but also for Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian immigrants from these three countries (ever heard of Sikh immigrants from Bangladesh, Christians from Afghanistan, or Jains from Pakistan?).
These exempt categories of immigrants will not be debarred even if they came without valid papers, and their residence requirement for acquiring a citizenship will be reduced from eleven years to six years.
Also read: For 2019 elections, BJP at least needs the Citizenship Amendment Bill
While defending the Bill in the Lok Sabha, the home minister Rajnath Singh presented it as India’s gesture to support persecuted minorities, citing leaders from Nehru to Manmohan Singh in his support. He didn’t, of course, elaborate on why this newly found empathy for persecuted minorities was not extended to Rohingyas from Myanmar, Ahmadiyas from Pakistan, Tamil minority from Sri Lanka or to the minorities from Nepal.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill may be summed up as: NO MUSLIMS PLEASE, THIS IS INDIA.
This preposterous legislation seeks to introduce religion as the grounds for citizenship in India. It flies in the face of Article 14 of the Indian constitution that prohibits unequal treatment based on religion. Of course it will not withstand the judicial test but the fact that such an amendment has been passed in the Lok Saba is disheartening enough.
More than the constitution, it violates the very idea of India, the idea of India as a plural-secular republic. Defending BJP’s position on the Bill, Assam’s Congressman turned BJP’s finance Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed that it represented a fight between Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s legacy and India’s legacy.
He claimed that this Act will save 17 Assembly constituencies from going to Jinnah’s way.
He is, of course, right in ways more profound than he can imagine. By admitting religion as a criterion of Indian citizenship, this Bill admits Jinnah’s reasoning that India was for Hindus while Muslims needed their own Pakistan (and now Bangladesh).
If this Bill becomes an Act, the Republic of India would have surrendered the legacy of its freedom struggle and accepted the logic of the two-nation theory.
Now that we have the portrait of Savarkar, another proponent of the two-nation theory, shouldn’t the home minister think of installing Jinnah’s portrait in the central hall of the Parliament?
The author is the National President of Swaraj India.