House heat for winter session: Enter citizenship amendment Bill

Deeptiman Tiwary, Liz Mathew
The Citizenship Amendment Bill is being opposed across the North East while in Assam, groups see it as a “threat” to the indigenous communities of the region. (File)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, a contentious legislation that seeks to amend a 1955 law to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan apply for Indian citizenship while keeping out Muslims, is all set to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament starting Monday.

On the priority list of the BJP which has also been speaking of replicating the Assam exercise of the National Register of Citizens across the country, the Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016 lapsed because it could not clear Rajya Sabha before the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha. Sources said the Bill will be re-introduced in the winter session for passage in both Houses.

In the list of business for the upcoming session, the Bill is listed: “To amend the definition of illegal migrant, reduction in the number of years of residency period to obtain Indian Citizenship through naturalization and to empower Central Govt. to cancel the registration of Overseas Citizen of India card in case of any violations.”

The 2016 Bill sought to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan apply for Indian citizenship. But it kept out Muslims. The existing Act allows an immigrant to apply for citizenship if s/he has lived in India for 12 months immediately before the application, and for 11 of the last 14 years.

EXPLAINED

For Hindus out of NRC, Bill key

The Citizenship Amendment Bill is a promise the BJP made in its election manifesto. The renewed push comes in the backdrop of over 19 lakh people not making it to the final NRC list. The Bill has raised eyebrows as it is being seen as a bid to accommodate Hindus excluded from the NRC. It provides no relief to Muslims left out of the NRC list.

On July 19, 2016, the government introduced the Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha, relaxing the 11-year cutoff to six years for people of six religions from the three countries. Also, in 2015 and 2016, the government put out two notifications exempting such immigrants from the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 — which provide for deportation — to let them continue living in India if they arrived before December 31, 2014.

The Bill has been mired in controversy for leaving out only Muslims. The government, on its part, has maintained the Bill aims to grant citizenship to such minorities who have faced religious persecution in foreign countries. Coming in the backdrop of the NRC, the Bill, in its last avatar, also faced opposition in Assam where there were concerns about dilution of ethnic culture and change in demography. Many said it was in violation of the Assam Accord.

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The Bill’s introduction assumes significance given that Union Home Minister Amit Shah has said that the NRC exercise will be conducted across the country to weed out illegal citizens but only after the Citizenship Amendment Bill is passed.

“Before NRC, the BJP government is going to bring the Citizen Amendment Bill. All Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian refugees who have come to India under this Bill will be given citizenship of India forever... I want to assure all Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees that you will not be forced to leave India. Don’t believe rumours. Mamata Didi is saying there will be no NRC in Bengal. But we will identify each and every infiltrator and drive them out. When Mamata Banerjee was in the Opposition, she had demanded that such infiltrators be driven out. Now since the infiltrators have become her vote bank, she does not want them removed,” Shah said in Kolkata last month.

After the final list of NRC in Assam, the party’s state unit expressed displeasure, pointing out that the numbers excluded was below expectation, and that many excluded were Hindus. This saw the BJP change its strategy in neighbouring West Bengal, where the ruling TMC had made it an issue. West Bengal is one of the states the BJP has been eyeing to come to power.

Incidentally, six members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), which examined the Citizenship Amendment Bill, gave dissent notes in the report of the panel. The report of the JPC, headed by Rajendra Agrawal of BJP, was placed before Lok Sabha in January this year.

Congress Rajya Sabha members Bhubaneswar Kalita and Pradip Bhattacharya were of the opinion that the Bill could create ethnic divisions in Assam and the rest of the North-East. BJD leader Bhartruhari Mahtab stated that the Bill contravened provisions of the principal Act and ran counter to the spirit of the 1985 Assam Accord.

CPM’s Mohammad Salim said the Indian citizenship emanated from the Constitution that granted it as a fundamental right and this right could not be specific to a religion or a country of origin. Saugata Roy and Derek O’Brien of Trinamool Congress said the Bill brought out the ethnic division in Assam. The Bill, in their view, should not be passed by a sheer majority.

The 440-page report appreciated the government decision to give Indian nationality to non-Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on the ground that they were being persecuted in those countries.