The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, provides for according Indian citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who are persecuted in their countries after six years of residence in India instead of 12 years even if they do not possess any document. The Bill is considered to be controversial as it does not provide for according citizenship to religiously persecuted Muslims in these countries.
Secularism is engraved in the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, though the word ‘Secular’ was inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution by 42nd Amendment to the Constitution. Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of the State Policy were formulated in such a way to ensure the secular character of the Constitution.
Hindu nationalist organisations want the term ‘secular’ removed from the Preamble. However, by simply removing the term ‘secular’ one cannot make India’s Constitution a ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ code. The landmark decision of the apex court in the Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala case has asserted that the power of Parliament to amend the Constitution is not unfettered. The Supreme Court adjudicated that while Parliament has ‘wide’ powers, it did not have the power to destroy or emasculate the basic elements or fundamental features of the Constitution.
Given that the Fundamental Rights, as interpreted by the judiciary, cannot be altered through legislation, the secular character of the Constitution cannot be changed at the whims and fancies of political parties.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh said in Parliament that the Bill was not against the provisions of the Constitution and provides succour to persecuted minorities in the three neighbouring countries. He did not explain why the Bill has not accorded provision for Indian citizenship to the Ahmadiyya Muslims of Pakistan or the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.
The Union Home Minister has wrongfully cited Jawaharlal Nehru in support of the Bill that Nehru was in favour of giving shelter to the persecuted minorities in the neighbouring countries. It is but a betrayal of Nehru’s vision. The fact is that Nehru strived to prevent partition but when it occurred, he never accepted the logic that since Pakistan had ostensibly been created for Muslims of India, what remained was a State for Hindus. He had a lifelong conviction that India belonged to all who had contributed to its history and civilisation, and that the majority community had a special obligation to protect the rights, and promote the well-being, of the minorities.
Duty of Country
It is the duty of the countries, which respect human rights defined under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, to provide shelter or to consider granting citizenship (if they apply) to those who are persecuted for their race, or political or religious belief. States normally grant citizenship to people who have entered the country legally and been granted a permit to stay, or been granted political asylum, and also lived there for a specified period. In India, such persons can be granted citizenship by naturalisation or by registration as per provision of Citizenship Act 1955.
Even without making any amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955, the government could have given shelter and granted citizenship to any person of another country who is persecuted for race, political and religious belief exercising the provision of naturalisation and registration in the Citizenship Act 1955.
If this is the case, what is the urgency of bringing the amendment to the Citizenship Act at the fag end of the tenure of the Central government? The only understandable reason for the hurry in amending the Bill is to appease the Hindu nationalist forces and segments the country further on religious lines, which will provide electoral dividend to the saffron party.
Targeting the Hindu Bengalis who have migrated from Bangladesh after 1971 to Assam, Prime Minister Narendra Modi — while addressing a rally in Assam’s Silchar on January 5 — said that the Citizenship Amendment Bill was a penance against the injustice done in the past. He meant that Hindus who migrated to Assam could have been given citizenship long ago.
It is to be noted that in the latest National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating exercise, nearly 40 lakh citizens, mostly Hindu Bengalis, who migrated from Bangladesh after 1971, were dropped for want of legacy data, which is necessary for establishing family links with those who lived in Assam before 1971.
Opposition to Bill
The people of Northeast, particularly Assam, have vehemently opposed the Bill as it will negate the provisions of the Assam Accord signed in 1985 between the All Assam Students Union and other agitating organisations against illegal infiltration from neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Bill will also nullify the ongoing NRC updating in Assam. It will provide citizenship to the Hindu Bangladeshis who have migrated from Bangladesh to Assam and other States of the Northeast. The Bill will further make provision for granting citizenship to those who migrate to Assam and other States of Northeast in future. There are more than 15 million Hindus in Bangladesh now.
The Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the BJP, has pulled out of the BJP-led government in Assam in protest against passing of the Bill. The bandh call given by more than hundred organisations of Assam and the North East Students Organisation on January 8 received massive response throughout Northeast.
Meanwhile, the Union Home Minister declared in the Lok Sabha that the government has decided to grant ST status to six ethnic groups of Assam and it will soon introduce a Bill in Parliament for that purpose. The Union Cabinet in quick succession approved Constitution Amendment Bill for 10% reservation for the poor in general category. All these hurried exercises of the BJP government are aimed at the coming parliamentary election.
The Citizenship amendment Bill will jeopardise the secular, democratic character of the Indian Constitution and will make another Pakistan out of India.
(The author is a senior journalist from Assam)