The Cognizant Citizen: Citizenship Amendment Bill

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, on Thursday, got the President’s assent, making it an Act. Over the last few days, CAB’s presence in the news has been prominent. With protests widespread across the North East, why does it hold the importance it does? Here is a breakdown of the entire issue.

WHAT IS THE CITIZENSHIP AMENDMENT BILL?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, seeks to give Indian nationality to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to amend the definition of ‘illegal immigrant’ for Hindus, Sikhs, Parsees, Buddhists and Christians who have migrated from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh on or before December 31, 2014, on the grounds of religious persecution only.

According to the Citizenship Act of 1955, illegal immigrants are not allowed to apply for citizenship. An illegal immigrant is anyone who has entered the country without valid documents or has overstayed their welcome

Along with this, it also relaxes the conditions for ‘Citizenship by Naturalization’. Earlier, it was mandatory to reside in the country in the last twelve months, and for eleven of the last fourteen years in order to apply for citizenship. CAB reduces it to six.

WHAT DOES THE GOVERNMENT HAVE TO SAY?

Citing the formation of Pakistan and Bangladesh– two countries with Islam as the State religion– the government justifies its stance on not including Muslims in the Bill. According to the government, CAB covers only these minorities as they have faced religious persecution in these countries. With the formation of two Islamic republics neighbouring India, these people underwent large amounts of religious persecution. With the hope of being allowed to practice their religions in India, these people, who today amount to about 1,50,00,000, are residing illegally in different parts of India. The Citizenship Amendment Bill hopes to legalize their citizenship on humanitarian grounds.

The Government has put forth their assurance that neither is this law targeting the Muslim community in particular nor is this law unconstitutional. This specific legislation espouses to emancipate the minorities living in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Muslims are excluded in this legislation because in the neighbouring nations, Muslims are not a minority. However, they can still apply for Indian citizenship under the Citizenship Act 1955.

WHAT DOES THE OPPOSITION HAVE TO SAY?

According to the Opposition, CAB is unconstitutional as it violates Article 14—Right to Equality. One of the major arguments that the Opposition has put forth is that this law will make religion the benchmark to whether anyone will be awarded Indian citizenship. This contradicts the bedrock of the Indian Constitution, it’s secularism. It states that people shall not be discriminated on any grounds, including religion, to be citizens of India. India was formed on the foundational principle of ‘inclusiveness’, which aimed to embrace the diversity in the subcontinent. Furthermore, this seeks to ultimately establish that Muslims are second-class citizens of India, as CAB allows for preferential treatment towards certain groups.

Another argument against the Bill is that it does not include the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and the Tamil refugees of Sri Lanka. It also makes no mention of the religiously persecuted Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims.

CAB AND THE NORTH EAST

Firmly believing it to be a direct attack on India’s secular fabric that has been carefully woven since the freedom struggle, massive protests erupted across the nation by social and political activists, student unions and other organisations opposing the Bill.

When it comes to the North East, CAB happens to be a much more sensitive issue. Widespread protests have broken out all over this region, especially Assam and Tripura.

Illegal immigration has always been a rampant problem for these states. With the implementation of CAB, what the people of North-East essentially fear for is becoming a minority in their own homeland.

Areas Protected and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland ask for an InnerLine Permit to enter or pass through them. Home Minister, Amit Shah, in the Lok Sabha, said that Manipur, too, will be applicable for ILP. Along with this, the tribal regions of Assam, Tripura, Mizoram and Meghalaya will be protected from this Bill under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The Sixth Schedule aims to safeguard the rights of the tribal population with the formation of Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). The governors of these states have the power to reorganise the boundaries of these tribal areas, along with the power to alter or change the names of these autonomous districts without separate legislation. In total, there are ten areas in the North East registered under this.

The Assam Accord

Many believe that the Citizenship Amendment Bill nullifies the terms of the Assam Accord. The Assam Agitation (1979-1985) was a movement against the illegal immigrants in Assam. Led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP), it compelled the Central Government to recognize and expel illegal immigrants. This resulted in the signing of the Assam Accord on 15th August 1985.

The Assam Accord was a Memorandum of Settlement signed between the leaders of the Agitation and the Government of India. To put it in very simple terms, under the Foreigners’ Issue or Clause 5 of the Accord, anyone who entered Assam from 1st January 1966 to 24th March 1971 will be taken in. Anyone entered past this timeline will be considered a foreigner. The Government was to take stricter measures to ensure illegal immigration was controlled.

Why is the North East protesting?

An influx of immigrants over the years has resulted in overcrowding, resulting in a change in the demography of the North East. With the CAB allowing for citizenship of the very people the North East has tried to stop from entering, they are afraid of losing their identity. The people, to put it simply, no longer want to share their resources and opportunities. Assam and Tripura have been fighting the hardest against the Bill.

Assam

Although several parts of Assam have been protected, the plains will bear the brunt of this influx. The Assamese fear that, with this law, there will be a loss in their culture and identity; essentially reducing the Assamese to minorities in Assam.  According to them, 25th March 1971 was the cutoff to be considered according to the Assam Accord. The National Register of Citizens (NRC), a list of genuine Indian citizens, maintained to identify the illegal immigrants also considers this to be the cutoff.

The Government is using the sixth clause of the Assam Accord to fight this fear. The Sixth Clause of the Accord specifically deals with the safeguarding of the Assamese people. According to this Clause, constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards can be applied to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, and linguistic identity of the Assamese.

This has not assured the people of Assam as they have been actively protesting non-stop. Their fear, however, is justified when one takes a look at Tripura.

Tripura

Tripura became a part of India in 1949. Since the Partition, Tripura has seen an influx of both Bengali Hindus as well as Muslims into their community. Once a strong tribal community, Tripura is dealing with an identity crisis for the longest time. Their language has been lost, and most jobs from almost all spheres are now that of these Bengali Hindus and Muslims. With the passage of this law, the people of Tripura, feel that the situation will only worsen.

REACTIONS

Ordinary life has been brought to a standstill in the North East as people are protesting against the Bill. The North East Students’ Organisation (NESO), an umbrella body of the students’ groups of the region called for an 11-hour shutdown on December 10 to launch a series of agitations against the passing of the Bill.

People thronged the streets in other regions of the country as well to protest against the Bill, questioning its constitutionality and condemning it for granting citizenship on the basis of religion and thus blatantly enforcing religious discrimination. Linking it with the proposed implementation of nationwide NRC and its implications for the Muslim minorities who have not been included in the Bill who they fear will be stripped of their citizenship rights, several activists have urged the people of this country through the use of social media to launch a civil disobedience movement to oppose the CAB and NRC by refusing to submit documents to prove their citizenship.

The move is also seen by many as a means of securing political gains for the ruling party and an attempt to make India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. While commending the effort to protect persecuted minorities, one of the primary objections being raised is about the exclusion of Muslim minorities from the countries mentioned in the Bill as well as all minority immigrants from other countries such as Ahmadiyyas in Pakistan or Rohingyas in Myanmar. Several scientists, scholars, writers and academicians have further criticised the Bill on similar grounds and sent letters to the government demanding its withdrawal.

Army personnel have been called in at places, while the Assam Rifles personnel were deployed in Tripura. The Army also conducted a flag march in Guwahati. On Thursday, thousands defied the curfew imposed to protest on the streets. Mobile internet has been suspended for 48 hours. The Police began firing bullets and tear gas at the mob. As a result, two lives were lost and eleven were injured. Internet is cutoff in Meghalaya, while parts of Shillong are under curfew. The Police have used tear gas and lathi-charged the crowd at Shillong. At least 24 trains have been cancelled as protestors set fire to railway lines. Several flights have also been cancelled. Schools in Assam have been shut till 22nd December.

The houses of BJP and AGP leaders, and the offices of the RSS in Dibrugarh, Sadya and Tezpur as well as the BJP office in Tezpur was attacked. Protestors also pelted stones at Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s and Union Minister Rameswar Teli’s homes.

The CAB has garnered the attention of international media, with most major outlets calling the amendment “unconstitutional” and “unsecular.” The US is also contemplating imposing sanctions on Amit Shah ever since he tabled the bill in the Lok Sabha. While the protests in North East have started taking a deadly turn, parts of Maharashtra, where immigrants from Pakistan, live have turned jubilant. The workers of the BJP took to the streets to celebrate the enactment of this amendment. Most liberals and the Opposition have faith in the judiciary, that it will overturn this unconstitutional law.

Citizens, like always, have taken their respective sides on this issue. However, due to it being an amendment to an existing law, there has been a lot of misinformation about its constituents to provoke people. Consequently, it is necessary for the populous of India and the world to inform themselves about the issue and the law itself before forming an opinion.

Written by Aarohi Sarma, Rishi Kant, Sunay Mehta and Tulika Somani for MTTN

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