Citizenship Amendment Bill

Divisive legislation

Print edition :

A protest against the move to provide citizenship to people of minority communities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan during the meeting of the JPC on Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, in Guwahati on May 7. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Photo: Ramesh Sharma

As Assam erupts in protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, the ruling BJP and the Sonowal government are seen to be using the smokescreen of the process of updating the NRC in a bid to camouflage their actual position on the Bill.

Ever since the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, the expulsion of all “illegal Bangladeshi migrants”, irrespective of religion, has been the consensus demand in Assam. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, introduced by the Narendra Modi government in Parliament sparked off a controversy that refuses to die in Assam and other north-eastern States as it proposes to make non-Muslim “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

The Bill’s Statement and Objects of Reason states that “under the existing provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955, persons belonging to these six minority communities, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who have either entered into India without valid travel documents or the validity of their documents have expired are regarded as illegal migrants and hence ineligible to apply for Indian citizenship and it is proposed to make them eligible for applying for Indian citizenship”. Secondly, the Bill also proposes to reduce the period of residency in India required under the Act for eligibility to apply for citizenship to six years from the current period of 11 years.

The Bill, however, excludes Muslims and Jews.

Those opposing the Bill have been insisting that determination of citizenship on the basis of religion is unacceptable as secularism is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution. They argue that Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees equality before law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth and that the Bill is violative of this Article.

A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) headed by Rajendra Agrawal is currently examining the Bill in order to submit a report to Parliament. The committee visited Assam and Meghalaya from May 7 to 11 for public hearings on the Bill.

The Bill has triggered sharp opposition in the north-eastern States. In Assam, it has snowballed into mass protests, reviving memories of the six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation spearheaded and launched by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the erstwhile All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) in the late 1970s, which culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found itself isolated in the Brahmaputra valley over the issue, with opposition forces ranging from the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) and the Left parties to student and youth bodies, including AASU, organisations of various ethnic communities, literary bodies, and women’s groups and intellectuals, writers, singers and artistes taking to the streets and giving representations to the JPC demanding the withdrawal of the controversial Bill. They have been demanding that all post-1971 “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” must be identified and expelled in accordance with the Assam Accord.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a constituent of the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal, has also opposed the Bill as “it violates the Assam Accord”, and the party is opposed to determination of citizenship on the basis of religion. It has threatened to snap ties with the BJP and quit the government if the Central government pushes for its enactment. In the Barak valley, however, most organisations have supported the Bill and submitted representations to the JPC seeking its enactment.

Opposition from within BJP

The State governments in Meghalaya and Mizoram have adopted Cabinet decisions opposing the Bill. The Nagaland Cabinet has also decided to oppose the Bill if “it goes against the interest of the Nagas”. The BJP is a partner in the ruling coalition in Meghalaya and Nagaland. In Mizoram, currently ruled by the Congress, the BJP State unit has opposed the Bill. The stand taken by the BJP units in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram has emboldened the protesters in Assam to mount pressure on the Sonowal Cabinet to adopt a resolution demanding the withdrawal of the Bill.

Under growing pressure, the coalition government led by Sonowal announced that it would clarify its stand after the final draft of the updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) was published. The BJP’s Assam State unit also adopted the same position. However, senior BJP leaders and several senior Ministers in the Sonowal Cabinet, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other leaders of the Sangh Parivars insist that Hindu Bangladeshis do not pose any threat to the existence and identity of Assamese people, whereas Muslim Bangladeshi migrants have altered the demography and pose a grave threat to the existence and identity of the Assamese and other ethnic communities. The Supreme Court had fixed June 30 for the publication of the final draft, but the prevailing flood situation has affected work in some districts.

National register

An effective mechanism for identifying and expelling illegal Bangladeshi migrants was elusive until political consensus was reached that the National Register of Citizens, 1951, in Assam would be updated with the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, in accordance with the Assam Accord.

The National Register of Citizens, 1951, is being updated in accordance with the provision of The Citizenship Act, 1955, and the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Card), Rules, 2003, with the cut-off date of March 24, 1971. The first draft, published on December 31, 2017, included the names of 1.9 crore of the total 3.29 crore applicants. Assam is the only State in the country to get its NRC.

Parties and organisations opposing the Bill insist that Assam had taken the burden of a large number of “foreigners” from erstwhile East Pakistan and also agreed to accept all such foreigners who had come in until March 24, 1971, as Indian citizens and therefore the State cannot take the burden of any more foreigners after this cut-off date. Apprehension over “illegal Bangladeshi migrants” outnumbering the Assamese and other ethnic language speakers and posing a grave threat to their linguistic and cultural identities stems from the migration of people who speak Bengali dialects from erstwhile East Pakistan following the 1947 Partition, during the Bangladesh Liberation War and, through a porous border, after the creation of Bangladesh. Efforts by the BJP, the RSS and other Sangh Parivar organisations to push the Citizenship Bill are being seen as attempts to valorise religious identity over linguistic identity. There are official records and correspondene showing the number of migrants who came to Assam after Partition.

“Total number of migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan to Assam in 1961 was 2,20,691, as determined by Registrar General of India. Till May 31, 1966, 2,15,794 migrants were detected, and notices of deportation were served, or prosecution were served on 2,15,535. Out of these according to figures confirmed by check posts, 1,43,438 have already left the country. About 28,999 of the remaining number have preferred appeal.” (Copy of Letter NO.PLB.171164/34 dated Shillong, 25th June, 1966 from S.P. Hazarika, A.C.S., Deputy Secretary to the Government of Assam, Political Department, to the Inspector General of Police, Assam, Shillong. Subject: Procedure for deportation of Pak infiltrants. Source : “White Paper on Foreigners Issue” brought out by the Assam Home and Political Department in 2012.)

The move of the BJP’s Assam unit to link the Bill to the publication of the final draft of the NRC seemed to add to the confusion instead of clearing the air and triggered speculation if the party was planning to play upon the numbers of those excluded from the final draft of the NRC to push the citizenship Bill. Why introduce the Bill in Parliament if the party means to wait for the publication of the final draft of the updated NRC, particularly when the process of updating the NRC is on in full swing? The ruling party is being asked to explain why it is pushing for a Bill violating provisions of the Assam Accord, the implementation of which was among the party’s election promises.

State NRC Coordinator Prateek Hajela has appealed to all sections to refrain from speculating on the number of applicants who are not going to make it to the final draft. “It unnecessarily creates fear and apprehension among all who have applied and have undergone verification. Our mandate is to ensure that no genuine Indian is excluded, and no declared foreigner is included in the updated NRC and to see if any applicant has been able to prove his or her citizenship in accordance with the modalities,” he told Frontline. He added that no genuine Indian citizen needed to worry as they would be able to submit claims for inclusion if their names were in the final draft.

He explained that those who came to Assam on or after January 1, 1966, but before March 25, 1971, and registered themselves in accordance with the Foreigners Registration Regional Officer (FRRO) would be included in the updated NRC but would remain disenfranchised for 10 years from the date of registration in accordance with the Assam Accord.

Besides, Foreigners Tribunals being higher judiciary bodies and appellate authorities, anyone excluded from the updated NRC will be able to file an appeal before the tribunals, whose decisions will be binding on the NRC authorities. There are 100 Foreigners Tribunals functioning in Assam.

Assam Parliamentary Affairs Minister Chandra Mohan Patowary informed the Assembly in February that 90,206 foreigners had been identified since the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985; 29,783 of them had been pushed back, and 75 had been expelled over the past 33 years.

The declared foreigners include those who came in the 1966-71 stream, and their names can be included in the updated NRC provided they are registered with the FRRO.

There are also 1,25,333 “D-voters” in Assam (“D” standing for doubtful/disputed) who are eligible to apply for the inclusion of their names in the updated NRC. However, their names will be finally included only when the appropriate Foreigners Tribunal declares them non-foreigners. D-voters are not allowed to vote. In 1997, the Election Commission directed that the “D” tag be used against voters who had failed to provide proof of citizenship and their names be referred to Foreigners Tribunals. Patowary informed the Assembly that so far 2,44,144 D-voters had been referred to the tribunals and 1,31,034 cases had been disposed of. Altogether, 66,986 D-voters were found to be Indian citizens and 20,578 were declared foreigners. Organisations of religious and linguistic minorities say that the higher percentage of D-voters found to be Indian citizens vindicates their position that many genuine Indian citizens were branded as D-voters and made to undergo the trauma of proving their citizenship before the tribunals.

A booklet titled “Statistical Information relating to the Influx of Refugees from East Bengal into India till 30th September, 1971”, brought out by the then Ministry of Labour and Rehabilitation, reveals that seven lakh refugees entered Assam between 1947 and February 1971. These refugees included 4.87 lakh people who left the erstwhile East Pakistan following the partition of India and migrated to Assam between August 15, 1947, and March 31, 1958. Around 2.14 lakh refugees fled erstwhile East Pakistan because of communal riots and entered the State between January 1, 1964, and March 24, 1971. Another stream of 2.77 lakh refugees entered Assam between March 1971 and September 30, 1971, because of the civil war and atrocities by the Pakistan Army in what was then East Pakistan. Between March 1971 and September 30, 1971, 6.04 lakh refugees entered Meghalaya and 13.50 lakh refugees entered Tripura.

However, the Government of India claimed in official correspondence that most of the refugees who came after March 25, 1971, had returned. “Some 7,699 refugees were still living with their friends and relatives in Assam” as on May 9, 1972. (Tour Note of P.N. Luthra, Additional Secretary on his visit to Assam and Meghalaya on May 2-5, 1971, for audit of refugee relief accounts.)

On June 22, the Gauhati High Court upheld a directive of the NRC State Coordinator issued on May 2 asking all Deputy Commissioners to put on hold the inclusion of names of siblings of declared foreigners until their names were cleared by Foreigners Tribunals. The directive was based on a 2017 verdict of the court that once a person is declared a foreigner “it would be only a logical corollary to such declaration that his brothers, sisters and other family members would also be foreigners. Therefore, it becomes the duty of the jurisdictional Superintendent of Police (B) to cause enquiry in respect of the brothers, sisters and other family members of the declared foreigners, and thereafter, to make a reference to the concerned Foreigners’ Tribunal against such brothers, sisters and other family members.” The court also directed the Assam government to issue a general directive to all the Superintendents of Police (Border) to initiate follow-up steps in this regard.

Until all the cases pending before the tribunals and the cases to be referred on the basis of court verdicts are disposed of and the citizenship status of all such persons is declared by the tribunals and the appellate courts, wild speculation over the actual number of foreigners in Assam by parties and groups is likely to continue.

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