The government intends to introduce The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament’s Winter Session that commences on Monday and is scheduled to continue until December 13. What is this Bill, and why is it contentious?
What is The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?
The Bill seeks to amend The Citizenship Act, 1955 to make Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship of India. In other words, the Bill intends to make it easier for non-Muslim immigrants from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours to become citizens of India.
Under The Citizenship Act, 1955, one of the requirements for citizenship by naturalisation is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, as well as for 11 of the previous 14 years.
The amendment relaxes the second requirement from 11 years to 6 years as a specific condition for applicants belonging to these six religions, and the aforementioned three countries.
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Under The Citizenship Act, 1955, a person who is born in India, or has Indian parentage, or has resided in India over a specified period of time, is eligible for Indian citizenship.
Illegal migrants cannot become Indian citizens. Under the Act, an illegal migrant is a foreigner who: (i) enters the country without valid travel documents like a passport and visa, or (ii) enters with valid documents, but stays beyond the permitted time period.
Illegal migrants may be put in jail or deported under The Foreigners Act, 1946 and The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920.
However, in 2015 and 2016, the government exempted specified groups of illegal migrants from provisions of the 1946 and 1920 Acts. They were Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who reached India on or before December 31, 2014.
This meant that these particular categories of illegal migrants would not be deported or jailed for being in India without valid documents.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in Parliament to amend The Citizenship Act, 1955, so that these people could be made eligible for citizenship of India.
What happened with the Bill?
The Bill was tabled in Lok Sabha on July 19, 2016, and was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on August 12, 2016. The Committee submitted its report on January 7, 2019 and, the following day (January 8, 2019), the Bill was passed in Lok Sabha.
With the 16th Lok Sabha nearing the end of its term, the government was racing against time to introduce it in Rajya Sabha. However, massive protests against the Bill in the Northeast acted to restrain the government, and Rajya Sabha adjourned sine die on February 13, 2019, without the Bill being tabled.
According to Parliamentary procedures, all Bills that have been passed by Lok Sabha but not by Rajya Sabha lapse when the term of Lok Sabha ends. The relevant provision in the Legislative Procedure in the Rajya Sabha says: “A Bill pending in Rajya Sabha which has not been passed by Lok Sabha does not lapse on the dissolution of Lok Sabha but a Bill which is passed by Lok Sabha and is pending in Rajya Sabha lapses on the dissolution of Lok Sabha.” (Procedure regarding Bills originating in Lok Sabha and transmitted to Rajya Sabha: Provision regarding lapsing of Bills.
The Citizenship Amedment Bill too, therefore, lapsed.
The Bill is now likely to be introduced afresh in the Winter Session. It will have to be passed by both Houses in order to become a law.
What is the controversy around the Bill?
The fundamental criticism of the Bill has been that it specifically targets Muslims. Critics argue that it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to equality.
The government, however, maintains that the Bill aims to grant citizenship to minorities who have faced religious persecution in Muslim-majority foreign countries. BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have spoken of this Bill as righting the wrongs of history by granting refuge to the sons and daughters of “Ma Bharti”, who were left stranded by Partition.
In the Northeastern states, the prospect of citizenship for massive numbers of illegal Bangladeshi migrants has triggered deep anxieties, including fears of demographic change, loss of livelihood opportunities, and erosion of the indigenous culture.
Almost the entire Northeast was wracked by massive protests for more than a month leading up to the anticipated introduction of the Bill in Rajya Sabha earlier this year.
The BJP has, however, always underlined its determination to bring in the Bill.
Home Minister Amit Shah has linked the passage of the Bill with a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC), suggesting that even if the Assam NRC erred in leaving out some non-Muslims, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would fix the error.