The cutoff date for granting citizenship to Bangladeshi migrants in Assam, defined in Section 6A of the Citizenship Act as March 25, 1971, has become the subject of a fresh debate more than 3 decades after the section was introduced following the Assam Accord of 1985. According to Article 6 of the Constitution, the cutoff for determining citizenship in India is July 19, 1948.
A bunch of petitions challenging the Citizenship Act’s Section 6A, interventions against such pleas, and others relating to the citizenship cutoff have come up in the Supreme Court, which deferred the hearing last week after some of the petitioners prayed for time to file additional affidavits.
Five years ago, a little-known organisation called Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha filed a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of Section 6A. The Assam Accord was already 27 years old then, and several lakh migrants who came from erstwhile East Pakistan before March 25, 1971, had been accepted as citizens.
Groups such as the Asam Sahitya Sabha, Assam Public Works and All Assam Ahom Association too filed petitions.
On December 17, 2014, a two-judge Bench of Justices Ranjan Gogoi and R F Nariman suggested that the matter be put before a five-judge Constitution Bench, and listed 13 questions for it — “most of them are substantial questions as to the interpretation of the Constitution”, it said. Most of the questions pertained to whether Section 6A violated the Constitution, and contradicted other provisions of the Citizenship Act itself.
The two-judge Bench put on record the fact that the Assam Accord had made a “huge number of illegal migrants” deemed citizens of India. “In any case, Section 6A did not merely rest content with granting refugee status to those who were illegal migrants from East Pakistan but went on to grant them the benefit of citizenship of India,” it said.
For & against
The Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha has argued that there is no rational basis for having separate cutoff dates for regularising illegal migrants who enter Assam as opposed to the rest of the country. “While the Assam Accord has failed to effectively tackle illegal migration to Assam because not many such people have been actually deported, Section 6A of the Citizenship Act is unconstitutional,” says Mahasangha chief Matiur Rahman, a former veteran of the All Assam Students’ Union.
The AASU, whose then leaders had signed the accord, considers it “all-inclusive”, as it has provisions for detection and deportation of foreigners, apart from providing constitutional safeguards to the indigenous people. “Moreover, all sections have arrived at a consensus over the provisions of the accord,” AASU chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharyya says.
Former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who was AASU president when he signed the Assam Accord, too wants the sanctity of the Accord protected. “We want implementation of the Assam Accord in letter and spirit. Only this can ensure putting an end to all problems,” Mahanta said.
The Congress sees the developments as a “deep conspiracy” of the central government to nullify the Assam Accord. “If the base year is moved back to 1951, Assam will be pushed into fresh turmoil. Imagine the situation if thousands of people who came before 1971 and were granted citizenship by virtue of the Assam Accord come out on the streets once they are rendered stateless,” said Debabrata Saikia, Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly.
The CPI and CPM too have backed the Accord.
The Assam Jamiat says it will strongly defend the Accord. “Some groups that are challenging the validity of the Accord also want 1951 to be the base year for updating the NRC (National Register of Citizens),” Jamiat president Badruddin Ajmal said. Ajmal is also the president of the All India United Democratic Front, which has 13 MLAs.
The process of updating the NRC has already given an indication as to how many people will find it difficult to prove their Indian citizenship.
Last February, Gauhati High Court had declared as unacceptable residence certificates issued by panchayat secretaries in rural areas and circle officers in urban areas as proof of citizenship for inclusion in the NRC. Some 48 lakh persons who had submitted such certificates now face the prospect of being left out.
“Issuance of such certificates is contrary to the mandate of the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, besides not being in the national interest,” the High Court had said.
While the Centre and the Assam government have decided not to contest the court order, the Centre told the Supreme Court in April that it was considering the reliability of the ration card as a supporting document for updating the NRC. If the court declares ration cards as unacceptable, then another 20 lakh people stand to be left out, raising to 68 lakh the number of those unable to prove their citizenship.
Abhijit Sarma, president of the NGO Assam Public Works that had filed the first petition 8 years ago, has been pleading for deletion of names of about 41 lakh “excess voters” from Assam’s electoral rolls. “Considering that the 3 figures (48 lakh, 20 lakh and 41 lakh) overlap, we suspect that not less than 80 lakh people will be unable to prove their citizenship,” Sarma said.