The Union Cabinet Wednesday cleared the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 granting exemption to a large part of the North East region from applicability of the proposed law that aims to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It will now head to Parliament for introduction and passage.
The new Bill has also clearly defined who will be considered an illegal immigrant, has set the cut-off date for entry into India to December 31, 2014 and inserted a specific clause to grant a hearing to an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) before his/her card is cancelled for reasons specified in the law.
According to the Bill cleared by the Cabinet, states in the North East region that have Inner Line Permit (ILP) regime and tribal areas that have been notified under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution shall be out of the purview of the proposed Act.
The Bill has made it clear that the new law would not be applicable to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram (they have ILP regime) and Sixth Schedule areas of Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura (Mizoram too has Sixth Schedule areas). The Bill effectively leaves out just Manipur of all the North East states from complete or partial exemption from the ambit of the law.
“Nothing in this section shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution and the area covered under ‘The Inner Line’ notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873,” the Bill states.
It seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan to apply for Indian citizenship but keeps out Muslims. The Bill says these communities would be granted Indian citizenship on the ground of having faced “religious persecution” in their respective countries or if they migrated to India “fearing” such persecution.
The government has said in the Bill that “amendments proposed in the Citizenship Act, 1955 will extend the facility of Indian citizenship to a specific class of persons who are presently facing hardships and difficulties in acquiring citizenship”.
The Bill had first been introduced in Parliament in 2016 but was sent to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). After the JPC submitted its report, the Bill was re-introduced in January 2019 with its applicability across the country.
The exemption to the North East states has come about after a series of consultations Union Home Minister Amit Shah held with politicians and civil society groups from the region between November 29 and December 3. The Indian Express had reported on November 30 that Shah had assured representatives from the North East that ILP states and Sixth Schedule regions would be exempted from the new Bill.
Inserting a new provision in Section 2(1)(b) — dealing with definition of “illegal migrant” — of the Citizenship Act, 1955, the Bill states: “Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause c of sub-section (2) of Section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purpose of this Act.”
The Bill also makes provision for abatement of any legal proceedings against such applicant with regard to illegal migration after the citizenship is conferred. The applicant would also be entitled to all rights and privileges that he is entitled to until the citizenship is conferred.
In the case of OCIs, the Bill seeks to insert some new clauses in Section 7D of the Citizenship Act. It says an OCI card could be cancelled if the OCI cardholder “has violated any of the provisions of this Act or provisions of any other law for time being in force as may be specified by the Central Government in the notification published in the Official Gazette”.
It provides for relief in the form of another insertion which says that such cancellation would not be done “unless the Overseas Citizen of India Cardholder has been given a reasonable opportunity of being heard.”
In a statement on “equity, accountability and innovation” attached to the Bill, the government said citizenship was being granted to such immigrant “who was forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on grounds of religion or fear of such persecution in his country”.
On the issue of accountability, the government said the Bill had no specific provisions but “clarifications regarding the illegal migrant would be placed in public domain”. It said OCI cancellations would also be “widely publicised”.
The Bill comes in the backdrop of Home Minister Amit Shah reiterating in Parliament that the exercise of the National Register of Citizens would not only be implemented across the country but also repeated in Assam. The NRC exercise has already left more than 19 lakh people out of the Assam list.
In its earlier form, the Bill had faced stiff opposition in the North East, particularly Assam, with politicians and civil society groups expressing fears that it would endanger the ethno-cultural sanctity of the region and change its demography.
The government hopes that with the exemptions, the new Bill will face less opposition in Parliament and will also not lead to any public unrest in the North East region. Shah had recently said that the CAB would pave the way for NRC across the country.
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