First things first. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is not about excluding anybody; it is about including some. It is an effort to grant citizenship to those minorities from erstwhile Pakistan — that now includes Pakistan and Bangladesh — and Afghanistan, who have come to India seeking refuge from religious persecution or the fear of it. The first time such refugees were included was immediately after Partition in the first census, which was also regarded as the National Register of Citizens.
Let’s remember that every time such refugees come to India and claim citizenship, the government has been issuing citizenship to them after the due process. There are a number of instances of religious minorities from these three countries coming over to India on religious visas and deciding to stay back because of the dangerous situations that existed back home. They include Sikhs from Afghanistan, Sindhis and SCs from Pakistan and Bengalis and tribals from Bangladesh.
What the government intends to do through the proposed CAB is simplify the process of granting of citizenship to these minorities. Earlier, there was a 12-year wait under the regular citizenship laws. The new Bill reduces that period to five years. A minority citizen from these three countries, who turns to India seeking citizenship, will become eligible for the same provided he or she has entered India before December 31, 2014 and has lived here for at least five years.
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Unfortunately, the debate on the Bill has been distorted by the Opposition, citing erroneous arguments like the violation of Article 14 and the principle of secularism. Granting citizenship to sections of the population is a regular process. During the liberation war of Bangladesh, lakhs of Hindus and other minorities had poured into India. This migration was no smaller than at the time of Partition. A majority of them had come to states like Bengal, Assam and Tripura.
Camps were created for such migrants and special efforts were made to provide citizenship to them by the government at the time. There are a good number of such Bangladeshi immigrants in these three states who had secured citizenship documents at that time. Nobody called it a violation of Article 14. Similar facilities were extended to persecuted Indians from Uganda during Idi Amin’s rule and then, too, nobody had demanded that in order to be secular we should extend citizenship to Ugandans.
Home Minister Amit Shah’s invoking of Partition has an important historical bearing on the issue. We can’t shut our eyes to the fact that India was partitioned on religious lines and large-scale communal violence erupted as a result. Between 1947 and 1950, millions crossed over to either side. They all became citizens of the respective countries.
But then, it came to the knowledge of the authorities that even after 1950, the migration was continuing into the Northeast for reasons that were not necessarily Partition-related. It was then that the Jawaharlal Nehru government promulgated The Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950. The Act stated that the government would deport those immigrants who had entered Assam illegally and whose presence was considered detrimental to the interests of Assam and India. When the question of minorities was brought to Nehru’s attention, he exempted all of them from the 1950 Act.
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The relevant portion of the 1950 Act states: “Provided that nothing in this section shall apply to any person who on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area now forming part of Pakistan has been displaced from or has left his place of residence in such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam.”Nehru was categorical that the Act wouldn’t apply to minority immigrants like Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs.
The proposed Bill is a continuation of that unfinished agenda. It has become necessary that the issue of the illegal immigrants be addressed in one go, as their numbers have swelled to millions in the last several decades. This Bill will come as a big boon to all those hapless people who have been the victims of Partition and the subsequent conversion of the three countries into theocratic Islamic republics.
Arguing that the Bill is anti-secular is specious. After Independence, not once but twice, we conceded that the minorities in our neighbourhood were our responsibility. First, immediately after Partition and again during the Indira-Mujib Pact in 1972 when India had agreed to absorb over 1.2 million refugees. It is a historical fact that on both the occasions, it was only the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians who had come over to our side. Far from being anti-secular, Indian citizenship was a commitment given by our leaders to the minorities. That is precisely what the Narendra Modi government is fulfilling now.
India has several other refugees that include Tamils from Sri Lanka and Hindu Rohingya from Myanmar. They are not covered under this Act. Similarly, the Nepalese and others from neighbouring countries are guided either by bilateral agreements or the citizenship laws of our country.
Concerns of some sections in the Northeast have also been adequately addressed by excluding Schedule VI areas and the Inner Line Permit-restricted areas from the purview of the Bill. The CAB is a law applicable to the entire country. The government will make sure that no state shall face any adverse impact on its demography, culture, language and customs.
In its two millennia-long history, India has always welcomed persecuted minorities, like the Parsis, Jews and others, from wherever they came. The CAB is a continuation of that national tradition.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 11, 2019 under the title ‘A law that includes’. The writer is national general secretary, BJP and director, India Foundation.
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