The very idea of citizenship in India may be at stake as a joint parliamentary committee set up to examine the NDA government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has cleared proposed changes to it. The amendments seek to introduce a religious criterion in the process of acquiring Indian citizenship, which is against the letter and spirit of the Constitution. These changes may have far-reaching repercussions, especially in Assam, where citizenship has always been a contested issue.
The amended Act would make it easier for minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — to get Indian citizenship: They would be deemed eligible for citizenship after residing in India for six years, instead of 12, even if they lack the necessary papers. The implied discrimination against Muslims while granting citizenship stems from the misguided and dangerous notion that India is primarily a country for the Hindus. It follows the logic of the advocates of the two-nation theory — which was rightly rejected by the founders of the republic. The Indian Constitution proposes an inclusive idea of citizenship and does not allow any discrimination on the basis of the applicant’s religious identity. The immediate context of the move to amend the citizenship act is the contingency in Assam, where nearly 30 lakh people face exclusion from the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) — the proposed amendment will make it easy for the Hindus among them to acquire citizenship. Expectedly, this has revived an old linguistic faultline in Assam, with the Brahmaputra Valley opposing the amendment and the Barak Valley welcoming it.
The Centre has sought to address the concerns in Assam by reviving the debate on Clause 6 of the 1985 Assam Accord. Clause 6 talks about “constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards” to “protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people”. Organisations like the AASU have consistently spoken about implementing Clause 6 and seek reservation of electoral seats, land and other resources for indigenous Assamese people. In essence, these arguments perceive indigeneity and identity as strict and non-negotiable categories. In reality, the Assamese identity needs to be understood as a fluid category shaped by migrations and the vagaries of state-building. Undue emphasis on ethnicity, linguistic or racist purity can only produce an unseemly and perilous politics of exclusion.
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