The protests in Assam against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 point to the contentious nature of the proposed amendments. The bill was introduced in Parliament earlier this year, but opposition from the Congress and Left parties forced the government to refer it to a parliamentary panel, which had sought the views and suggestions of the public. The objections from the All Assam Students’ Union and various ethnic groups in Assam are premised on the fear that the amended bill could further increase migration into Assam. This fear is rooted in the politics that spawned the Assam agitation in the 1980s and led to the signing of the Assam Accord. While the fears of Assamese ethnic nationalists, even if exaggerated, arise from specific local concerns, the bill is most problematic, perhaps for another reason: It moves away from the vision of the founding fathers who refused to see the Indian state primarily as a Hindu nation.
At the core of the bill is the proposal to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 so that members of minority communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Parsi – from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh could acquire Indian citizenship faster than at present. Now it takes 12 years of residency for any non-citizen to acquire Indian citizenship by naturalisation. The amendment proposes that a person from any of the aforesaid countries could acquire citizenship (by naturalisation) within seven years even if the applicant does not have the required documents. However, and here lies the problem, this provision is not extended to Muslims from these countries. The move to relax the conditions for acquiring Indian citizenship is unexceptionable, but surely the enabling criterion cannot be based on the applicant’s religion.
The intent of the amendment arguably draws from the BJP’s poll manifesto that declares India a “natural home for persecuted Hindus” who “shall be welcome to seek refuge”. Of course, India has accommodated scores of refugees – people targeted for their faith, political beliefs and so on — from its neighbourhood and should continue to do so. But in so doing, governments in the past have not made a religious distinction or discriminated against people of a particular faith. In fact, the refugee influx from Bangladesh in 1971 included a large number of Muslims, and over the years, many Afghans, who are Muslims, have taken refuge in India due to the political turmoil in their country. The Constitution, drawing from the syncretic and accommodating spirit of the Indic civilisation, imagines the Indian nation as a secular state with no special preference for any faith. The citizenship bill should be reworked according to the idea of India in its largest and most capacious version.