Globally, Illegal Migration has become an unfortunate economic reality of our time. Millions of people, especially the minorities, have been displaced and rendered stateless on grounds of religious or ethnic discrimination, civil wars or even persecution by the state. Whether they are the refugees of the Syrian Civil War or the displaced Rohingyas of the Rakhine state in Myanmar, all of these individuals have been forced to leave their countries to seek sanctuary elsewhere, legally or illegally. Naturally, the cultural divide and increasing competition with the indigenous population residing over the scarce resources in those areas that provide shelter to these migrants has precipitated a crisis in host countries. India has been grappling with the same predicament since its partition in 1947.
The situation in Assam has worsened as the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, in Lok Sabha on Tuesday to grant citizenship to the non-Muslim minority, erstwhile illegal migrants. This has resulted in widespread protests and campaigns by Assamese people and their political representatives.
Before we examine the Bill and its concerns, it is important to explore the context and background of this migrant crisis.
The Curse of the Partition
The Partition of British India into two parts: The secular Indian Republic and a theocratic Islamist Pakistan left behind a legacy of migration. The persecution of the religious minorities by the latter state caused their displacement and eventual influx in large numbers into India, especially the North-East. Ever since, illegal migrants have constantly flowed into our borders from Bangladesh (initially East Pakistan) – a major pollical, economic and social concern of the Assamese society.
The anti-foreign Assam Agitation of 1979-85 that was spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union resulted in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985. The Assam accord called for the deportation of those who migrated from Bangladesh after 1971. However, it was never implemented and the infiltration never ceased.
An Ideological Deadlock
The issue of illegal migration has led to two extreme conflicting viewpoints resulting in a stalemate. On one hand, it poses a threat to the nation’s security and tears apart a region’s social fabric. It has in a way threatened the very existence of the Assamese population. Illegal immigration has led to a serious demographic transformation resulting in the indigenous population being reduced to a minority. Moreover, it has cut into the already scarce employment opportunities of the Assamese people and jeopardized their language and culture.
On the other hand, there have been concerns over the rights of these stateless, helpless immigrants as per Article 21 of our constitution that guarantees right to life to anyone living in India irrespective of their citizenship. The focus on the threat to the national security of the country has overshadowed the various insecurities of the migrant population who cannot even return to the countries they once came from. Therefore, attempts to deport them will be a violation of fundamental human rights. It is in the light of this stalemated debate that we shall examine the Citizenship Bill.
The Citizenship Bill, 2019
The Citizenship Act, 1955, provides for the acquisition and determination of Indian citizenship through four methods: by birth, by descent, by naturalization and by registration. It defines ‘illegal immigrants’ as foreigners who either enter the country without valid documents or overstay beyond the permitted time. In 2016, the government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill as an ordinance to change this definition of illegal migrants. It proposed that the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan would no longer be illegal and will be eligible for citizenship. It also sought to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalization. Lastly, it provided for the cancellation of OCI registration for violation of any law.
The Bill was put under examination by a Joint Parliamentary Committee that finally submitted its report on Tuesday, i.e. 8th January 2019, followed by its passage in Lok Sabha. From the very beginning, the Bill has faced immense criticism and protests that have bordered around violence. Around 70 organizations, led by the ‘Krishak Mukti Sangam Samiti’ (KMSS) protested and rallied across Assam followed by the inevitable withdrawal of the ‘Asom Gana Parishad’ from the BJP-led alliance in the state. Moreover, in order to protest against the scheduled tabling of the Bill yesterday, the All Assam Students Union along with 30 other organizations forced a statewide shutdown for 11 hours.
Issues with the Bill
The primary cause of the antagonistic reactions is the regressive and contentious nature of the Bill. Firstly, the exclusion of Muslim migrants, a considerably large minority community is highly unreasonable. The introduction of a religious criterion to determine citizenship violates the basic structure of the Indian constitution. Such a provision is antithetical to Indian Secularism and there is possibly no reasonable answer to justify it.
Secondly, the Bill, if it becomes an Act, will entirely invalidate the updation of the National Register of Citizens and violate the Assam Accord – a major cause of concern among the Assamese people. In fact, the Bill itself emerged in the context to include large migrant communities, mostly Hindus, that were excluded from the NRC. The purpose of the NRC update is to identify the illegal immigrants who entered India post 24th March 1971 and to determine the citizenship of those who have applied for inclusion in the newly updated NRC.
Lastly, as with other regressive legislation’s associated with the current government, it was introduced as an Ordinance completely bypassing the usual legislative procedures on purpose, to avoid constructive debate in the Parliament it seems. The Bill is nothing but a political compromise, ahead of the 2019 General elections. After being voted out of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan in the recently concluded elections, the government needs to consolidate its vote bank, a large chunk of which is the illegal immigrant community. Even the regional parties live a political paradox as they too depend on the same vote bank while simultaneously advocating the ‘anti-foreign’ rhetoric which has further complicated the issue.
Despite immense criticism, the NDA government has boldly defended the Citizenship Bill, with the PM calling it an atonement for the mistakes committed during the Partition. He further reiterated that it is our nation’s duty to protect those who failed to migrate back to India during partition and were now facing difficulties in the neighboring countries. The government maintains that the Bill will safeguard the interests of Assam by ensuring protection to minorities and is not biased towards any religion.
The Opposition, on the other hand, has aggressively opposed it.
Prof. Saugata Roy, a member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress said that the Citizenship Bill would ‘lead to fires’, not only in Assam but across all states in the northeast. While the Bill has been a blessing in disguise for lakhs of non-Muslim migrants that were excluded from the updated NRC records, it has been viewed by the Assamese people as the ‘final nail’ in the coffin of their existence.
The passage of such a poorly drafted legislation plagued by a religious bias severely opposes the Indian Constitution and fails to stand by the liberal values of our democratic nation which may lead to xenophobic violence and exclusionary politics. The gaps left for political convenience in this bill question the notion of ‘Indian Citizenship’ and are bound to have catastrophic consequences in the coming time. There is no doubt that this bill is a misguided pill that will be hard to digest.
Sources: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), The Indian Express, The Hindu, PRS-India, Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) Report
Image Credits: India Today