Does the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill go against Article 14 of the Constitution?

Why is the government pushing for the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?

October 06, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:50 am IST

The story so far: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha in January this year but lapsed as it was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha. It had proposed to amend the original Citizenship Act of 1955. After returning to power with a majority for another term, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government is trying to resurrect the Bill.

What does the Bill mandate?

The Bill had mandated that those who cross the border to India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and belong to “minority communities”, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, would not be treated as illegal immigrants despite having entered the country without valid documents or with travel papers that had expired. They would not face deportation under the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 and the Foreigners Act of 1946.

Then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who introduced the Bill in the Lok Sabha, had said these immigrants faced “discrimination and religious persecution”. Mr. Singh said the proposed law would “provide relief to persecuted migrants who have come through western borders of the country to States like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and other States.”

The Bill, which was introduced in Parliament on July 15, 2016, explained that many persons of Indian origin including persons belonging to the six “minority communities” had been unsuccessfully applying for citizenship under the Citizenship Act of 1955 but were unable to produce proof of their Indian origin. Hence, they were forced to apply for citizenship by naturalisation which prescribes 12 years’ residency as qualification.

The Bill stated that such a long-drawn process denies illegal immigrants from these six minority communities of the three foreign nations “many opportunities and advantages that may accrue only to the citizens of India, even though they are likely to stay in India permanently”. The amendment shortened the period of residency from 12 to seven years for gaining citizenship by naturalisation. The Bill had also empowered the government to cancel registration as Overseas Citizen of India in case of any violation of the Citizenship Act or any other laws.

Are there faultlines?

The Bill, critics say, violated the basic structure of the Constitution. By distinguishing illegal immigrants on the basis of religion, the proposed law goes against constitutional guarantee of the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution. The protection of Article 14 applies equally to both citizens and foreigners. Second, the Bill would hamper the Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC), which defines all illegal immigrants, irrespective of religion, on the basis of a cut-off date.

The Citizenship Bill is also seen as a move to subvert the Assam Accord of 1985. The Accord deems any person who cannot prove his ancestry beyond March 24, 1971 as an alien. It does not differentiate on the ground of religion in this aspect.

Home Minister Amit Shah has been vocal about reviving the Bill. He has said the government would amend the citizenship norms by re-introducing the Bill before going ahead with a nationwide NRC. The recently concluded NRC exercise in Assam alone has excluded over 19 lakh of the 3.29 crore applicants from the final list.

The Citizenship Bill is seen by many as an effort by the Bharatiya Janata Party to make good its 2014 election manifesto promise — to make India a safe haven for Hindus persecuted in the three foreign nations.

What has the Supreme Court said?

On March 5, 2019, the Supreme Court had sought a response from the Centre on a fresh plea seeking to quash a series of subordinate laws which allows the naturalisation of illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The petitioners have urged the top court to declare the amendments made through the Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015; the Foreigners (Amendment) Order, 2015 and the order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on December 26, 2016 under the Citizenship Act, allowing the naturalisation of illegal immigrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, as “illegal and invalid”.

The petitioners have contended that the leeway offered by the subordinate laws would further multiply the “uncontrolled influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh to Assam”. Illegal immigration has caused huge demographic changes in the northeastern State, the petitioners have claimed. A Bench comprising Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Sanjiv Khanna issued notice on the plea filed by Assam State Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and had ordered its tagging with a similar pending petition of “Nagarikatwa Aain Songsudhan Birodhi Mancha” (Forum Against Citizenship Act Amendment Bill).

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