Understanding the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019

A law not based on religion

N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar in New Delhi in April 1948

N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar in New Delhi in April 1948   | Photo Credit: PIB

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Refugees fleeing civil violence in Pakistan were exempt from the 1950 immigrants expulsion law

In a recent interview to the news agency PTI, responding to the criticism coming from members of various political parties, National General Secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ram Madhav, claimed that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2019 was similar to a 1950 law enacted by the Jawaharlal Nehru government to expel illegal immigrants from Assam, but which was not applicable to minorities from East Pakistan.

Mr. Madhav said, “Let me remind the critics of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the Nehru government had passed a similar Bill in 1950 for expulsion of illegal immigrants mainly from erstwhile Pakistan (Bangladesh) and had categorically said that minorities of East Pakistan wouldn’t be covered under the bill.”

No explicit mention of religion

Is the statement accurate? A review of the old legislation and reports relating to its passage in Parliament in The Hindu shows that the Bill did not explicitly mention the religion of either those to be expelled or those exempted from it. Rather, it was applicable to all “undesirable” foreigners, while protecting refugees and those fleeing because of fear and violence in East Pakistan.

The reference is to the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act which provided for the expulsion of certain immigrants who had come to Assam and lived in different parts of India. The Central government viewed their stay as being “detrimental to the interests of the general public of India or of any section thereof or of any Scheduled Tribe in Assam”. The Act replaced an Ordinance promulgated by the Central Government on January 7, 1950, and was passed after discussion in Parliament a month later.

During the discussions on the Bill, N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar (in picture), who introduced it, was reported in The Hindu to have said that this “Bill was not intended to be applied for refugees from East Bengal and in view of the strong feeling of the House, he was prepared to make it clear in the Bill itself”. There were demands by some members, especially from Punjab and West Bengal, States that had suffered the most from Partition, to explicitly exclude “Hindu refugees” from the purview of this Bill.

A day later, a proviso, Section 2(b), was introduced in the Bill to address these and other concerns but not on the lines of what was demanded by some members. Section 2(b) mentions that the Act would not 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 left his place of residence in any such area and who has been subsequently residing in Assam”.

The Act, therefore, explicitly mentioned that any person who has fled Pakistan on account of “civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances” would be exempt, ruling out its application to refugees from the then East Pakistan and who fled the neighbouring country.

‘Secular character not violated’

The Bill was passed in Parliament on February 13, 1950. Interestingly, Tajamul Hussain, a Member from Bihar, was quoted in The Hindu as saying during the deliberations that the Bill allows for illegal immigrants to be expelled not because they were Muslims, but because they were not citizens of the country and therefore “the Bill did not violate the secular character of the State”.

srinivasan.vr@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 5:54:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-law-not-based-on-religion/article30279756.ece

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