A Bill that is causing worry

It has been made clear that the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, will not be tabled in Parliament in the monsoon session, and that the Joint Parliamentary Committee examining it will be holding wider consultations.

The Bill was introduced in July 2016, and referred to a parliamentary committee.

The Bill’s objective is to remove the tag of ‘illegal migrants’ from members of minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis — from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who have entered the country without legal documentation or whose documents have expired. The idea is to make them eligible to apply for Indian citizenship.

If the Bill is passed, these individuals will be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation. Under the present law, citizenship by naturalisation requires applicants to have stayed in the country for 11 years of the previous 14 years, and throughout the last 12 months. The proposed amendment reduces the residency requirement to six years, besides the last 12 months. The amendment will not cover Muslims, who form the majority in these three countries.

Opposition to the Bill is strong in Assam, where there is fear that non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh will become Indian citizens. There is also an apprehension that this would be in conflict with the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens in Assam, for which the cut-off date is March 24, 1971.

The Bill is also seen as discriminatory in some quarters as it does not cover Muslim sects fleeing persecution from dominant sections in these countries.

The Bill’s statement of objects and reasons argues that the aim is to help persons of Indian origin, including those from these minority communities in the three countries, who are unable to produce proof of their Indian origin while applying for citizenship by registration. As naturalisation is their only means of acquiring citizenship, the government wants to reduce the residency requirement from 12 to seven years. The long waiting period in the present law would deny them “opportunities and advantages” that accrue to citizens, even though they are likely to stay in India permanently.

Another feature of the proposed amendment is that it enables cancellation of the registration of any Overseas Citizen of India cardholder for violation of Indian law.