India Opens Citizenship Door to Religious Minorities of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh

Despite protests by Congress-led opposition parties and agitation by people of northeastern states of India, like Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the Indian Parliament passed its Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) on the night of December 11. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will grant citizenship to the non-Muslims – Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis – from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh on the plea that they fled their parent countries due to religious persecution and arrived in India before December 31, 2014.

Before the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), these immigrants were labeled as illegal migrants. The CAB paves the way for Indian citizenship to lakhs of immigrants, and people who do not belong to the said communities would not be eligible for Indian citizenship. Earlier, the duration of the immigrants’ residency was 11 years; CAB had reduced it to five years. Opponents of the bill say faith cannot be made a condition of citizenship as it violates the secular principles enshrined in the constitution. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees all persons equality before the law.

The opposition parties termed it as anti-Muslim and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s Hindutava agenda to consolidate Hindu votes. They said the purpose of the bill is to tell the Muslims, ‘you are not equal human beings with equal rights’. Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi termed December 11 as a “dark day” in the constitutional history of India and a “victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces” over the country’s pluralism. But Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, denied the charges. He said the CAB is not meant to snatch anyone’s Indian citizenship; it will provide citizenship to religious minorities who are being persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. Home Minister Amit Shah said existing rules are open for Muslims of other countries to apply for Indian citizenship. He added that 566 Muslims have been given citizenship. Shah also attacked the Congress for doublespeak on the issue, saying that during its rule, the Congress party had given Indian citizenship to 13,000 Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan ignoring other communities.

According to political observers, people in Assam and the other North-Eastern states fear that the CAB will lead to lakhs of Hindus from Bangladesh flooding indigenous communities, threatening their language, culture, and tradition and aggravating employment situation in these states. People in Assam along with the other North-Eastern states have their sentiments linked to their culture, language, and heritage. Protestors are furious that Assam already bore the brunt of immigrants from 1951 to 1971; it is unfair to impose more immigrants on the state. The protestors lamented that CAB is an attempt to legalize the 17 lakh Hindus and indigenous tribes who were left out of the National Registry of Citizens prepared under the guidance of the Supreme Court of India. Protesters now believe that the CAB will make NRC redundant and bestow citizenship on illegal immigrants.

Why Are States Opposing CAB?

The northeastern will undoubtedly be the top electoral issue in the 2021 West Bengal and Assam assembly elections. The BJP is hoping for a second term in Assam and wrests power in West Bengal. Muslims constitute around 35 per cent of the population of Assam and about 27-30 per cent in Bengal. The Citizenship Amendment Bill puzzle makes it a Muslim versus non-Muslim debate. It will make the Bengal and Assam elections a polarized political affair. The BJP, which is unpopular among Muslims, hopes to gain from the counter-consolidation of Hindu votes as a result of the consolidation of Muslim votes. The CAB will put BJP at an advantageous position vis-à-vis other parties as, except Muslim, Hindu and other minorities will vote for BJP.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party accused Congress, and opposition parties of spreading rumours and inciting people of Assam and northeastern states, as the Citizenship Amendment Bill would not apply to tribal areas of Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Tripura, as included in Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and the area covered under the Inner Limit, notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. This means that Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Mizoram, the whole of Meghalaya and parts of Assam and Tripura would stay out of the purview of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.

Defending the Bill, R Jagannathan, editorial director of Swarajya magazine, wrote that “the exclusion of Muslims is due to the obvious reality that the three countries Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamists, either as stated in their constitutions or because of the actions of militant Islamists, who target the minorities for conversion or harassment.”

As the entire North East continues to burn and opposition parties challenging the CAB in the Supreme Court of India, it remains to be seen how long it will take for things to settle down.