The words “Illegal Migrants’ are defined by the Citizenship Act of 1955 in section 2 as ‘a foreigner who has entered into India—(i) without a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf; or (ii) with a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf but remains therein beyond the permitted period of time.’
This interpretation was not there in the original Act but was included by an amending Act in 2004 (Act 6 of 2004) in the backdrop of large-scale infiltrations taking place across International borders between India and the neighbouring countries.
Now, the Central Government has proposed an amendment to this definition by a Citizenship Amendment Bill of 2016. The Bill is moved by the Home Ministry, whose role is to prevent cross-border infiltration, not encourage it. The Bill is now under the scrutiny of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC).
The proposed Bill dilutes the definition of illegal migrant to exclude “minority-religious individuals” – specifically Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from “Muslim-dominated countries” – specifically Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan – from the ambit of being an “illegal immigrant”.
The Bill further reduces the requirement of 11 years to acquire “citizenship by naturalization” to only six years of ordinary residence for such immigrants. In one stroke, the proposed amendment goes to legitimize an illegal act indulged in by some categories of foreign nationals and this is proposed to be done on the basis of religion in a discriminatory manner.
This Bill is now before the Joint Parliamentary Committee and it has initiated the process of hearing views of public organizations. Curiously, in spite of great resentment prevailing among the indigenous communities of Assam and the Northeast, the Government seems to be in a hurry to introduce the Bill in the Parliament and turn it into a law before the next parliamentary election.
It is necessary to point out that the very language of the Bill goes against the secular principles of the Constitution as only specific communities are included for granting citizenship while excluding a particular community so much so that instead of using a criterion of compelling reasons on the basis of humanitarian needs, a completely religious basis is taken as the criterion, as if some categories of foreign nationals can be allowed to enter the country illegally in a perpetual manner and to that extent the border can be considered borderless for these categories.
The citizenship is being granted in a manner that would encourage the minorities of the neighbouring countries to ‘illegally’ migrate to India and get citizenship on stay of just 6 years. This amounts to a very liberal invitation to those people to cross the border against the principles of the Foreigners’ Act.
The Parliament has the full power under the Constitution as to whom and in what manner it will grant citizenship. But while liberally assuming the guardianship of these foreign migrants and indirectly encouraging them to enter illegally for a warm reception, the State forgets its responsibility to its own citizens in the Northeast whose economic and political existence is under grave threat owing to continuous infiltration by foreigners resulting in demographic destabilization.
Assam, in particular, is bearing the brunt of this demographic invasion. In its true nature, this is not only a demographic invasion but also a crisis of linguistic –cultural identity of the indigenous people of the state with the resultant loss of their political space in their own land.
The persistent fear of losing the politico-linguistic-cultural space is not imaginary but has historical background if one remembers how a majority indigenous linguistic community i.e. the Assamese people had to fight for their linguistic rights during the British regime and thereafter.
To allow unabated influx of a section of people of a particular religious-cultural-linguistic identity from across the border will mean that in course of time the autochthons in their homeland may become a voiceless minority with a narrow political space. It seems the historical lesson of the Assam Agitation has been ignored so as to woo a section of minorities of some other countries to India, bulk of whose burden will be on Assam due to the porosity of Indo-Bangla border.
It may be recalled that the present Government made solemn promises during their electioneering campaign that the border would be sealed completely but by proposing this amendment the Government has already accepted the defeat of the purpose, because the amendment presumes that ‘illegal migrants’ will have enough opportunity to come illegally and, therefore, those who are not Muslims will be allowed to remain here.
If persecution of minorities in the neighbouring countries is the reason for dilution of the Citizenship Act, why there is no international uproar about such atrocities as has happened in case of the Rohingiyas? Assuming that certain religious minorities are being subjected to insecurities because of internal violence in those countries (though not borne out by facts), the Centre could have dealt with the problem through a different route.
India does not have a Refugee Act under which such categories of shelters-seekers could have been handled on humanitarian ground. The criterion for dealing with this stream of people has to be under the UN’s charter and not under the country’s citizenship law and not by muffling the aspirations of its genuine citizens under a liberal interpretation of religious brotherhood.
According to the UN charter on Refugee, a Refugee has to be defined in the following terms: “Owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or social opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or, who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such event, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
The UN definition speaks of a genuine fear of persecution under compelling circumstances for dealing with someone requiring shelter in another country. There is no red-carpet syndrome here as is seen in the proposed amendment of our Citizenship law. The present Government seeks to assume moral guardianship of the minorities of the neighbouring countries on the basis of religion and not on compelling humanitarian reasons based on secular principles.
The proposed amendment also discriminates article 14 of the Constitution which has laid down that all persons, whether citizens or foreigners, are equal before law. It says, ‘the state shall not deny to any person equality before the law or equal protection of the law within the territory of India.” The proposed amendment proposes that one stream of foreigners is to be treated differently from the others within the territory of India under the Citizenship Act.
Coming back to Assam Agitation, it may be recalled that it led to a tripartite accord where the parties were the Central Government, the State Government and All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad. It was decided that all illegal migrants entering Assam will be detected and deported. Assam is not to take the burden of any post-1971 illegal migrant and for this NRC of 1951 is being updated. After protracted deliberations, all sections of people accepted this provision of the Accord through consensus.
Now, Assam agitation was not against minority, though there were attempts by vested interests to give such a colouring to it. With the amendment, the Accord’s consensus is being breached and the voice of one party to the Accord is being completely ignored by the other two parties.
The Accord has a bearing on the very definition of ‘illegal migrant’ introduced in the Citizenship Act in 2004. The possible fall-out of the proposed amendment of 2016 on the future of the indigenous people of Assam must be taken note of before it comes up for consideration in the Parliament. Unfortunately, the Bill is dismissive of the voice of a people whose future is implicated in the Bill.
This may have a far-reaching effect as discontentment in Assam is growing. It may not be forgotten that the Supreme Court, while declaring the IMDT Act ultra vires, termed large-scale illegal migration from a foreign country equal to ‘external aggression’ from which the State has to protect the country.