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Citizenship

Citizenship Amendment Act 2019: Understanding the law that's outraged India

Making waves beyond the Indian sub-continent, an unprecedented debate, violent protests and several heated exchanges of opinions arguing “facts vs distortion” on the abyss of social media has come to represent the Citizen Amendment Bill passed earlier this month in India.

What is this new law? And why has it brought out so much aggression across the country? To understand the present, let’s take a peek into the past of India’s laws on citizenship.

Like every other country, gaining citizenship in India grants an individual the civil and political right in the country. With the Indian constitution, Articles 5 to 8 govern the conditions under which someone can get Indian citizenship, Article 9 governs the circumstances under which it can be revoked, Article 10 gives the right for the continuation of citizenship and Article 11 gives the government the authority to make rules related to citizenship.

And it’s under Article 11 that the Citizenship Act of 1955 was enacted by the Indian parliament, laying down the applicability of Indian citizenship on the basis of birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. In addition, a clause foresees the future about the grant of citizenship to people who may be part of a territory that India may add or annexe in future.

The 1955 bill bans illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship; that is, any foreigner who enters the country without valid travel documents, like a passport and visa, or enters with valid documents, but stays beyond the permitted time period.

The 2019 bill—which is the topic of conversation—seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants who may be Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for Indian citizenship; reducing the minimum residency period in India to seven years from the earlier twelve years to apply for citizenship. This basic outline of the amendment doesn’t appear controversial, but as more information came to light things began heating up as concerns, queries and confusions took hold.

The first point raised was that the bill is discriminatory in nature, including only six religions and overlooking others, mainly Muslims, and is limited to migrants from only three countries.

Countering this charge, the government explained that the six religions were minorities in terms of those that follow them and that these minorities were subjected to religious persecution in the three Islamic countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The government maintains that this bill about the religious persecution of minorities, and the chances of Muslims being persecuted in these three countries where they are a majority are slim to none; keeping them in the bill or out of it has no effect on them, it does, however, have a positive impact those minorities included in the bill.

There are questions raised as to why only Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are included in the CAB.

This stems from the need to offer citizenship rights to lakhs of refugees from these nations who are already in India but continue to be refugees even after being here for decades, in turn, being denied basic civic and political rights. So the amendment is intended to be a corrective measure, aimed at the problems caused by the 1947 partition of the country. At that time, some Hindus, Sikhs and others were undecided on where they wanted to settle. CAB now offers them a route to be granted Indian citizenship in case they are already here or if they decide to do so later.

The third charge, the one that’s been the biggest cause for concern, is the place of Indian citizens within this bill and the threat against the secular credentials of India, and while the government has tried its best to assure that this law does not change the rights or privileges of any Indian citizen, irrespective of his religion or faith; with its aims being only to safeguard religious minorities, with Indian roots, in the three nations that are included in the bill.

As expected with any change, there is always a wonder how it would affect one personally–which is a legitimate question. But the trap lies in the game of Chinese whispers as the news of the change travels and different opinions merge with facts, fair arguments are converted to defensive pieces of aggression; all of which culminate into something far more dangerous than any law.

The protests and riots across the country are exactly what happens when something new is misunderstood. And while it’s not to say that there aren’t some fair arguments as with the case where the citizenship cut-off on the National Citizens Register (NRC) in Assam (March 1971) is in direct conflict with the cut-off according to CAB (December 2014); leading to fears among the Assamese that their culture and language will be threatened by Bengali speaking population who move into the country from Bangladesh.

Their concerns are reflected in the 2011 census which shows that Assamese speaking population was down from 58% to 48% while Bengali speaking population was up from 22% to 32%, and despite assurances from the government, there is no true safeguard against the fears of Assamese people, thus leading to the riots.

Aside from these riots in Assam, the protests also took root—in connection similar apprehensions—in other parts of North-East India including Sikkim, Manipur, Tripura and Meghalaya after which it spread to the capital city, Delhi.

Since the passing of the bill on 11 December, the protests have spread far and wide across all major cities of India.

Reaching fever pitch on 15 December, when police forcefully entered the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, where protests were being held, using batons and tear gas on the students; resulting in over two hundred students being injured and around hundred others being detained overnight in the Police station. This instance of police brutality spurred further criticism, leading to more student protests. With over a thousand arrests and six deaths, these protests have resulted in widespread violence.

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A post shared by I Support CAB (@isupportcab) on

As an apolitical observer, reading through the various argumentative, sometimes attacking posts from people with differing points of view, watching social media updates of the upsetting shambles left in the wake of the protests, and finally waking up to the Twitter trend #BoycottBollywood after celebrities—both within Bollywood and outside it—gave their two cents on the matter, my strong belief and opinion that it isn’t politics or the law that made things go from bad to worse, and the fault also doesn’t lie with the protesters who are simply fighting for something they believe in.

But pausing for a second, remove oneself from political views—from both the defensive and offensive stances—and looking at what lies ahead we’d see that the culprits are misinformation and unwillingness 1) to be completely transparent on the government’s side and 2) to stop and listen on the protesters’ side.

In fighting for secularism and in standing up for equality, the protests—which began with and continues to have good intentions—aren’t necessarily leading to any massive change. And in a certain light, it does seem to be more of a bandwagon effect of young people joining to protest against something they don't completely understand. Supporting each other, and standing behind a cause is well and good, but does it make sense if that efforts at support are causing more harm than good?

In an ideal world, all migrants and people of all religions would receive complete acceptance, whichever part of the world they go but that isn’t the world we live in.

To some people, this bill does seem discriminatory and non-secular, but to some others out there it might not be. Isn't the first step to accepting different people accepting their opinions even if they differ from yours?

So, for now, why not take what we can get and see if this amendment leads to good things? And if it doesn’t, then stand up and fight again, when the time calls for it.

Featured image: David Talukdar / Shutterstock.com

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