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Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 and NRC: Understanding the seemingly local issue from a national perspective

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led NDA government at the centre came up with the Citizenship Amendment Bill in 2016 which proposed to grant citizenship to migrants residing in Assam, who came from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh belongingto the following religious communities- Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Parsis and Budhists. Right from the moment when updates regarding the provisions of the proposed bill, particularly about the contentious provisions of Sections 6 and 6A, broke out, there has been an uproar in the state of Assam.

The issue regarding illegal migration and citizenship in the state of Assam dates back to the 1800s when the British authorities openly propagated migration from nearby states in order to nurture the growing business of tea plantation in the state. What began as a business strategy to multiply the produce and revenue matured into a situation of cross-border crisis with the advent of time. The issue at hand is two-fold but both folds fall under one comprehensive ambit. This article shall delve into both the segments of the issue elaborately.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP had included the grant of citizenship to migrants as a poll promise and what came out as a legislative measure was the fulfilment of a poll promise, which can be safely assumed to have been duly accepted by the electorate. Election promises are built on the premise of long standing issues which are consciously or unconsciously kept alive to be capitalised in future elections. Issue of illegal migrants is a long standing one, and has been the principle cause of various violent outbreaks and unrests. Demands for deporting the illegal migrants back to their respective countries were raised time and again from various quarters and student bodies including the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). In the post-independence phase, it was in 1950s when the then Chief Minister of Assam Bordoloi and subsequently BP Chaliha, took measures to return the illegal migrants who entered post 1951. It is pertinent to note that majority of these immigrants belonged to Muslim faith. These measures were vehemently opposed by Pandit Nehru, who even went to the extent of threatening a cut in the central funds lest they were expelled from Assamese territory.

Today, the Citizenship Amendment Bill is being opposed on the premise of secularism, by alleging that grant of citizenship to migrants of specific religious faith would be in violation of the tenets of secularism. Here, it is important to understand that Indian secularism can never be viewed and understood from the frame of western secularism. India has never adopted secularism in its pure essence because of its peculiar demography, which almost formed a part of the reasoning that Dr. B.R Ambedkar gave while refusing to include the word ‘secular’ originally in the constitution. Our constitution grants immunities to minorities in the form of Articles 29 and 30 along with multiple other provisions which have been incorporated to cover aspects related to religion. A state which is truly secular need not concern itself with any aspect of the religion whatsoever, but we cease to be one. Therefore, it comes out of a misinformed analysis to say, as the Indian National Congress has, that the central legislation violates the tenets of secularism. Moreover, I fail to understand how the then Prime Minister’s vehement stance to not let the Chief Minister of the state expel immigrant Muslims in 1951 at the cost of crucial centre-state relations did not amount to a blot on our secular values?

Furthermore, the people who are being proposed for citizenship are not Indian nationals. They are foreign migrants who have illegally entered into the Indian territory in direct violation of the Foreigners Act, 1946. How constitutional is it to evoke the principles of preamble (secularism) with regards to those who are not even Indian citizens? Is the state obliged to act secular with regards to such people at the cost of state policy which may render a particular community ineligible to be incorporated in the country? Would an argument that advocates for a ‘take all or leave all’ strategy not be a dangerous extension of a principle that we have not even imbibed in the truest sense? It is rather laughable that the proponents of citizenship on humanitarian grounds have come out to advocate for a ‘take all or leave all’ strategy which is eventually letting them all suffer for an inordinate period.

Moreover, it is also crucial to point out that the three countries which have become grounds of persecution of these migrants are Muslim dominated countries, wherein these 6 communities are vulnerable minorities. History is the biggest advocate of this fact. On humanitarian grounds, a country may think of accommodating a handful minority of a foreign country but it would be a poor demonstration of state policy if we go about accommodating majority communities from any country in the name of persecution, because ‘persecution’, per se, is an act committed against religious or racial minorities. Therefore, the argument advocating for accommodation of communities like Ahmediya Muslims or Rohingyas fail to find a shelter here.

The National Register of Citizens (NRC), which was a measure to keep account of the legal citizens was adopted as a measure and the current NRC draft is being prepared under the Supreme Court’s directive which came after an NGO named Assam Public Works approached the Apex court in 2014. It is in sync with demands which have been raised from various quarters and is a way to understand the gravity of the problem. Opposition parties including the Congress have advocated for providing them shelter homes instead of citizenship, which, to say the least, is a short-term measure with every possibility of escalating the magnitude of the problem. However, the bone of contention is still the Citizenship Amendment Bill, currently being studied by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which is being widely expected to pave the way towards a conclusive solution of the long-standing issue.

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