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Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?
Opinion

Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?

Since it specifies religious groups acceptable to the Indian government, it might become a template for faith-based exclusion in the future.

By Meghnad S

Published on :

“Who is doing discrimination? We aren’t!” said Amit Shah. “You are saying we’re singling out minorities? We are giving rights to minorities only. But the minorities are from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.”

This was one of the many arguments that India’s home minister offered the country while batting for the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha on Monday. While the nation slept, at midnight, the Bill got the stamp of approval from the Lower House. The Bill sailed through after a seven-hour debate in which 48 of the over 500 members participated.

This is the second attempt by the Modi government to get this legislation through Parliament. The first attempt was made in 2016. Back then, the Bill passed through the Lok Sabha but failed to clear the Rajya Sabha; it was even sent to a Parliamentary Committee for scrutiny. But Citizenship (Amendement) Bill, 2016 lapsed when the lower house’s term ended early this year.

Monday’s debate on the 2019 bill in the Lok Sabha threw up a bunch of questions that need answers. Here’s an attempt at that.

What is the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 all about?

The core idea is to make it easier for undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to get Indian citizenship. The catch is that these immigrants can’t be Muslims.

The Bill specifically mentions Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians, all minority groups in the three majority Muslim countries. The Modi government claims the legislation is meant to offer sanctuary to “persecuted religious minorities” from the three neighbouring countries. Even during last night’s debate, the home minister kept repeating this point to justify the proposed law.

Are there really ‘persecuted minorities’ that would benefit from this legislation?

Yes, 31,313 individuals to be precise.

This was revealed by the government itself during a hearing by a parliamentary committee on the 2016 version of the Bill. The committee had asked how many people would benefit from the legislation. The Intelligence Bureau replied:

Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?

So, the Bill is essentially being brought for these 31,313 people.

But by specifically excluding Muslims (and Jews), the Bill has raised justified concerns that the Modi government is trying to enshrine religious discrimination into law. This when Article 14 of India’s constitution prohibits discrimination on religious basis.

What is Article 14 and does the Citizenship Bill violate it?

Article 14 states:

Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?

In the Lok Sabha yesterday, opposition MPs pointed this out, too. But Shah insisted they were all wrong because Article 14 allowed for “Reasonable Classification” when it came to making laws. Simply put, the state can discriminate between citizens on the grounds of gender, religion, caste, race, or place of birth if special benefits are being offered to them. The only restriction is that discrimination should be based on a reasonable and clearly defined definition of the group of people in question.

An example of this would be reservation for people from the marginalised castes. Technically, it’s discrimination, but as long as it’s being done to uplift the group in question, the Parliament is free to make rules about this. Whether or not the Citizenship Bill does this in a “reasonable manner”, however, is one of the main points of contention. 

Think about it, if the Bill is seeking to benefit people persecuted because of their religion, why doesn’t it cover all religions? Why doesn’t it include Muslims? Also, what about people who don’t identify with any faith? Don’t atheists deserve protection if they are persecuted or not believing? This question, in fact, was asked in the Lok Sabha yesterday, but it went unanswered.

So, whether the Citizenship Bill is discriminatory is a question that would probably be answered by the court at a later stage. This answer, in fact, would determine whether this law should exist or not.

Why does the legislation not cover countries other than Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan?

In the Lok Sabha, questions were asked about what would happen to undocumented migrants from other neighbouring countries, particularly Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, and the Maldives. Why were people from these countries excluded from the scope of this Bill? MPs asked. 

Shah responded that for now only countries that have Islam as their state religion were being considered. Why so? Because, Shah claimed, the populations of non-Muslims in Bangladesh and Pakistan had been declining. “What happened to minorities in this country?” he questioned, referring to Pakistan. “They were either converted, they ran away, they came to India, or they were killed.”

He was essentially attempting to drive home the point that India was the natural refuge for persecuted non-Muslims people from the three countries.

For migrants from other places, Shah pointed out, there’s a Standard Operating Procedure, laid out in a letter issued in 2011.

Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?

The home ministry has released a document detailing how Long Term Visas will be given to refugees. According to it, people from other countries can apply for LTVs, subject to verification by Indian officials. A visa is initially given for a year and can be extended for up to 5 years.

They can even seek LTVs citing reasons other than religious persecution.

Explainer: What exactly does the Citizenship Bill aim to achieve?

As to why Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been singled out in the Citizenship Bill, the only answer is political, rooted in the Modi government’s Hindu supremacist ideology. 

So, minority refugees from the three countries will get special benefits?

If you read the document detailing the LTA criteria, that is precisely what’s happening. The additional benefits to the 31,313 individuals the Citizenship Bill covers would include permission to take up self-employment or conduct business, open bank accounts, buy property and get a driver’s licence;  free movement within India; a reduced penalty if they do not extend their LTAs on time. They would also be eligible to get PAN cards and Aadhaar. In effect, they would be as good as Indian citizens, with the only exception being that they would have to pay a tiny penalty if they don’t renew their LTAs. Since they would get Aadhaar and PAN cards, it’s possible that they would be able to obtain voter cards as well.

So, what are the main problems with the Bill?

One, it might be declared unconstitutional under Article 14. Why then is this law even being brought to the Parliament? 

Two, there is an established Standard Operating Procedure, issued by the home ministry, which distinguishes between minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and those from other countries. If this procedure is already being followed, is this law even required?

Three, if Assam’s controversial National Register of Citizens is replicated across the nation, the central government can easily change the rules, at any point, to expand the criteria or include other countries in order to give citizenship to only non-Muslims. 

Four, since this legislation specifies the religious groups that are acceptable to this government, it might become a template for religion-based exclusion in the future.