Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, December 7, 2019: The Narendra Modi led NDA government is all set on enacting the Citizenship Amendment Bill, (CAB) 2019 with the Union Cabinet on Wednesday clearing the proposed amendment to the country’s citizenship law.

Earlier, the BJP had, during Modi’s first term as prime minister, had tried to pass the legislation through Parliament but did not succeed. The bill is slated to be reintroduced to Parliament next week and this time it is expected to be passed despite stiff resistance by the Congress and other opposition parties.

Citizenship confers the right to have rights in a country. Most people acquire nationality at birth by being born in a place or by inheriting their parents’ nationality. But unfortunately, due to historical, political and economic reasons, a large number of infiltrators have illegally entered the country posing a serious threat to the cultural and linguistic identity of the original inhabitants and their rights over resources and political power.

Keeping this in view, the Modi government is gearing up to prepare a National Population Register (NPR) by September 2020 to lay the foundation for rolling out a citizens’ register across the country. The NPR will be a list of common residents of the country. Once the NPR is completed and published, it shall be the basis for preparing the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

A person has to be a citizen of some country. But going by an estimate by the United Nations, about one crore people are stateless. Many of them live in ethnic populations who are discriminated against or subject to sudden changes in the law. For instance Over 5.21 million persons had registered themselves in Indian check posts as “refugees” by 1970 as per the Union Rehabilitation Ministry data. Besides, 9.89 million had crossed over in 1971, according to figures provided by the Indian government to the United Nations. While most of the 1971 refugees returned to Bangladesh after the end of the hostilities, tens of thousands did not.

The move by the Modi government to have NRC will obviously include some and exclude others through long-drawn exercises such as countrywide NRC and CAB. On paper, there is nothing wrong in the preparation of an NRC. It’s important for a nation to keep a count of its citizens. This exercise will certainly have a crucial impact on the national security of India.

The National Register of Citizens was an exercise conducted from 2015 to 2019 in Assam following the Supreme Court order primarily aimed to identify illegal migrants. However, Assam’s NRC eventually backfired, since the people excluded from the list were reported largely to be Hindus. Now, the BJP is bringing the Citizenship Amendment Bill to find a solution to this vexed issue. The party claims that Hindus excluded from the NRC in Assam would be able to gain citizenship under the amended law, though it is not exactly clear how.

The Bill also seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, in order to grant Indian nationality to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who come to India after facing religious persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan even if they don’t possess proper documents.

The Bill provides that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan shall “not be treated as illegal migrants” even if they had entered India illegally. This makes a fundamental change to India’s process of citizenship by naturalisation which allows foreigners to become Indians. If the Citizenship Amendment Bill is passed, these communities will not be subject to this law anymore. After this, Hindu Bangladeshis – the main political target of this legislation – will, in theory, be able to apply for Indian citizenship even if they had crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visa.

However, the bill is being opposed by some opposition parties for bringing religious criteria for Indian citizenship. The parties argue that it would gravely damage one of India’s foundational principles: secularism.

Still worse is the fact that the Bill has been especially contentious in Northeast India, also the location of the first National Register of Citizens exercise, where 19 lakh people in Assam have been excluded from the list, leaving them in limbo. The Bill also faces vehement opposition in other North-eastern states. Twelve non-BJP MPs on Friday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to exclude the northeastern states from the purview of the proposed CAB as they apprehend demographic change anticipating a large influx of people from Bangladesh. To this end, the revised version of the CAB now excludes many areas of the North East which fall under the Inner Line Permit system or the Sixth Schedule areas in which tribal communities have a measure of autonomy.

However, union Home minister Amit Shah has categorically stated that CAB will not undermine the inner-line permits that are necessary to enter some of these states. He also underscored the “permanent” nature of Article 371 which showers special protections on these states while promising that the fate of Article 370 won’t befall it.

Even the BJP government in Arunachal Pradesh has indicated it will “unequivocally” oppose the legislation unless specific amendments are made. Still worse is the fact that the BJP’s ally in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which had opposed the bill earlier this year as well, said it too would not support the bill.

In the past, the citizenship issue took a violent turn in Assam with a massive movement in the state against illegal immigration. It will be a real challenge before the NDA government to bring back a secular notion of citizenship while enforcing the CAB once it is vetted by the Parliament.

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