Assam Citizenship Amendment
Assam, Dec 04 (ANI): Police personnel trying to douse the effigies during a protest against the 'Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016' in Guwahati on Wednesday. Image Credit: ANI

On December 4, the Union Cabinet in India signed off on a legislation that stands to give citizenship to certain religious minorities but not Muslims.

What is the Indian Citizenship Act?

Made law in 1955, 8 years after India's independence from the British, the Indian Citizenship Act is the basis by which citizenship was extended to Indians from all states. This also made their earlier Commonwealth citizen status or British citizen status void, bringing the Indian people together under one citizenship umbrella.

The act has provisions to determine various kinds of citizenship including that by birth, by registration, by naturalisation or by descent.

This act is the one where amendment is being proposed. The clause being amended is the one that defines illegal migrants and their ability to apply for citizenship by naturalisation. The citizenship by naturalisation clause currently allows resident immigrants to get citizenship if they have lived in the country for more than 11 years - along with other terms and conditions.

What is the amendment bill?

The bill, if passed, would change a key part in the category for illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan - Muslim-majority states that were once part of the undivided India as defined in the Government of India act 1935.

The amendment proposes granting the ability to apply for nationality to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis fleeing persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan - even without any documentation i.e. illegal migrants.

The bill also proposes to relax the the 11-year requirement of residing in India to at least 6 years for the above migrants to India under the citizenship by naturalisation clause.

However, in a controversial move, the amendment has excluded Muslims entirely in this category.

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Modi's party has said that Muslims are not included because they are able to take refuge in Islamic nations across the globe. The reasoning is that non-Muslim minorities in these nations (Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan) are susceptible to persecution based on religion.

Senior minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters on Wednesday that the legislation would follow the principles of "natural justice" and is "not against anyone".

When was this bill first proposed?

In 2016, in the first term of the Modi government, the bill was first proposed. At that time, the bill failed to garner enough support in the upper house, but it is unclear whether it would succeed there this time.

The amendments to the six-decade-old Indian Citizenship Act, approved by Modi's cabinet on Wednesday, could go before the lower house of parliament as soon as this week.

Amit Shah meets the North East

Apart from stoking unease among Muslims, the proposed changes have also provoked anger in north-east India that for decades has seen major influxes of people of different religions - including Hindus. The main worry is that this bill would rock the unique ethnic demographic in the region. 

Modi's right-hand-man, Home Minister Amit Shah, held talks with representatives from the region on Tuesday over their concerns. At least nine representatives from four organisations in the region met Shah where he is believed to have comforted them with an assurance that the unique identity of the North-East will not be altered in exchange for a promise that the groups will not protest the amended Bill.

Assam student union (AASU)
Assam, Dec 04 (ANI): All Assam student union (AASU) members shout slogans and burn the effigies during a Protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in Guwahati on Wednesday. Image Credit: ANI

Sources say one of the ways in which Shah would have allayed their fears is by reassuring them that the draft of the Bill would exclude the North-East. The four organisations that met Shah were Manipur People Against Citizenship Amendment Bill (MANPAC), Zeliangrong Union (Assam, Manipur, Nagaland unit), The North East Forum for Indigenous People (NEFIP) and Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM)'s Imphal Unit.

Shah has been vocal in pushing through the bill that he says is aimed at "saving the lives" of persecuted religious communities in neighbouring Muslim-majority countries. He has also proposed a "national register of citizens" that he said this week would see "each and every infiltrator identified and expelled" from India by 2024.

Gandhi's idea of a secular India

Shashi Tharoor from the main opposition Congress party told reporters on Wednesday that the bill "violated" the basic idea of a secular India as pushed by Mahatma Gandhi.

Shashi Tharoor Image Credit: Arshad Ali/Gulf News

"I think the bill is fundamentally unconstitutional as basic idea of India has been violated in it. Those who believe that religion should determine nationhood... that was the idea of Pakistan. They created Pakistan. We have always argued that our idea of nation was what Mahatma Gandhi, Nehruji, Maluana Azad, Dr Ambedkar have said... that religion cannot determine nationhood," Tharoor said while talking to media in Parliament premises.

The Thiruvananthapuram MP said his party's vision for a country is for everybody irrespective of religion.

"Every citizen should have equal rights in this country."

"Those who believe that religion should determine nationhood... that was the idea of Pakistan," Tharoor said, calling the legislation "fundamentally unconstitutional".

"It is simple. Citizenship CANNOT be determined by or linked to religion," tweeted Sitaram Yechury, a senior politician from Communist Party of India.

Under Modi, the Islamic-sounding names of several cities have been changed, while some school textbooks have been allegedly altered to downplay Muslims' contributions to India.

There has been a string of lynchings of Muslims over cows, sacred for many Hindus, and other hate crimes including Muslims being forced to perform Hindu chants.

Will it become a law?

The passage of the bill, which could be introduced in parliament this week, will also be a test for the BJP, since it enjoys a majority in the lower house but is short of numbers in India's upper house. Any bill needs to be ratified by both houses of India's parliament to become law.

Social media reactions

Reactions on social media have been largely opposing the bill, with some bringing up the inefficacy of the amendment when it comes to refugees from nations other than Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh - for example, Sri Lanka or refugeese from the Tibetan region.

- Inputs from Agencies