The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is here again amid indications that it may pass muster in parliament this time. Seeking to give Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants belonging to six religious minority groups—Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Parsis—from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the bill was placed in the Lok Sabha on December 9 for its stamp of approval, possibly during the ongoing winter session.
The new bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to allow Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from India’s three neighbouring countries—one in the east and two in the west—to apply for Indian citizenship, and says that these communities would be granted citizenship on the ground of having faced “religious persecution” in their respective countries or if they migrated to India “fearing” such persecution.
The bill, aimed at pushing upfront the ideological agenda of the BJP, will work in combination with the controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) that Home Minister Amit Shah has vowed to conduct by the next national elections due in 2024 (and expel all illegal immigrants by that timeline). But it is not the same bill which was introduced for the first time three years ago, and then referred to a joint parliamentary committee. The committee had submitted its report and the bill was tabled again in the Lok Sabha in January this year but could not secure the consent of the Rajya Sabha, where the government lacked majority.
Almost a year down the line, the CAB, 2019 contains key changes although the essence remains the same: one, giving citizenship on the basis of religion, and two, setting the timeline for entry into India at December 31, 2014. The changes are: the new bill keeps vast swathes of the North Eastern states, where the proposed law has met with strong resistance and seen street protests and shutdowns for the last two years, out of its ambit. The government has made the tweaks in the latest version of the bill to hard-sell it in the north-eastern region.
The latest avatar of the bill has a provision in Section 2(1)(b) that deals with the definition of “illegal migrant” under the Citizenship Act, 1955 which states: “Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause C of sub-section (2) of Section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purpose of this Act.”
The new bill stipulates that the new law would not apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Mizoram which are included in the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution and covered by the Inner Line Permit regime regulating the entry of people there from other parts of India. It also gives Manipur complete or partial exemption. The decision to keep North Eastern states out of the purview of the bill is the result of the feedback that emerged from meetings that Home Minister Amit Shah had with politicians, influential students’ outfits and civil society groups from the region between November 29 and December 3. The government, understandably, did not want to antagonise these states given their strategic locations sharing borders with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan and the resultant security implications. The North East of India has been a key focus area of development initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over the last five years. The BJP’s ideological mentor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is also quite active in the region making inroads with social initiatives like setting up schools and health centres for various ethnic groups.
One year is a long time in the shifting sands of Indian politics. In its earlier form, the bill had faced strong opposition from the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, and even BJP ally (in Bihar) Janata Dal (United), which had staged a walk-out in the Lok Sabha in 2016. Even a party like Biju Janata Dal, which is neither a part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance nor of the Congress-headed United Progressive Alliance, had given a dissent note for the bill in 2016 when the NDA—lacking majority in the Rajya Sabha—was forced to refer the proposed legislation to the JPC. Several opposition parties had at that time come up with dissent notes for the legislation. Fast forward to December 4, 2019, much of that resistance to the CAB seems to be cracking, and there are indications that many parties which were earlier critical of the bill could shift from their position.
For instance, on December 4 this year, the day the cabinet passed the CAB, a senior leader of the Janata Dal (United), which had rushed its team of leaders to the North Eastern region earlier this year to meet the civil society representatives and held out the promise of voting against the bill, said the party’s stance has changed following discussions with some like-minded parties from the northeast which too have decided to support the bill. The BJD had, in its dissent note earlier, said that the bill contravened the 1985 Assam Accord which considered those coming to India after March 25, 1971 as intruders. It is quite possible that the party’s reservations would go away with the new bill exempting large parts of the northeast region being excluded from its ambit. Two other BJP allies, Shiromani Akali Dal and Lok Janshakti Party, are also likely to back the bill.
Andhra Pradesh’s ruling YSR Congress Party leader Vijayasai Reddy was quoted by The Indian Express as saying, on December 4, that “there is nothing wrong with helping those who are persecuted in the neighbouring countries. It’s protective discrimination.” Asked about the discrimination on the basis of religion, Reddy said, “This is about persecuted minorities which we can’t oppose.” His party, too, is formally neither with the Congress nor the BJP-led coalitions. The BJP’s estranged Hindutva ally Shiv Sena may have aligned with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to form the government in Maharashtra, but it appears supportive of the CAB. “We have always supported the concept. On this bill, we will see the provisions and take a decision. But on the issues linked to national security and nationalism, we will take a positive stand,” Shiv Sena’s Vinayak Raut said.
The CAB’s passage in the Lok Sabha is certain due to the comfortable majority the BJP has on its own there, and its fate in the Rajya Sabha hinges on how much support the party can mobilise from several regional parties which are not part of the NDA or the UPA.
The numbers game in the Rajya Sabha today is also not what it was three years ago. The BJP may not have a majority on its own in the House as of now, but it has in the six months shown its political management acumen to get the arithmetic right and ensure pushing through the contentious abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and pushing through the bills on criminalising instant triple talaq and tightening a tough anti-terror law. Will the CAB be another success for the Modi government?
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India.