‘Citizenship Amendment Act’ 2019: A Primer and an Analysis of the On-going Protests

The country seems to be ablaze today as university students, civil society organisations in certain states like Assam and West Bengal and numerous other civilians across the country are articulating their opinions and concerns on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. The anti-CAB protest activities are directed, as the name suggests, against the recent Citizenship Amendment Bill of the BJP-led NDA government that was passed in the Lok Sabha on December 9, and received clearance from the Rajya Sabha on December 11. Amidst massive protests and controversies that it spurred since it was passed by the Parliament, the Bill received President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent on Dec 12, to become an Act. The CAB had earlier been passed by the Lok Sabha in 2016, but had failed to garner support in the Rajya Sabha.

The Parliament legislates on multiple issues during each of its sessions. Given India’s population size, cultural and social complexities, stark economic inequality and frequent political events, there is never a scarcity of news and headlines for our media houses. Busy individual lives of most citizens further do not permit them the time to keep track of everyday developments in governance and legislation. This tells us that there must be something about the CAA that is being widely perceived as fundamentally disputable. To allow a fair discussion, however, it is important that we are well informed.

What is the ‘CAA’?

The Citizenship Amendment Act (2019) provides that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians that have arrived in India from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan through illegal means until 31st December, 2014 shall be granted indian citizenship by fast track methods. This is to be done by amending the Citizenship Act, 1955.

The conferment of a person as a citizen of India is governed by Articles 5 to 11 (Part II) of the Constitution of India. The legislation related to this matter is the Citizenship Act 1955, which has been amended on multiple occasions through the decades. The Citizenship Act (1955) deals with the laws on citizenship in India, whether by birth, descent, registration or by naturalisation. As per the Act, a foreigner can acquire Indian citizenship by naturalisation provided he/she is not an illegal migrant, has resided in India or worked for the government of India for at least 9 years in the last 12 years and has stayed in India for 12 consecutive months before the application for citizenship was filed.

Why are people protesting?

The Act is being called anti-secular and, thus, unconstitutional. The Act provides for granting citizenship on the basis of the religious identity of illegal immigrants, recognising 6 religious communities and barring the Muslim community from its ambit. Opposition parties in the Parliament have aggressively opposed the Bill for apparently violating Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to Equality. Civilian protestors have resonated the same essence in labelling the Act divisive.

Why is the North-East protesting?

Nothing in the CAA shall apply to tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule to the Indian Constitution. Also exempted is the area covered under ‘The Inter Line (1873)’, that includes present day Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland.

Assam is protesting because the CAA violates the Assam Accord of 1985, which promised that illegal migrants that had entered India through Assam after March 1971 would be deported. The Assam Accord was signed between then PM Rajiv Gandhi and the leaders of the ‘Assam Movement’, a prolonged demonstration that fought for protecting the economic and cultural rights of the native Assamese people, particularly threatened in the face of massive influx during the Bangladeshi War of Liberation in 1971. While the whole of India had 1951 as the cut off date for citizenship, Assam took the burden of welcoming Bangladeshis for another 20 years. The NRC generation exercise in Assam recently was believed to aim at identifying illegal immigrants and deporting them. The Assamese people believe that the CAA doesn’t just contradict the NRC project but also fails them by progressively reducing their numerical majority in their native land. While the NDA government is emphasising on the implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord for the constitutional preservation of political, linguistic and cultural of the natives, something the previous governments failed to fulfill in so many decades, the Assamese people believe that Clause 6 still existed in return for the extension to 1971, and does in no way justify 2014 as the cut off date. In the wake of protests getting violent, the army was deployed in several districts in Assam and a curfew has been imposed since December 11. There have been relaxation in curfew regulations during day time, but internet services have been restricted for over 5 days now.
Reports of differences between the tribal and Bengali communities in Tripura resurfacing in the backdrop of the CAA have also emerged. The tribal people complain of a steep decline in their population owing to illegal immigration.

University students’ protests against the CAA

Students from renowned universities like Jamia Milia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, to name a few, are participating in large numbers in protests against the CAA. Demonstrations have involved some students from Jamia allegedly destructing public property in an otherwise peaceful movement. To this, the Delhi police has responded with the use of tear gas and lathi charge against the students. Civil society vigilantism has also been recorded in West Bengal, where CM Mamata Banerjee has claimed that she shall not allow the CAA to be implemented.

How the Government explains it

Union Home Minister, Mr. Amit Shah, explained on the floor of the Parliament that the law pertains to religious minorities that are facing religious persecution in the three neighbouring countries mentioned, namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The countries being considered are largely Muslim dominated. Therefore, the law excludes Muslim immigrants who do not fall within the stated criteria of religious persecution but may migrate due to economic reasons, which is not India’s lookout. The Law is further not unconstitutional as it makes use of the ‘reasonable classification’ clause of Article 14 of the Constitution.

The state religion in Pakistan is Islam, which is practiced by 96.28% of the population. Freedom of religion, however, is guaranteed by the Pakistani constitution, which established a fundamental right of Pakistani citizens, irrespective of their religion, to equal rights.

Secularism as a key principle was enshrined in the original 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh. It was removed from the constitution in 1977 by Ziaur Rahman, replaced with a statement of “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah”, and Islam was declared the state religion in 1988. In 2010, the Bangladesh Supreme Court restored secularism as one of the basic tenets of the Constitution though Islam remained the state religion in the constitution. Over 90% of Bangladeshis are Muslims, but people in Bangladesh observe various secular festivals at different times throughout the year.

Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic where no laws can contravene Islamic Law. Followers of other faiths shall be free within the bounds of law in the exercise and performance of their religious rights. Small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, etc have lived in Afghanistan in the past. But even at their peak, non-muslims constituted not more than 1% of the country’s population.

On probing deep into finding out the extent of religious persecution of minorities in these countries, Afghanistan has shown a massive decline in non-muslim population over the decades. A recent report by the BBC News says, “In practice, non-Muslim minorities do face discrimination and persecution.” Human Rights group Amnesty International has pointed to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which it says “are vaguely formulated and arbitrarily enforced by the police and judiciary in a way which amounts to harassment and persecution of religious minorities”. In Bangladesh, the black and white of the claims of religious persecution is, however, less clear.

These explanations by the government are being called faulty on two grounds; first, the government is being arbitrary in choosing only those countries where Muslims are in majority. There is no clear justification for the choice made. Conditions in other neighbouring countries are not being considered adequately. Secondly, these countries persecuting their religious minorities on grounds of being Islamic States is visibly a wrongdoing. India being a secular country must acknowledge this wrong and refrain from making a similar error in making religion the criteria for citizenship.

Supporters of the CAA believe that the law should not concern existing citizens belonging to any religion as it does not affect them. On the other hand, opposers of the Law are viewing it in association with the NRC policy that the government has announced. Several Muslim dominated voluntary groups in the country have expressed their fears regarding the NRC, claiming that it might be used to target the Muslim citizens next.

At this juncture, the way ahead seems unclear.

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