With reports of violence over the passage of the flawed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in the Lok Sabha across all seven states in the region, India’s North East is on the boil. The Bill, notwithstanding its confusing use of the word immigrants for refugees fleeing religious persecution, seeks to replace the Citizenship Act of 1955 that bars illegal immigrants residing in India from acquiring Indian citizenship. The new bill changes that, proposing citizenship rights for members of certain persecuted religious communities in neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, after six years of residence in India as against the earlier 11 years, even if they do not have any documents The communities named, all of them minority groups in the above mentioned countries, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians. Inexplicably, other minority groups such as Jews, Ahmadis and Shias, a sect of Islam, are not included, despite the vicious and violent attacks facing Ahmadis and Shias in Pakistan.
Not only does the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, flout many articles of the Indian Constitution, like Article 15 prohibiting discrimination solely on the basis of religion, but it also fails to adhere to the provisions of international refugee law. While India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, it can be argued that granting refuge based on humanitarian considerations is a norm of customary international law.
Aside from these considerations, the Bill has many other problems. To begin with, most of the communities in the North Eastern states see the Bill as a potential catalyst in changing the region’s demography, which already has various communal and ethnic conflicts due to the influx of Bangladeshi Hindus, leading it to certain chaos and destabilization. The issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has in fact been one of the most sensitive issues affecting the region, leading to serious bloodbaths since the 1980s, especially in Assam.
This particular conflict resulted in the Assam Accord of 1985, which asks for the deportation of all illegal migrants who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 25, 1971. The same is reflected in the already ongoing Supreme Court of India monitored updating of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) in Assam with the same cut-off date that had left over 4 million people out of it. By December 31, 2018, the third extension date for appeal for inclusion, more than 2 million of failed to appeal for their inclusion because of lack of documents and other reasons.
Though the new Bill gives those from the Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Christian and Jain communities another ray of hope, it runs afoul of the Assam NRC cut-off date of March 25, 1971 with its six-year clause including all those immigrants who entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Apart from adding fuel to fire between already estranged Assamese and Bengalis in the state, it is mindboggling to consider how the government would implement both the Assam NRC and the new Bill.
It is clear that the government of India has neither given serious thought to the complications arising out of implementing the new Bill, nor has it taken the various stakeholders into confidence. It is therefore imperative for the government to stop pushing through the Bill, and instead begin an open and meaningful consultation with all the stakeholders for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Further, it must not discriminate against any human being fleeing persecution on the basis of religion as a supporter of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted in September 2016. Even if it is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, India has a tradition of respecting refugee rights, which it must continue.