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Will Citizenship Amendment Bill legalise religious discrimination?

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CAB in Parliament
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CAB in Parliament

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill touched off an expected storm in Lok Sabha on Monday after the BJP led NDA government introduced the proposed legislation that aims to extend Indian citizenship to specific categories of illegal migrants on the basis of religion. The contentious bill that seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, has been slammed for, among other reasons, discriminating against Muslims and for attempting to change the basis of citizenship for India. A look at the key questions it throws up.

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What is Citizenship (Amendment) bill?
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What is Citizenship (Amendment) bill?

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) passed in Lok Sabha seeks to change the basis of Indian citizenship by legalising religious discrimination. It seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrant for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have lived in India without documentation. They will be granted fast-track Indian citizenship in six years. So far, 12 years of residence has been the standard eligibility requirement for naturalisation.

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What is the government’s logic?
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What is the government’s logic?

The government’s logic is that these minority groups have come escaping persecution in Muslim-majority nations. However, the logic is not consistent – the bill does not protect all religious minorities, nor does it apply to all neighbours. The Ahmedia Muslim sect and even Shias face discrimination in Pakistan. Rohingya Muslims and Hindus face persecution in neighbouring Burma, and Hindu and Christian Tamils in neighbouring Sri Lanka. The government responds that Muslims can seek refuge in Islamic nations, but has not answered the other questions.

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Will it stand a constitutional challenge?
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Will it stand a constitutional challenge?

Effectively, the CAB ringfences Muslim identity by declaring India a welcome refuge to all other religious communities. It seeks to legally establish Muslims as second-class citizens of India by providing preferential treatment to other groups. This violates the Constitution’s Article 14, the fundamental right to equality to all persons. This basic structure of the Constitution cannot be reshaped by any Parliament. And yet, the government maintains that it does not discriminate or violate the right to equality.

Agencies
Wasn’t partition also on the basis of religion?
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Wasn’t partition also on the basis of religion?

In Parliament, Amit Shah claimed that this would not have been necessary if the Congress has not accepted Partition on the basis of religion. However, India was not created on the basis of religion, Pakistan was. Only the Muslim League and the Hindu Right advocated the two nation theory of Hindu and Muslim nations, which led to Partition. All the founders of India were committed to a secular state, where all citizens irrespective of religion enjoyed full membership. Either way, this logic for the CAB also collapses because Afghanistan was not part of pre-Partition India.

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What about the North-East?
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What about the North-East?

After the CAB faced resistance in the North-east, the region has been largely left out of its ambit. Areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and states with an Inner Line Permit system won’t be part of CAB. Any person “declared foreigner” in these areas cannot apply for Indian citizenship even if he or she is from one of the six religious communities identified by the bill.

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What is the Inner Line Permit system?
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What is the Inner Line Permit system?

The Inner Line Permit (ILP) system draws legitimacy from a colonial-era law — the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873 — introduced to protect the economic interests of the British crown. To enter three states in the northeast — Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram — any outsider, including Indian citizens, needs an ILP. Only indigenous communities can settle, own land and get jobs in these areas. Because of these restrictions, which are already in place, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill would not have applied to these states anyway. In the northeast, only Manipur remained outside the purview of both the ILP system and the Sixth Schedule and, therefore, the exemptions. On Monday, the Centre decided to extend ILP to Manipur as well. (Representative Image)

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So, now a nationwide NRC?
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So, now a nationwide NRC?

The government wants a nation-wide register of citizens (NRC), as carried out in Assam. However, that exercise revealed the arbitrariness and mass exclusion of such a project, given the lack of paperwork that even citizens possess. If the CAB’s automatic immunity to Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians is factored in, this will lead to widespread rights-stripping and isolation of Muslim.

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