7 PM | A Bill that undercuts key constitutional values | 7th October, 2019

Context:The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a challenge to the constitutional values.

More in news: Recently while speaking about implementing a National Register of Citizens in West Bengal, Home Minister Amit Shah said, “I want to assure Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees, you will not be forced to leave India by the Centre.” These words sparked an immediate backlash as Mr. Shah had evidently omitted one religious community, Muslims, from his statement. 

Citizenship:Citizenship is the legal right to belong to a particular country. In other words, citizenship bestows upon individuals membership in a national political community. Citizens enjoy civil and political rights in a sovereign state.

The Citizenship Act, 1955 provides various ways in which citizenship may be acquired. It provides for citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and by incorporation of territory into India.  In addition, it regulates registration of Overseas Citizen of India Cardholders (OCIs), and their rights.  An Overseas Citizen of India is entitled to some benefits such as a multiple-entry, multi-purpose life-long visa to visit India.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in Lok Sabha by the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Rajnath Singh, on July 19, 2016. The Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955.

It has been lapsed as it could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha since both the houses were adjourned sine die(house is dismissed for an indefinite period).

Key highlights of the bill:

  • The Bill amends the Citizenship Act, 1955 to make illegal migrants who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, eligible for citizenship.
  • Definition of illegal migrants: The Act prohibits illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship.  It defines an illegal migrant as a foreigner:
    • who enters India without a valid passport or travel documents,
    • who stays beyond the permitted time. 
  • Citizenship by naturalisation: The Act allows a person to apply for citizenship by naturalisation, if the person meets certain qualifications.  One of the qualifications is that the person must have resided in India or been in service of the central government for at least 11 years before applying for citizenship. 
  • The Bill creates an exception for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, with regard to this qualification. For these groups of persons, the 11 years’ requirement will be reduced to six years.
  • Cancellation of registration of OCIs: The Act provides that the central government may cancel registration of OCIs on certain grounds.  These include:
    • if the OCI has registered through fraud, or
    • within five years of registration has been sentenced to imprisonment for two years or more, or
    • it becomes necessary in the interest of sovereignty and security of India, etc. 

The Bill adds one more ground for cancelling registration, that is, if the OCI has violated any law that is in force in the country.

Government’s flawed logic:

  • The objective is the protection of minorities:
    • The Bill provides that illegal migrants belonging to specified minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan will not be treated as illegal migrants under the Act, making them eligible for Indian citizenship. 
    • These minority communities are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. 
    • This implies that illegal migrants from these countries who are Muslims, other minorities who do not belong to the above groups (eg. Jews), or Atheists who do not identify with a religious group will not be eligible for citizenship. 
    • There are Muslim religious minorities within these countries who are subjected to grave and serious persecution for example the Ahmadis in Pakistan. 
    • There is no explanation for why only these three countries have been singled out.

Issues with the bill:

  • Violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution: The Bill makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship on the basis of religion.  This may violate Article 14 of the Constitution which guarantees right to equality.
    • Article 14 guarantees equality to all persons, citizens and foreigners.  It only permits laws to differentiate between groups of people if the rationale for doing so serves a reasonable purpose.
    • The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill does not explain the rationale behind differentiating between illegal migrants on the basis of the religion they belong to. 
  • Against the Basic Structure of the Constitution: Critics argue that the bill undermines secularism and is thus against the Basic Structure of the Constitution. Secularism as a basic structure has been reiterated by the Supreme Court in S R Bommai vs. Union of India (1994)
    • The Bill allows cancellation of OCI registration for violation of any law.  This is a wide ground that may cover a range of violations, including minor offences (eg. parking in a no parking zone).

Conclusion:Re-introduction of the bill is challenge to the constitutional values such as secularism and equality to all as enshrined in article 14 of the Indian constitution. The Citizenship Amendment Bill is closely linked to plans for a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). A nationwide NRC will replicate the flaws of the Assam NRC on a much larger scale; and for those who find themselves on its wrong side, the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Bill will protect some but only some based on their religion which is against the ethos of Indian Constitution..


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