New Delhi: On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet cleared the much debated Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 and it will now be taken up by Parliament next week. According to sources, a bill to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, is likely to be introduced in the Parliament in the next two days.

What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?

The contentious Bill seeks to amend Citizenship Act, 1955 to grant Indian nationality to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists fleeing persecution from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, even if they don’t have valid documents.

As per the new bill, they would not face deportation under the Passport (Entry into India) Act of 1920 and the Foreigners Act of 1946. Simply put, the bill will make it easier for non-Muslim immigrants from India’s three Muslim-majority neighbours to become citizens of India.

Among the possible changes in the new draft include a clear categorisation of those who are the “illegal immigrants” and those who took shelter in India after facing religious persecution in the neighbouring countries.

Under the earlier proposed Act, one of the requirements for citizenship is that the applicant must have resided in India during the last 12 months, and for 11 of the previous 14 years. The Citizenship Bill 2019 relaxes this 11-year requirement to 6 years for applicants belonging to these six religions, and the aforementioned three countries.

Controversy around the bill 

The major criticism around the bill is that it specifically targets Muslims and many have attacked the legislation for leaving out Muslims. The Act doesn’t have a provision for Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmediyas who also face persecution in Pakistan.

Critics argue that by distinguishing illegal immigrants on the basis of religion, the proposed law goes against constitutional guarantee of the fundamental right to equality under Article 14 of the Constitution.

What does the BJP have to say?

Despite protests, the government has maintained that the Bill aims to grant citizenship to minorities who have faced religious persecution in Muslim-majority foreign countries.

Notably, this was an election promise of the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the party had promised to welcome Hindu refugees and give shelter to them. The BJP and its Hindutva affiliates have insisted that minorities, of whom Hindus are in overwhelming numbers, from these countries should be granted Indian citizenship.

Even PM Modi has been firm on the bill saying that it is about righting the wrongs of history by granting refuge to the sons and daughters of Ma Bharti, who were left stranded by Partition.

In 2014 too, the BJP-led NDA government had introduced the bill but could not push it through due to vehement protests by opposition parties, which criticised the bill as discriminatory on religious grounds.

Protests against the Bill

Not everyone is on-board with the Bill as it has been opposed vehemently by opposition parties like Congress, Trinamool, DMK, Samajwadi Party, RJD and the Left, fearing that it will give legitimacy to illegal migrants in India.

The Congress, Trinamool Congress, CPI(M) and a few other parties opposed it saying, that citizenship can’t be given on the basis of religion.

Even, The Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) government, an ally of the BJP, has opposed the Bill calling it ‘dangerous’. The Meghalaya government said that they don’t agree with the idea of non-Muslims acquiring citizenship after six years of living in the country.

Resentment in the North East

The North East region is on the boil over the issue, more so after the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha in January.

Political parties, students and youth organisations besides numerous civil society bodies in the northeastern states have been launching protests to register their anger towards the bill. Organisations in the north eastern states say it will nullify the provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, which fixed March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for deportation of all illegal immigrants irrespective of religion.

Citizens of north eastern states fear that entry of massive numbers of illegal Bangladeshi migrants will result in demographic change, loss of livelihood opportunities, and erosion of the indigenous culture in the these states.