What does the new Citizenship Act do?
It reduces the mandatory period of residency in India required to qualify for Indian citizenship by naturalisation from 11 years to 5 years for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian and Parsi migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived fleeing religious persecution before December 31, 2014.
Great, so what’s the problem?
Well, it’s discriminatory, and goes against the basic ethos of India’s constitution, because it discriminates on the basis of religion. It’s also largely unnecessary because the bulk of those who came fleeing religious persecution came in 1947 during Partition, or in the years immediately after, in the case of western India. The migration was spread out over a longer period in the east, where migration from East Pakistan carried on from 1947 to 1971, when it became a country called Bangladesh after a genocide in which 2-3 million people were killed, and a war in which India helped the Bangladeshi freedom fighters. However, in both east and west, migration had tapered long ago. Those who came in 1947 are mostly dead, and their descendants are citizens. Those who came up to 2008 should already have got citizenship even before this amendment was passed, because the residency period was 11 years.
So how many people will benefit from this amendment?
The number of pending citizenship applications in some states, e.g, Meghalaya, is in single digits and there is no clear nation-wide figure. The only reliable estimate is that given by the Intelligence Bureau to the Joint Parliamentary Committee that examined the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The figure given was 31,313 persons who are in India on Long Term Visas. Most of them are Pakistani Hindus residing in camps in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. However, this number includes many who came much more than 11 years ago. The reason that they have not yet got citizenship is that the processing of applications is very slow. Only around 100 applications are processed in a whole year. Therefore, the change of law will make no difference because the problem was not the law at all, but the procedural delays.
Won’t those people get citizenship automatically now?
No, they will not. The government has clarified that there will be an application and verification process. The details have not been announced yet. However, an application and verification process cannot be dispensed with entirely, because otherwise there would be risk of misuse by terrorists and spies from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh.
Hm. Okay so maybe only a few people benefit, but what’s the harm in that?
Apart from the constitutional objection, the harm bit mainly comes in because of the other thing that’s supposed to follow – the National Register of Citizens a.k.a. NRC. This has only been done in one state so far, Assam, and 1.9 million people have been left out of the final NRC list because they could not prove through documents that they or their direct ancestors were citizens of India before March 24th 1971, which was the cut-off date. Over 1.2 million of the 1.9 million are estimated to be Hindus. The BJP leaders in Assam had promised the Citizenship Amendment Act would be passed to ensure no Hindus were left stateless because of the NRC. The CAA provides a backdoor for the NRC excluded Hindus, but there’s a catch or two. They will have to claim that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan in order to apply via CAA. They would presumably have to show some proof of identity as well, showing when and where they came from, since there is a cut-off date. The CAA is not applicable for Indians who cannot prove citizenship and it is not applicable for those who came after 2014. Therefore, the Indians left out of the NRC because of lack of documentation have no option but to fight cases in the Foreigners’ Tribunals and courts. If they lose the cases eventually, they will be sent to detention camps or, if any country accepts them, they will be deported. Poor people without the means to fight cases will be worst hit.
Why is documents such a big problem?
It’s a big problem because of the cut-off date. In case you forgot, March 1971 was more than 48 years ago. There are also basic issues. For instance, most people in rural India used to be born in homes not hospitals even one generation back. So, they don’t have birth certificates. The literacy rates were low, so a large chunk of the population in every state didn’t have any school certificates. Only rich people owned vehicles so there were no driving licences. Foreign travel was rare so hardly anyone had passports. There were no voter cards or Aadhar cards or even PAN cards – those are all new documents. The only documentation that the average Indian might have had was the ration card, and the name in the voter’s list. However, something so simple as a spelling mistake in a name in a ration card 50 years ago can get a person’s name knocked off the NRC now. This has happened in Assam.
Sad, but…the government is saying they won’t ask for old documents in rest of India.
Right. So, what exactly is the NRC for in that case? The government already has the list of people who have their names in the voter’s list, it has the data of people with Aadhar, and PAN cards, and all the rest of it. It will also be doing the Census as usual. The NRC in Assam cost Rs 1600 crore and took over 50,000 employees more than five years to complete. At the end of it, every party rejected it because no one believes it is accurate. What is the use of doing something like that for the whole country which is likely to cost in the range of Rs 1 lakh crore, and harass the entire population of India? Why not simply collate the data from already existing sources?