The Citizenship Bill was introduced in the 16th Lok Sabha on July 19, 2016, to amend the Citizenship Act 1955. The Narendra Modi government piloted the Bill successfully through the Lok Sabha but it lapsed since the Opposition had better numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Now it will have to again clear the 17th Lok Sabha or the government takes the ordinance route and gets it cleared by the next Lok Sabha. Therein lies the rub ahead of elections that would pit the BJP’s chances at a disadvantage especially in the Northeast which is up in arms against the Bill.

Why this Bill?

Bengali-speaking Hindus, who were persecuted in East Pakistan and later Bangladesh, moved into India’s Northeast after 1971, especially Assam, and became Indian citizens. Introduced to prohibit illegal migrants from acquiring Indian citizenship, the 2016 amendment says to become eligible for Indian citizenship, a person will have to live in India for at least six years and for eleven months in the last year. Further, there is a communal angle to this. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill allows citizenship to persecuted non-Muslim minorities (Hindu, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Christians) from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh even if they have entered India without any valid documents till December 31, 2014. Migrants, who don’t identify with any religion or are atheists, will not be eligible for citizenship.

Why has the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 hit the Northeast hard?

The protest against the proposed bill was evident when strong protests were seen in Assam and Manipur. The Bill has turned things on its head. People in the Northeast are of the view that if citizenship is allowed to migrants, it will impact the entire region’s society, culture and economy of the 8 states (Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Tripura and Mizoram). This bill will definitely cause demographic imbalance by making it a ground for non- Muslims migrants from Bangladesh, say opponents of the measure. Ultimately, this will challenge the cultural and political hegemony of the indigenous people of the region. This Bill has highlighted the fallacy in the country’s Constitution, as it violates many fundamental principles of governance, the principle of plurality of the law is violated, forbidding the concept of diversity as a unifying character of Indian democracy, say protesters.

They ask if this provision violated the right to equality guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution since it provides differential treatment to illegal migrants on the basis of their religion. It also violates Article 21, which, according to the Constitution, guarantees the right to life and personal liberty in Part III under the category of Rights to Freedom (Article 19-22). The right to life and personal liberty in accordance with the procedure established by law is guaranteed by Article 22 of the Constitution and the right is available to both citizen and non-citizen.

Muzzling opposition, even in Delhi

Student activist, Veewon Thokchom, was arrested without a warrant on charges of sedition for a Facebook post critical of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by Manipur Police on February 15, 2019. A former president of the Manipur Student Association Delhi (MSAD), Thokchom was charged under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code for “inciting violence” and demanding “Manipur’s right to self-determination”. In January, Veewon had organised a press conference in Delhi to condemn the arrest of Manipuri journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem, who was sentenced to a year’s detention. Wangkhem had been charged under the provisions of National Security Act (NSA) in December 2018, for a Facebook video criticising Chief Minister N Biren Singh and PM Modi. Along with MSAD, several student bodies of the Northeast such as Manipur’s AMSU, MSF, DESAM, SUK, KSA and AMIS have condemned Veewon’s arrest, and stated that the state government is violating the right to freedom of expression.

Along with the Citizenship Bill, a few prominent bills that have lapsed include the Triple Talaq Bill, the Transgender Persons (Protection) of Rights Bill, 2019 and other amendments. It remains to be seen if the Modi government will take the ordinance route. Or will it shelve it since that can work against the ruling party in the Lok Sabha polls?