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Understanding The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019

Introduction 

Independent India’s Citizenship Laws can be traced to 1955. The Citizenship Act provided citizenship to those born in India and offered two ways for non-Indians to obtain Indian citizenship: people from the rest of undivided India would become eligible to apply for citizenship after seven years of residency in India, whereas those from countries other than undivided India would become eligible after twelve years of residency in India. The Citizenship Act was amended in 1985 in the aftermath of the Assam movement and then subsequently in 1992, 2003, 2005, and 2015. The 2003 amendment, in particular, introduced the notion of “illegal immigrants” (defined as those without proper travel documents or those who had overstayed the term of their Indian visas) into the act and made them ineligible to apply for citizenship through registration or naturalization. These illegal immigrants could be deported and/or jailed. The 2003 amendment also made it mandatory to ultimately compile a National Register of Citizens (NRC) – a move that was then supported by the Congress and Left parties. The latest amendment to the Citizenship Act came into being on 12 December 2019. 



Aim of the Bill 

The bill amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 to make people from Hindu, Sikh, Jain Buddhist, Christian, and Parsi faiths who entered India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan eligible for citizenship if they had arrived in India before 31 December 2014. In case a person who belongs to the aforementioned faiths, from these three countries, does not have proof of birth of parents, they can apply for Indian citizenship after six years of residence in India instead of the usual 12 years required in the 1955 law. The amended bill applies to people who were forced or compelled to seek shelter in India due to persecution on the grounds of religion. The bill also aims to shield such people from proceedings of illegal migration.

 

Understanding the Rationale of the Act 

The CAA does not take away any Indian’s citizenship. On the other hand, it provides refuge to persecuted minorities. This should be seen as a humane gesture. With a population of 1.3 billion, India itself has very minimal capacity to absorb persecuted groups. In any case, the biggest charge leveled against the act is that it violates the principle of Secularism as it leaves the Muslim population out of the list. It needs to be understood that the three countries mentioned are Muslim-dominated nation which has a history of religious persecution of minorities, especially of Hindu denomination. Moreover, the path to Indian citizenship is open to Muslims from any country through the provision of the Citizenship Act of 1955. The only difference the said act makes is that reduces the time of stay from 12 to 6 years to be eligible for citizenship in case of persecuted minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. 




Conclusion 

Ultimately the act needs to be seen as positive discrimination much like the affirmative action policy of the US and the reservations for Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC/ST) in India. People opposed to it should derive lessons from the benefits of positive discrimination against disadvantaged groups.


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