India has been a home to refugees for centuries. When Parsis faced religious persecution during 12th – 16th Century, refugees from the community came and settled in Gujarat. India went through a turbulent refugee crisis during partition. Nearly 10 million people were dislodged and they became refugees migrating through the overflowing borders. The migration was a picture in red and black – massacre and violence.
It seems that people of the Indian subcontinent are still paying for the two-nation theory that created India and Pakistan in 1947. Independent India created a citizenship law to tackle swarms of illegal migrants. The 1955 Citizenship Act laid out the mechanisms for acquiring Indian Citizenship which is governed by Articles 5 to 11 of the Indian Constitution.
In 1971, Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan, was a victim of mass genocide called “Operation Searchlight” carried out by Pakistan in order to wipe out the Bengali Movement in the state. In the 9-month long pogrom, anywhere between 3 lac to 3 million civilians were massacred and more than 10 million refugees rushed to India’s West Bengal, Assam and other nearby states as well as to Myanmar. This triggered the 1971 war between India and Pakistan which led to the bifurcation of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh.
A decade later, the menace of Bangladeshi refugees started creeping up in the states of North East, especially Assam. In 1979 the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) started a movement to save the indigenous culture and drive out refugees, who comprised majorly of Bengalis.
It culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1986 by the then Rajiv Gandhi government. Citizenship Laws became stricter with the 1986 amendment to the Citizenship Act. Individuals born in India could only be considered a citizen if either of their parents was an Indian citizen.
Vigilance on the India – Bangladesh border became stricter. In accordance to the Assam Accord, the amended Citizenship Act aimed at driving out illegal immigrants who had entered India after March 25, 1971.
The term that is creating controversy today “illegal migrants” was added to the Act in the 2003 Amendment by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. Its definition was added to the Act and the following major changes were made:
- If either of the parents of a child born in India after 2003 were illegal migrants, the child was not to be considered an Indian Citizen.
- Between 1987-2003, Indian citizenship could be granted to a child whose either parent held Indian Citizenship.
- Whereas, prior to 1987, anyone born in India was considered Indian Citizen.
- Illegal immigrants could not apply for Indian Citizenship through Registration.
Dr. Manmohan Singh, then in the Opposition, criticized the Bill and said in 2003 that “”India’s stance towards persecuted minorities be most liberal.” Other amendments in 2005 and 2015 to the Bill were linked to the Overseas Citizenship Clause in the Act.
2003 Amendment also mandated Government to conduct a nation-wide National Register of Citizens and issue a national identity card to each citizen. NRC was not much deliberated after 2003 until 2008’s 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. The Congress-led UPA Government decided to go with Aadhaar identification rather than NRC. Along with Census 2010, National Population Register was carried out. However, the UPA government did not take any steps to conduct NRC.
NRC in Assam is an entirely different issue. It has been mandated by the Supreme Court since 1986 to make sure Assam Accord gets honoured.
BJP-led NDA government’s Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, seems like a policy that is on the other side of the spectrum when compared with former NDA government’s 2003 amendments. Attributing circumstantial elements to the different stances, this amendment eases the citizenship requirements for immigrants from certain “religiously persecuted” communities. It will not consider “illegal” immigrants who have entered India before 31st December 2014 and who are from Hindu, Jain, Parsi, Sikh, Christian, Budhha religions as “illegal” and will grant them citizenship. Furthermore, naturalization period for these persecuted minorities has been reduced to 5 years instead of 11. The 11 year naturalisation period is still applicable to every other immigrant.
Looking at the timeline of amendments, it seems that changing circumstances as well as generational demographic shifts have coincided with changes in the citizenship requirements as mandated by the government of India.