IPCS Discussion

The Citizenship Amendment Bill and Assam’s Immigration Politics

28 Mar, 2019    ·   5573

Report of the panel discussion held on 17 January 2019

On 17 January 2019, IPCS hosted a discussion on The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and Assam's Immigration Politics. This is a summary report of the proceedings.

Opening Remarks by the Chair
Angshuman Choudhury
Senior Researcher & Coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP), IPCS 

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which was recently passed in the Lok Sabha, seeks to provide Indian citizenship to illegal immigrants from six religious groups from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Bill has faced objections from several quarters, primarily in Assam. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) key ally, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), has quit the coalition government and several lawmakers are criticising it publicly.

From a legal perspective, the Bill appears to challenge Articles 14 and 25 of the Indian Constitution. Further, critiques claim that the CAB invalidates several clauses of Section 6A of the Citizenship Act 1955 and 1985 Assam Accord. A huge perception gap is observed between the ruling government, which has proposed the Bill, and Assamese civil society groups that stand in opposition. This discussion will explore the legal, administrative and socio-political aspects of the Bill vis-à-vis Assam's immigration politics. 

Ajit Lal
Former IPS officer, and former Chairman, Joint Intelligence Committee, Government of India 

In Assam, illegal migration is the main issue, not CAB. Organisations like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) are attempting to use this controversy only to revive itself politically. The genesis of illegal migration dates back to 1947. East Pakistan’s failure to assimilate Assam in 1947 impacted the lives of people on both sides of borders. The 1985 Assam Accord defined an ‘illegal migrant’ as someone who infiltrated into Indian territory post 24 December 1971. However, people who migrated between 1 January 1966 and 24 December 1971 were not deported. Rather, they were given Indian citizenship after a lapse of 10 years of residency in the country. Until today, there has been no census in order to calculate the number of illegal migrants. However, indicators suggest that they run in the millions. 

Former Governor of Assam Lt Gen (retd) SK Sinha outlined some of the major consequences of such illegal migration in a report sent to the President of India in 1998 - these are still relevant. These issues have had a cultural, political and economic impact on Assam's indigenous people, inciting them to attack Muslims. The 1983 Nellie Massacre claimed more than 1,200 lives, most of them Bengali Muslims. It is incidents like these that contribute to the motivations for radicalisation. The allurement of money, propaganda videos, purported visuals of atrocities against Muslims in Kashmir are then used in furthering recruitment drives aimed at Assam's Muslim youth. 

Subimal Bhattacharya
Former Country Head, General Dynamics, &analyst working in Assam's Barak Valley through Jookto 

Illegal migration in Assam has contributed to conflict between the state's existing tribal population and a disproportionately increasing migrant population. It is important to emphasise three issues in this regard. First, CAB has a pan-India implication. Second, it does not restrict itself to Hindus alone and extends to six other persecuted minorities. Third, migrants will qualify for Indian citizenship if they meet the migration cut-off date of 31 December 2014. CAB was introduced in 2016 (i.e. two years after the cut-off date). Further, the 2015 amendments in the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Foreigners Act 1946 also predated the CAB. As per these Acts, Hindu, Parsi, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan will not be considered 'illegal'. 

The border ecosystem further explains the depth of the problem in Assam, for which CAB provides a corrective measure. Hailakandi, Karimganj and Cacchar districts in Assam border Sylhet, one of Bangladesh's most prosperous districts. Sylhetis are strong both economically and politically. Migration from Sylhet to Assam thus does not takes place in large numbers for obvious reasons. Instead, the real issue is the migrant population that came to India in 1980s and 1990s. Their procreation rates are relatively higher, which has influenced the region's demography. This migrant population must be rehabilitated and provided basic human rights while excluding voting rights for legal reasons. While this is ideal, these issues that have persisted since 1985 cannot be resolved in one step. A consistent hold-up to resolution is migrant ghettoisation which has an impact on voting patterns, and is a crucial component of election campaigns in Assam. 

Nitin Gokhale
Senior journalist and defence analyst

In 1946-47, when Assam was clubbed in the Category C states, the then chief minister was aware of the vulnerabilities this brought about for the state. Assam would have merged with East Pakistan if the then chief minister of Assam and Mahatma Gandhi had not intervened. Similarly, in 1985, nobody took responsibility for the foreigners who were detected under the Assam Accord signed between the government of India, government of Assam, and All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)-Asom Jatiyatabdi Yuva Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP). Assam was left to fend for itself under a half-baked Accord. Later, during the Anti-Foreigner’s Movement, some basic promises made by the 1985 Accord were fulfilled, albeit half-heartedly and more as political rhetoric. Ultimately, despite Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which promises to "protect, preserve and promote cultural, social linguistic of Assamese people," the state has not even been able to achieve consensus on the definition of who exactly is an 'Assamese'. 

The CAB seeks to grant legal status to illegal immigrants from erstwhile East Pakistan. Unlike the 1985 Accord, it is a pan-India bill. In addition, the Assam Accord and the National Register of Citizens' (NRC) cut-off years were 1971 and 1951, respectively, while CAB proposes 2014 as the cut-off year. The 1950 Foreigners Act talked explicitly about not treating those displaced and facing riots or discrimination in East Pakistan as foreigners in Assam. Further, Section 2 of this Act empowered the central government to expel those migrants seen as a threat to the general public or Assam's Scheduled Tribes (STs). This was followed by an influx in the migrating population from then East Pakistan. In addition is the question of the Bangladeshi Hindu community's population size, which has come down to 8.96 per cent from 24 per cent in 1950. There is a very small section of people that continues to face a threat from Bangladesh's majority population. Therefore, to anticipate a large Hindu migration into Assam as a result of the CAB is a misplaced argument. 

Having said that, it is of course possible still for some tribes to feel threatened by the probable migrant influx. In order to ensure their protection, six tribes have been offered a ‘Scheduled Tribe’ status by the government of India. Recent history demonstrates that there are legitimate issues that must be contended with. At the same time, efforts must be made to allay concerns through clear communication channels to address misgivings about the CAB. 

DP Singh
Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India 

CAB withstands the test of the Indian Constitution. It seeks to make illegal migrants legal entities in India. That they would become full-fledged Indian citizens however does not immediately follow. CAB proposes instead to reduce the conditions for citizenship eligibility from 11 to six years of residency. In this context, it is important to understand who the minorities in question are. CAB addresses those people who in 1947 could exercise the choice to either remain in then East Pakistan or cross over to India, with most choosing the latter option. As a result, 24 per cent of Bengal's Hindu population was reduced to 9 per cent. Hindus and other minorities in Pakistan account for 4 per cent of the population today. The Hindu population which was 17 per cent in 1947 is merely 1 per cent today in the country. Inverse to the conditions of minority in Pakistan, a 10-11 per cent Muslim population in 1947 is 17 per cent or more in India today. 

CAB has been criticised for religion-based discrimination. However, India's security realities limit the government's options in terms of citizenship eligibility. In fact, people from the Rohingya and Tamil Eelam communities were denied citizenship on similar grounds.

Closing Remarks by the Chair 

Despite the assertions made in the discussion, it is important to note that the CAB could invalidate India’s secular spirit and the principle of equality of law, which are both embedded in the Constitution. Further, it could violate the Assam Accord and dilute Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, as the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report on the Bill also states. The reasonable classification doctrine with respect to the Bill’s selective filtering of six religious denominations, too, remains dubious as of now. It was also argued during the discussion that India is not a ‘homeland for the Hindus’ or any other religious group, and the CAB seeks to alter this by setting a legislative precedent in that direction. 

It remains to be seen how the CAB affects political order in the Northeast, especially Assam. The powerful civil society in the state has expressed vehement opposition to the Bill, and there could be further turmoil if national stakeholders ignore these local grievances. In that regard, a mere promise to provide constitutional, political and economic safeguards to the Assamese people and release central funds for resettlement of 'legal migrants' might not be enough. The Bill could also produce a narrow definition of who is an 'Assamese' – a matter that was actually referred to a larger Constitution Bench by a Supreme Court bench in 2014. Any attempt to establish such a definition without proper consultations could lead to further unrest and forced displacement in the state.


Rapporteured by Anjali Gupta, Research Intern, IPCS