The Citizenship Act of 1955 regulates the process of acquiring Indian citizenship. It allows individuals born in India or of Indian origin, or have resided in the country for a period of time, to become an Indian citizen. It prohibits illegal migrants though. The act enables a person to apply for Indian citizenship by naturalisation if one has resided in the country for 12 months preceding the application; and for 11 of the 14 years preceding the 12 months. It allows the cancellation of registration of overseas Indian citizens if they register by fraud or if they are imprisoned for two or more years within five years of registration.
On the other hand, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016, which was introduced in the Lok Sabha more than two years ago, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955. Under the proposed bill, illegal migrants belonging to minority communities namely the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan can apply for Indian citizenship after six years of residence in the country; and not 11 years as stipulated in the previous Act. It says also that registration of overseas Indian citizens can be cancelled if the applicants violate the law. The proposed changes have disappointed sections of the society particularly indigenous peoples from the north-eastern part of India.
The controversial bill is a regressive legislation that goes against the basic tenets of the constitution. It has a political tint to it as the BJP had promised in its 2014 general election manifesto to grant Indian citizenships to Hindus persecuted in the neighbouring countries. The goodwill in helping someone in distress should be appreciated but the intention of the Bill is questionable in the current form. The reason: The exclusion of Muslims, the largest religious minority in India and other religions such as the Jews. Some may argue that India has helped Muslims from neighbouring countries in the past, which may be the premise for their exclusion this time. But the fact is that deliberately keeping any religious community out of the ambit of the bill is a direct challenge to right to equality provided in Article 14 of the constitution. It is a threat to the idea of secularism that India takes pride in.
If the bill is legislated, Indian states sharing borders with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan could witness an influx of illegal immigrants. This is why several organisations from the Northeast, especially from Assam are protesting against the bill saying that it would affect the future of the indigenous people in the region. It is also argued that the bill would nullify the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam. The NRC was formulated to identify people who came to the state after the midnight of March 24 1971. The NRC does not differentiate migrants on the basis of religion but the proposed bill does. Thus, it gives a window to non-Muslims to bypass the NRC rule. The Nagas too should keep an eye on the bill as it can be manipulated to supersede the rights provided in Article 371 (A) of the Indian constitution.