The issue of citizenship has been dominating the public discourse since Monday, when Assam released the draft of an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC) leaving out 40 lakh of 3.29 applicants for inclusion. What determines who is or is not a citizen of India? And what are the special circumstances in Assam, the only state with an NRC?
How is citizenship determined in India?
Indian citizenship can be acquired by birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. A person domiciled in India as on November 26, 1949 — the date when the Constituent Assembly adopted the Constitution — automatically became a citizen if he or either of his parents was born in India, or if he had been in India for at least five years until that date.
For those born in India after the Constitution came into effect, the Citizenship Act, 1955, grants citizenship by birth based on birth dates. Anyone born between January 26, 1950 and July 1, 1987 is a citizen by birth; a person between July 1, 1987 and December 3, 2004 is a citizen by birth if either of his parents is a citizen of India at the time; those born on or after December 3, 2004 is a citizen by birth if both parents are citizens of India at the time, or if one parent is a citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant — defined as a foreigner who entered India without valid documents, or stayed beyond the allowed period
Citizenship by registration can be acquired by persons of Indian origin who have lived in India for 7 years before applying, persons of Indian origin who live in any country outside undivided India, persons married to a citizen of India and who have lived in India for 7 years before the application. Any minor child can be registered as a citizen if the government is satisfied that there are special circumstances.
Is it possible for a foreigner with no connection to India (marriage, descent etc) to become a citizen of India ?
This is citizenship by naturalisation. Any foreigner, provided he is not an illegal migrant, can acquire citizenship, provided he has stayed in India for 12 consecutive months preceding the date of application, and for 11 years out of the preceding the 14 years.
Is citizenship permanent?
Under Section 9(1) of the 1955 Act, a person ceases to be a citizen if he or she voluntarily acquires the citizenship of another country or renounces Indian citizenship. India does not allow dual citizenship. Under Section 10, anyone who has become a citizen of India by naturalisation or by registration due to marriage to an Indian citizen can be deprived of the citizenship by the Home Ministry for certain reasons.
How is Assam different? Why a separate National Register of Citizens?
This is because of a history of migration. During British rule, Assam was merged with Bengal Presidency for administrative purpose. From 1826 to 1947, the British continuously brought migrant workers to Assam for cheap labour in tea plantations. Two major waves of migration came after British rule — first after Partition, from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and then in the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. This eventually led to an agitation during 1979-85, led by the All Assam Students’ Union. It culminated in the 1985 Assam Accord signed with the Rajiv Gandhi government, under which illegal migrants were to be identified and deported. Clause 6A was inserted in the Citizenship Act with special provisions for Assam.
What are those provisions?
These take into account two cutoff dates — January 1, 1966 and March 25, 1971. Anyone who was a resident of Assam before the first date is a citizen. Migrants who entered on any day between these two dates, and remained there, would need to register with a Foreigners Tribunal. For 10 years, they would have all rights of a citizen except the right to vote, which would be granted at the end of 10 years. Finally, migrants who entered Assam on or after March 25, 1971, are not eligible for citizenship.
Is this not the cutoff date for NRC, too?
Yes. For inclusion, applicants need to prove that they — or their parents, grandparents etc — were citizens before March 25, 1971. Those who could not prove this, as well as their offspring, have been excluded. Assam already has an NRC, prepared in 1951 with 80 lakh citizens, on the basis of that year’s Census. In 2003, the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules were amended for updating the NRC in order to identify genuine citizens.
What was the mechanism for identifying migrants earlier?
When Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, the government introduced the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, applicable only to Assam. Against the Foreigners Act that was in force elsewhere, the IMDT Act was seen as ineffective as the burden of proof of someone being a foreigner was on the accuser and not on the state or the accused. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down IMDT Act on a petition filed by Sarbananda Sonowal, then an AGP leader, now Assam Chief Minister and a BJP leader.
Before the NRC update, Assam was witnessing protests over the Citizenship Amendment Bill. What was this about?
In 2016, the Centre introduced amendments to the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to religious minorities (mostly Hindus and including other non-Muslims) from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who took shelter in India. The Bill relaxes norms for granting them citizenship by decreasing the residency requirement from 11 years to six years. In Assam, where the agitation was against migrants irrespective of religion, this has led to protests. The Bill is currently pending with a Joint Parliamentary Committee.
Is there a similar situation for migrants in any other state?
In Arunachal Pradesh, a demand for citizenship to Chakmas has been pending for decades. While the Centre is keen to grant them citizenship, it is being opposed by the state government. In Kashmir, West Pakistan refugees are allowed to vote in national elections but not in Assembly elections.