Agitation Against the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019

Malem Ningthouja

In India, the Citizenship Act, 1955, deals with the acquisition or termination of citizenship or other matters relating to citizenship. Although the Act has been amended at least on nine occasions from time to time, the provisions of enabling acquisition of Indian citizenship by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation, and incorporation of territory remain unchanged. According to this Act, illegal immigrants are denied citizenship. The Act defines illegal immigrants as those foreigners who had entered India; “(i) without a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf; or (ii) with a valid passport or other travel documents and such other document or authority as may be prescribed by or under any law in that behalf but remains therein beyond the permitted period of time.” For the lawful immigrants, who wish to apply for citizenship by naturalisation, an essential criterion is that the person must have resided in India or had been in the service of the Government of India for at least 11 years.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power in mid 2014, the party took up a keen interest in amending the existing Citizenship Act, to achieve what it promised in its election manifesto, that is, “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refugee here … [and at the same time to] … address the issue of infiltration and illegal immigrants in the Northeast region on a priority basis.” During the election campaign in Assam in 2014, the then prime ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi spelt out that, “as soon as we come to power at the Centre, detention camps housing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh will be done away with… We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffered in other countries. Where will they go? India is the only place for them. Our government cannot continue to harass them. We will have to accommodate them here.”1 After BJP has come to power, on 7th September 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs adopted the Passport (Entry into India) Amendment Rules, 2015 and the Foreigners (Amendment) Order, 2015. The order reads:

“Persons belonging to minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution and entered into India on or before the 31st December, 2014—(a) without valid documents including passport or other travel documents and who have been exempted under rule 4 from the provisions of rule 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950, made under section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 (34 of 1920); or (b) with valid documents including passport or other travel document and the validity of any of such documents has expired, — are hereby granted exemption from the application of provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946.”

On 21st December 2015, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a circular. The circular invited public and other stakeholders to submit suggestions on a proposed draft amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The objective was “to facilitate acquisition of Indian Citizenship by members of minority communities from Bangladesh and Pakistan who were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution. After some months, on 19thJuly 2016, the Minister of Home Mr. Rajnath Singh introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 [henceforth CAB or Bill]. The Bill incorporated the rules and order that were notified on 7th September 2018. The only noticeable change was the addition of Afghanistan in the list of the country of the origin of those religious communities who would be delisted from the category illegal immigrant. According to the Bill, “…persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, … shall not be treated as illegal migrants … [and their] aggregate period of residence or service of a Government in India as required [for the purpose of applying for Indian citizenship] under this clause shall be read as “not less than six years” in place of “not less than eleven years.”

Many in Parliament opposed the Bill. As a result, two motions were moved, in the Lok Sabha on 11th August 2016 and in the Rajya Sabha on 12th August 2016, that resolved to refer the Bill to a Joint Committee of both the Houses of Parliament. The Joint Committee, formed under the Chairmanship of Rajendra Agrawal, “undertook three Study Visits, viz. to Jodhpur from 18 to 20 December, 2016, to Ahmedabad and Rajkot from 18 to 20 April, 2017 and to Guwahati, Silchar and Shillong from 7 to 11 May, 2018 and held informal discussions there with Migrants/NGOs/Public representatives and other Stakeholders to obtain first hand knowledge at the field level. The Committee held 14 sittings in all. The Committee took evidence of the representatives of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Law & Justice (Department of Legal Affairs and Legislative Department) and Ministry of External Affairs at their sittings held on 21st September, 2016, 3rd October, 2016, 22nd March, 2017, 3rd January, 2018 and 23rd October, 2018 on the various provisions of the Bill. The Committee heard the views of non-official witnesses on the Bill at their sittings held on 13th October 2016, 25th October 2016, 19th July 2017 and 17th April 2018. The Committee also heard the views of the representatives of the State Governments on 26th October 2016.”2

The report of the Committee was submitted to both the Houses of Parliament on 7th January 2019. Unfortunately, the agenda of the Committee was suspected by many. The Report of the Committee suggests that the Committee was primarily constituted with an already fixed decision to endorse the Bill. It collates objections or dissents in such a manner that Government departments could identify dissents and submit corresponding counter affidavits to justify the Bill. Objections were quashed either on the ground of lack of merit or empirical exigency of enforcing the Bill. Hastily, within 24 hours of the submission of the Report, the Lok Sabha, despite a walkout by the opposition (Indian National Congress), passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, on 8th January 2019. The Bill became controversial and widely protested. There was a month-long agitation, particularly in the Northeast, against the Bill. The Northeast witnessed popular militancy, violence, disruption of administration, shut down, destruction of properties and buildings, imposition of curfew, and heavy repression causing loss of lives and infliction of casualty upon agitators.

A blow to India’s secularism

Many protested the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 on the ground that it was communal and against the principles of equality and secularism. Many interpreted the Bill as exemplifying Hindutva objectives to restrict favourable treatment to six religious groups of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan only. Critics argued that Hindutva, as advocated by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was aimed at establishing the hegemony of Hinduism as a way of life. It is believed to have promoted Hindu chauvinism by construing a primordial link between Hinduism and India. The BJP was a political front of Hindutva, to capture political power in the Indian parliamentary democracy. The Bill, therefore, was considered a catalytic instrument to invoke and manipulate the communal sentiments of the Hindus that constitute about 79.80% of the total population of India.

Left and democratic parties and organisations attacked BJP on the ground of enacting a Bill that invoked and added to the tenor of Hindu jingoism and vilification of the Muslims in particular as a threat to Hindus and Hindustan. Perhaps, Muslim constitute about 14.23% of the total population. Population data shows that Muslim demographic proportion had been gradually increasing from 9.8% in 1951 to 14.23% in 2011.3 This increase in population proportion became a serious concern of those who suspected Muslim loyalty to India. The latter was being shown as more loyal to the Islamic States or Muslim dominated countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. These countries and Myanmar were being shown as the perennial source of Muslim infiltration that posed threats to the security and integrity of Hindustan. According to an advisory circulated by the Ministry of Home Affairs, dated 8th August 2017, “Illegal migrants [Muslims] are more vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organizations. Infiltration [Muslims] from the Rakhine State of Myanmar into Indian Territory especially in the recent years besides being a burden on the limited resources of the country also aggravates the security challenges posed to the country.”4 It then appears that Muslim immigration from the neighbouring countries were not welcomed officially by the Government.

There seems to be a somewhat moderate attitude towards the rest of the minorities, such as; Christians (2.30%), Sikhs (1.72%), Buddhists (0.70%), and Jains (0.37%). The negligible demographic proportion of these communities could be a reason for the favouritism. The growth of their demographic proportion is more or less stagnant. Interestingly the Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, though they distance themselves away from being identified with Hindus, are legally bound by Hindu Marriage Act. A large chunk of the Christians is seen to be originally Hindus who may at some point of time be reconverted into Hinduism. Their immigration (legally or illegally) from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan is not considered a threat. They are categorically identified with Persons of Indian Origin (PIO). The Citizenship Act had to be amended to do away with ‘illegal immigrants’ tagging on them. They had to be enabled to acquire Indian citizenship. This policy is justified on the ground that “in 1947, the country was divided primarily on the basis of religion with no fault of citizens. After partition, India became a Secular State while at the same time the other nations, namely Pakistan and later on Bangladesh, chose to become theocratic States. This has led to their organised way of religious persecution for minorities which continued till date”5 and “were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution there.”6

The point is, the Government has not enacted a law on refugees. The reason could be that it is not interested in complying with an international statute on refugees, which may impose a duty-bound burden in terms of accepting a universalistic accommodation of refugees without discrimination on religious and territorial backgrounds. As a result, India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and the additional protocol of 1967. But the Government adopts specific policies to accommodate refugees on a selective basis. According to the Government, “Long Term Visas are granted to refugees based on existing guidelines after due security verification, etc. which permits them for facilities at par with other foreigners such as – employment in the private sector, undertake studies in any academic institution.”7 As far as the Government report is concerned, the larger bulk of refugees were from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and other specified Stateless categories. The number of refugees from other countries is quite negligible. Probably, the absence of a law on refugee enabled the Government to adopt its course in dealing with refugees. The grant of Long Term Visa to specific categories of refugees, the selective offering of PIO status and award of citizenship appears to be politically calculated. It facilitates a massive influx of favourably treated immigrants who may be converted into vote banks. The Bill, therefore, seems to be a qualitative addition to the pre-existing trend of selective favouritism that has been well placed for some decades.

According to the Government the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been perpetually persecuted for their religion and culture. This generalised view appears to be conjectural and predominantly aimed at justifying a priori connived agenda. There is no clear procedural framework to verify if someone is not an impostor when self-proclaiming infiltration “due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution.” “Fear” as emphasised in the notification of 7th September 2015 is a subjective concern; intangible, immeasurable and remains conceptually vague and ambiguous. So far, the Government has not tabled an accurate data of the number of this category of refugees. According to the Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs Mr. Kiren Rijiju, “In the absence of any authentic survey, the accurate data of Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains and Christians who came from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. and settled in various parts of India including Assam up to 31st December, 2014 is not available.”8 But the Government holds on the position that this group of refugees has nowhere to go but to be settled in India only. Many of them have been living in India for many years and should be granted citizenship. In this sense, the policy could serve as a big relief to a vast chunk of the illegal immigrants who are also being labelled as ‘stateless’ people. In this, the BJP could portray itself as the champion of the selected categories of PIO including the illegal immigrants.

Reactions from the Northeast

There was widespread popular agitation in Northeast against the CAB.9 The North East Students Organisation (NESO)—a conglomerate of student organisations from Northeast comprising All Assam Students’ Union (Assam), All Manipur Students’ Union (Manipur), All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (Arunachal Pradesh), Naga Students’ Federation (Nagaland), Mizo Zirlai Pawl (Mizoram), Khasi Students’ Union (Meghalaya), Garo Students’ Union (Meghalaya) and Twipra Students’ Federation (Tripura)— was the first to react when the Bill was introduced in the Parliament. In December 2018, the component organisations of NESO, in tactical alliances with fraternal organisations in their respective states, played a leading role in the widespread agitations. Several mass organisations joined the agitation. Popular militancy went to the extent of imposing shutdowns, blockades, destructions of public buildings and attacks on BJP offices and leaders. The Government resorted to the imposition of curfew, ban on internet, arrest, baton charge and firing causing deaths and casualties of agitators.

The popular agitation in Northeast was organised around the theme of indigenous rights. It was influenced by the apprehension about the consequential negative fallouts of the massive influx of Bangladeshis irrespective of religious affiliations. On 10th May 2018, the NESO, in a memorandum addressed to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, raised a strong objection to the CAB. According to the memorandum, “the proposed Bill is the latest example that the lawmakers of the country have no regard for our future of the North East Region. The entire North East Region is infested with foreigners from erstwhile East Pakistan and, now, Bangladesh. They have infiltrated into and polluted every aspect of our social life. The politicians have supported them which threaten the identity of the indigenous people of the region. All the states of the region have suffered badly due to the illegal flow of the foreigners without any hindrance. … The illegal immigrants have systematically occupied the government land, the forest land, and tribal land in every state of the region … The presence of several dozens of lakhs of foreigners from Bangladesh is harming the economy of the state. It is affecting the entire region. The indigenous population of Tripura was outnumbered by the illegal migrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangladesh. Tripura has already lost its tribal identity.”10

The popular sentiments against the Bill and the propaganda of insurgent parties were complementary. The only difference is that the insurgents could raise their views vociferously from an anti-colonial perspective. According to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM), the “Bill is unacceptable under all circumstances as it would marginalise indigenous peoples.”11 A joint statement of several armed insurgent parties opposed the Bill on the ground that “[it] has the larger ambition of fulfilling the imperialist ambition of India. It is difficult for India to expand beyond Nepal on the North, towards Pakistan on the West, beyond Sri-Lanka on the South, and the East. But WeSEA12 is vital for its territory, resources, markets and geo-strategic advantage in expanding India’s finance interest towards Southeast Asian Countries via Myanmar. In this regards, India is effectively playing the role of a subordinate proxy of industrially advanced imperialist countries to counter-balance China’s global economic ambitions. However, armed resistance and democratic dissents to defend indigenous rights have been obstructing India’s imperialist ambition. When militarisation, communal divide and rule policy, installation of local puppet regimes, recruitment of local traitors, etc. could not suppress resistance; India adopted the policy of passing the Bill to legalise demographic ‘invasion’, whom the Indian rulers perceive to be just one in the long run. They must gradually outnumber the indigenous population and take control of the land, natural resources, labour market, commerce, political power, and governmental institutions.”13

The Government has directly or indirectly encouraged agitation, as the timing of the Bill added fuel to the pre-existing apprehension about domination by ‘outsiders’. Perhaps the Bill was introduced at a time when the question of demographic pressure due to the influx of what is being termed ‘outsider’ had been unresolved. For the last some decades Scheduled Tribes and communities have been claiming indigenous rights vis-à-vis outsiders. Northeast has witnessed a series of movements from time to time demanding detection and deportation of outsiders from their respective states or presumed homelands.

Agitators interpreted that the Bill was primarily designed with a racist intention to completely suppress indigenes of Northeast by opening the floodgate to prospective colonisers. They believed that the Bill was aimed at imposing what they termed “Tripura Model” of complete marginalisation, subjugation, oppression, and exploitation of the indigenous peoples by outsiders. Many believed that the Bill has contradicted international statutes that would protect their rights, such as, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) and United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007. They believed that the Bill has overridden series of accords and inflicted a serious blow to the ongoing movements, such as; (a) the Assam Accord of 1985 and the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) updating process in Assam, (b) the agreement between the Government of Manipur and All Manipur Students’ Union (AMSU) and All Manipur Students’ Coordination Committee (AMSCOC) in 1980; reiterated by an agreement signed between Government of Manipur and AMSU in 1994, and; (c) the popular movements for the protection of the indigenous peoples in the Northeast. Many feared that the Government was adopting a policy to wipe out from prominence the indigenous communities of their distinct ethnic/ nationality identities, cultures, languages, and political power.


The Government could not convince the agitators that the Bill would not hurt the sentiments of the people of the Northeast. Scheduled tribes could not believe that they would be protected by the Constitutional Schedules V and VII and the Inner Line Permit System. The introduction of a bill to grant Scheduled Tribe status to Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom, and Tea Tribes could not appease the agitation in Assam. The situation was politically tricky and tense. There were unrests everywhere. The 17th Lok Sabha Election was fast approaching, and political parties tried to act in such a way as to invoke sentiment as to attract voters on their respective sides. The BJP alliances became unstable due to protest by non-BJP parties, such as, (a) Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) in Assam, (b) National People’s Party, People’s Democratic Front, and Hill State People’s Democratic Party in Meghalaya, National People’s Party and Naga People’s Front in Manipur, (d) Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) in Nagaland, (e) Mizo National Front in Mizoram, and (f) Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura in Tripura. Opposition parties took advantage of the situation to escalate unrest and destabilise BJP led governments. In the words of Gaurav Choudhury, “The North East states send 25 members of the Lok Sabha. The BJP was targeting to win 21 of these, a possibility that now looks shaky. The BJP, however, would be hoping the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 will help the party make significant inroads among the Bengali Hindu votes in West Bengal that has 42 Lok Sabha seats. But will these be enough to offset the potential losses in North East? As of now, that looks like a calculated risk.”14 The BJP made an unofficial tactical retreat. It never said that the Bill would be withdrawn. The CAB was twice listed in the revised Business Lists of the Rajya Sabha on 12th and 13th February. Since the Bill could not be moved due to disruption and adjournments, it was bound to lapse naturally unless the BJP would be resolute in pressing upon the President to pass an ordinance. The BJP is not likely to go into such an extremity. However, it continued to convey in the Hindu dominated areas of Assam and West Bengal that it would enact CAB if it comes to power again in the 17th Lok Sabha Election. Popular militancy against the Bill suddenly lost relevance after 13th February, though the demand for the withdrawal of the Bill persists. The BJP and its opponents are in a win-win situation. The opponents figure themselves out as the champion of secularism and defenders of the rights of the indigenes of the Northeast. The BJP estimates itself as listening to the voice of Northeast by allowing the Bill to remain idle in the Parliament, and as the champion of the cause of the section of refugees as it promise to enact a law to ensure their citizenship in India.


1 Retrieved on 23rd February 2014.

2 Report of the Joint Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Presented to Lok Sabha, dated 7th January 2019.

3 Compared to it, there has been a gradual decline in the demographic proportion of Hindus from 84.1% in 1951 to 79.80% in 2011. Population by religious community – 2011". 2011 Census of India. Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner. Archived from the original on 25 August 2015. Retrieved 25 August 2015.

4 The Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, No. 24013/29/ Misc./ 2017-CSR.III (i), dated 8th August 2017.

5 Statement of Objects and Reasons. Citizenship Amendment Bill. Bill No. 172 of 2016

6 Report of the Joint Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Sixteenth Lok Sabha. Presented to Lok Sabha on 7 January, 2019.

7‘Refugee Determination System.’ Ministry of Home Affairs. Release ID :121170. Dated 5th May 2015.

8‘Refugees from Neighbouring Countries.’ Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 4459. To be answered on the 8th January 2019.

9 Northeast India is the easternmost region of the country which comprises of the eight sister states- Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Nagaland and the newly recognized northeastern state Sikkim.

10 NESO Memorandum Submitted to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. Dated 10th May 2018.

11 Retrieved on 9th February 2019.

12 WeSea is a political jargon coined for Western South East Asia comprising Northeast India and West of Chindwin River of Burma.

13 ‘Boycott India’s Republic Day 2019.’ Joint Statement of Co-Ordination Committee [Comprising People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak-Pro (PREPAK-Pro), Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) United National Liberation Front (UNLF)], United Liberation Front of Assam, Independent (ULFA-I), and National Liberation Front of Twipra (NLFT). CorCom Ref. No. 09 / MC – CC / 23-01–201. Dated 23rd January 2019.

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