On July 19, 2016, the government introduced a Bill to amend certain provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The Bill has now been referred to the joint select committee of Parliament. The object of the proposed Bill is to enable Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who have fled to India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh without valid travel documents, or those whose valid documents have expired in recent years, to acquire Indian citizenship by the process of naturalisation.
Under the Bill, such persons shall not be treated as illegal immigrants for the purpose of the Citizenship Act. In another amendment, the aggregate period of residential qualification for the process of citizenship by naturalisation of such persons is proposed to be reduced from 11 years to six years. A large number of people who would otherwise be illegal immigrants can now heave a sigh of relief if the Bill goes through as they would be eligible to become citizens of the country.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, owes its genesis to the assurance given by the Prime Minister that Hindus from these three countries who have sought asylum in India would be conferred Indian citizenship. But since singling out Hindus alone could be discriminatory, the Bill has extended the right to acquire citizenship to other religious minorities living in the three countries.
But it would have been appropriate if the Bill had used the term “persecuted minorities” instead of listing out non-Muslim minorities in three countries. To give an example, the Ahmadiyyas are not considered Muslims in Pakistan and are subject to many acts of discrimination.
Other groups include members of the Rohingyas, who being Muslims are subjected to discrimination in Myanmar and have fled to India. Such a gesture would also have been in conformity with the spirit of religious and linguistic rights of minorities guaranteed under our Constitution. Unfortunately the Bill does not take note of the refugees in India from among the Muslim community who have fled due to persecution and singles them out on the basis of religion, thereby being discriminatory.
The bill should not restrict itself to minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh but should include refugees from persecuted minorities of all denominations who have made India their home.
The case of the Malaiha Tamils
Yet another disappointing feature of the Bill is that it does not provide citizenship to the people of Indian origin from Sri Lanka who fled to Tamil Nadu as refugees following the communal holocaust in July 1983. The Indian Tamils, or Malaiha (hill country) Tamils as they like to be called, are descendants of indentured workers who were taken by the British colonialists in the 19th and 20th centuries to provide the much-needed labour for the development of tea plantations.
The British gave an assurance that the Indian workers would enjoy the same rights and privileges accorded to the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils. But soon after independence, by a legislative enactment the Indian Tamils were discriminated and rendered stateless.
According to informed sources, there are nearly 30,000 Malaiha Tamils in the refugee camps scattered throughout Tamil Nadu. They have absolutely no moorings in Sri Lanka. Their children have intermarried with the local people and are well integrated into Tamil society. The young have availed of educational facilities, but are unable to get jobs commensurate to their qualifications because they are not Indian citizens.
All these refugees qualify for Indian citizenship by registration under Article 5 of the Citizenship Act of 1955. However their plea for citizenship has been negated citing a Central government circular that Sri Lankan refugees are not entitled for Indian citizenship.