Citizenship (Amendment) Act rules, 2024 – understanding its origins

Citizenship (Amendment) Act rules, 2024 – understanding its origins

The Indian central government notified the Citizenship (Amendment) Act rules recently. The rules expedite the citizenship process for persecuted minorities who migrated from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and arrived in India before 2014.

These groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and Christians. The Act, however, does not grant the same amnesty to Muslim migrants from these countries. This exclusion has led to large-scale protests in the country, but the law remains to be unchanged.

This article provides a historical background on which CAA originated and evolved. The piece also delves into how the act fits into the larger narrative of citizenship and migration predominant in India.

The partition of India on religious lines into Pakistan and East Pakistan in 1947 resulted in one of the largest migratory movements across borders. About 14.5 million people migrated to India, and 17.9 million people emigrated from India.

The displacement caused adverse humanitarian suffering among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who were predominant in this massive population exchange.

The Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 again led to Bengalis fleeing Bangladesh to avoid persecution and violence and taking refuge in India.

The subcontinent bears the burden of a troubled post-partition legacy, and thus, conflict between diversity and demography is inevitable. 

Refugees and their citizenship status have always presented a challenging front, often causing political tensions and concerns.

The Assam Accord came into being after years of protests and agitations led by the All-Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) demanding protection of the rights of the indigenous Assamese and the removal of illegal immigrants.

The accord was signed in 1985 between the Government of India, the Government of Assam and the leaders of the Assam Movement.

The accord mandated the detection and deportation of illegal migrants who came to Assam after March 24, 1971, and provided a clause for providing legal citizenship to those who could prove their residency in Assam prior to the cutoff date of March 24, 1971.

The CAA pushes this 1971 deadline to 2014. The CAA rules are being met by protests in Assam because they perceive illegal migrants to be threats to the existing demography and culture as well as to the livelihood of indigenous inhabitants.

The larger perception in Assam views the Bengali-speaking immigrants as those escaping economic hardships endured in Bangladesh and not religious persecution per se.

Assam was the first to have a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in 1951, as a part of the census, to identify Indian citizens in the post-partition era. The exercise was conducted again in 2014 to address the issue of illegal immigrants.

The updated NRC excluded 1.9 million applicants for the lack of adequate documents. A significant proportion of these were non-Muslims believed to have migrated from Bangladesh.

Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan are among other states that have faced illegal migrations. The debates around the adverse impact of these illegal migrations have grown over the ages, often reflecting in electoral politics and socio-cultural demands.

The issue of illegal immigrants has gained momentum in several Indian states in post-partition years. Assam and West Bengal are the most contentious ones. West Bengal, owing to its porous borders with Bangladesh, faces an influx of migrants.

There has been constant clamour around these illegal immigrants competing for jobs and resources, often being intertwined with electoral politics in the region. The CAA Rules 2024 have been met with applause by members of the Matua community.

The Matuas came to India after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Matuas comprise 3.8% of West Bengal’s population, the second-largest scheduled caste group in the state. The community is a deciding force in Bengal’s Assembly seats.

However, the Rajbanshis, the largest scheduled caste group of West Bengal, perceive CAA as a threat to their rights as the indigenous group in the region. The group comprises 30% of North Bengal. In the past, Rajbanshis have also raised demands for separate statehood or territorial autonomy, perceiving Bengali refugees as threats to local jobs and resources.

BJP’s election manifesto in 2014 and 2019 promised to solve the problem of illegal migrants and grant asylum to persecuted minorities. While the CAA is not specifically mentioned in the manifesto, the party has often reiterated its commitment to address illegal immigration in West Bengal and Assam and to update the NRC.

BJP had also promised to complete the fencing along the India-Bangladesh border in a bid to reduce illegal immigration. The party’s Hindutva ideology romances the idea of a Hindu Rashtra and hence proactively advocates granting refuge to minorities from neighbouring countries sharing a common culture and ideology.

The act and the rules thus have their roots in the partition of India. Moreover, the porous borders and deep cultural ties with neighbouring regions have facilitated cross-border movements with ease over the years.

Several times, the influx of migrants has affected the peace, security, and demography of regions that are close to the borders. There have been demands for separate statehood and autonomy from different parts of the country.

These demands and agitation have become a hotbed of electoral politics and continue to breed tensions in these regions. While the CAA seems to be like a culmination point in addressing the problem of illegal migrants, it certainly signals the beginning of other issues.

The exclusion of persecuted Muslim minorities in these nations from the CAA rules has caused some serious crinkles in the secular fabric of the country.

The CAA, coupled with NRC, may leave several stateless similar to what has happened in Assam. This could cause further strife and insecurity in the country.

Another question that remains to be answered is how the nation will provide for these incoming refugees, who will eventually compete with local resources, jobs and housing.

While the gesture of accepting those being persecuted seems grand on paper, providing for the well-being and rehabilitation of such groups can be a huge financial burden as well as affect the local socio-cultural dynamics.