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Can you relate to the feeling of being trapped in a world where your identity is in your enemy? Can you relate to anger the accompanies when the language you speak and choice of god you pray to determine whether you’ll be able to put food on the table? Can you relate to the feeling alienation when babus and netas promise you the moon but fail to protect the land under your feet?

If yes, you’re now able to relate to daily lives of the millions of Indian citizens who reside in the northeastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya. A feeling alien to the citizens of the other more well-connected states, their lives are under a constant tug of war between cultural preservation and the pursuit of economic opportunities. In addition to the ‘regular’ problems like lack of connectivity, poor developmental planning and execution, corruption in the governmental systems and insurgency, citizens also face the problem of economic migration and refugees. Migration and refugee inflow in the northeast is not a new phenomenon, owing to the trade relations and political instability in the neighbouring countries. However, until the passing of Citizenship Amendment Bill (Hereinafter CAB) introduced in 2016, economic migration was never a legitimate activity approved by the government.  The bill has raised many an opposition from the socio-political organizations based out of the northeastern states on grounds of violating the rights of livelihood of the native inhabitants from the northeastern states. In the light of the following events, the time has come to dissect the problematic areas of the bill and find out causes for the such a furore.

Legal Aspect

The essence of CAB, 2016 can be summarised as an attempt to allow six minority religious communities namely Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian who have entered into Indian state from three neighbouring countries namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan before the cut-off date of Dec 31st, 2014 to stay on in India without being deported or arrested. Along with this provision, the bill also reduces the minimum years of residency in India to apply for citizenship to be lessened from at least 11 to six years for such migrants.

This would mean that any individual who fulfils these conditions have crossed 6 years of residency is eligible to apply for Indian citizenship by naturalization. Here we identify the issue number one – allowing of economic migrants into the country without a clear rationale.

Moving forward, after the preliminary reading of the bill, one can spot a major omission from the list of religions allowed – Islam. This opens up a plethora of questions that range from violation of Article 14 of Indian Constitution to question of statelessness discussed under United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Here we identify issue number two and three – discrimination based on religion and creation of stateless citizens.

To bring more clarity into the issue at hand, we must understand what the legal position is when it comes to the passing of a law that discriminates one group of people from the other on the basis of religion. Through various case laws, Supreme Court of India has arrived two important criteria the law should pass to be considered constitutionally valid. Those are:

  1. There should be an ‘intelligent differentia’ on the basis of which the discrimination is made. The discrimination should be rational, not artificial or arbitrary.
  2. The discrimination should be connected with the purpose of the said legislation. The discrimination should not be a coloured legislative provision trying to achieve an entirely different vested objective.

As we run this test on CAB of 2016, it is clear as daylight the exclusion of Islam as a religion from the list of religion is only a result of purposeful shunning of the community and possible result of Islamophobia coupled with a political agenda.

Often used interchangeably, these two terms define two different mutually exclusive groups of people, for whom protection and rights guaranteed by the international law differ. Refugees are groups of people who are persecuted in their native country by virtue of their identity or their opinion and have no other option but to flee for survival. The rights of non-refoulment are well recognized under the Vienna Convention on the Rights of Refugees.

The third major legal hurdle is the arbitrary fixing of the cut-off date which happens to Dec 31st, 2014. There is no logical explanation given as to why this date was preferred over any other. The danger of fixing an arbitrary date is that any migrant or a refugee identifying himself or herself of being a Muslim will face the threat of being a stateless citizen.

Political Impact

There is a general feeling among the indigenous people of north-eastern states that they were not consulted before the drafting of the bill as it goes against existing autonomous administrative mechanisms such as Art 371, Inner Line Permit and Assam Accords. The issue of migration has already started sowing seeds of social disharmony visible from the divide evident in Brahmaputra valley between the Assamese Hindu natives and Assamese Muslims from a Bengali ethnicity. This has paved way to an anti-migrant movement led by a host of sub-national groups disenfranchised by lack of jobs and economic opportunities. It is only time that this competition over jobs and resources will social harmony in jeopardy. The reactionary effect of such mass display of hatred towards Muslim migrants may lead to a violent backlash from the oppressed community.

Moving Forward

To ensure harmonious co-existence, the first step is to admit that CAB is a poorly drafted legislation that impact of which extends to incentivizing economic migrants from certain communities to stay in India and alienating one community from their legitimate right of refugees. Once legislation is withdrawn, the set the ball rolling to craft a refugee policy, clearly differentiating who a refugee is in the Indian context. Following which, the National Citizenship Registry should be strengthened using verified citizen identification instruments. As for those migrants who are already occupying the land illegally, take steps to rehabilitate them and on a case to case basis, in liaison with their native country, take steps to send them back. As for those migrants who severed all relationships with their native country, take steps to grant Indian citizenship through naturalization and facilitate an initiative to integrate with the local community. Fencing of borders in north-east and north-west to prevent further entry of illegal migrants can reduce the inflow of migrants. Let the central theme of our initiatives be celebrating the diversity of our cultures and not sacrificing migrants refugees as pawns in the chessboard of humanity.

The author is an HR professional from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, with a background in law from National Law University.Over 2+ years of experience in Public Policy, Rural Development, Law & Human Resource Management.Passionate to learn more about the human aspect of migration, refugee crisis and its intersectional impacts of other parameters of human dignity.

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