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Citizenship law developments in India

The Future Citizen Institute has previously reported on India because of the concept of Overseas Citizenship, created to maintain ties with the large Indian diaspora. It was seen that more countries have introduced these kinds of quasi-citizenship arrangements. More controversial, however, are some citizenship-related events that took place in India in 2018 and early 2019.

Starting on 30 July 2018, millions of people from India’s Assam state were excluded from a citizen register and were as a result stripped of their Indian citizenship. Those excluded from the register are in legal limbo and may eventually be left stateless. The GLOBALCIT country report on India explains that this is the culmination of developments in government policy and the judiciary’s case law in recent years, if not decades. One of these developments is a hostile attitude towards ‘illegal migrants’ who, it is argued, have swamped states neighbouring Bangladesh including Assam and Arunachal Pradesh since the 1960s and must be reined in through changes to citizenship laws. Paradoxically, the same attitude is not exhibited towards a similar trend in Western India where people from Pakistan have similarly run afoul of citizenship laws while crossing the border from Pakistan … [T]he difference may be that of religion. The ‘illegal migrants’ in East India are mostly Muslim while those in West India are largely Hindu.

In brief, the indigenous Indian people in Assam have become increasingly anxious in recent decades about the preservation of their culture land ownership as a result of growing illegal immigration into their territory. In 1983, this anti-foreigner sentiment already led to the Nellie massacre in which more than 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed. Making the life of the Bengali community in Assam even more complicated, in 2005 the Supreme Court of India shifted the burden of proving the legality of a citizenship claim from the State to the individual. It has been proven impossible for many Assam residents to meet this demand due to illiteracy, poorly maintained land records, corrupt local administrations and the lack of birth registrations.

The latest development is that India’s lower house of parliament has approved a bill that would grant residency and citizenship rights to non-Muslim immigrants. Critics have called the proposal ‘blatantly anti-Muslim and an attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to boost its Hindu voter base ahead of a general election due by May’. This has created further unrest in Assam, as part of the indigenous population wants all illegal migrants to be deported, irrespective of whether they are Hindu or Muslim.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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