The citizenship question

From the time of the promulgation of the Constitution of the Indian Republic on January 26, 1950, the position adopted by the Indian state on the citizenship question reveals a thoroughly communal outlook. The Indian state has used the question of citizenship to systematically inflame communal and sectarian passions and attack the unity of the people. It has used the citizenship issue to divert and disrupt the struggle of the different nations and peoples constituting India for their national rights.

The communal partition of 1947 and the creation of two separate states, India and Pakistan, resulted in mass scale migration of people across the subcontinent, leaving behind all that they possessed and without any official documents to show where they came from. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 led to large-scale migration of people as refugees from Bangladesh, primarily into Assam. (See Box: National Registry of Citizens in Assam; D voters). India is also home to a large number of Tibetan, Afghan and Sri Lankan refugees, who have been forced to flee their homelands for varying reasons.

National Registry of Citizens in Assam
and ‘D voters’

A major electoral plank of the BJP in the last Assam state assembly elections was to complete the NRC (National Registry of Citizens) and to seal the Bangladesh border with Assam to stop illegal migration from that country into Assam.

In Assam, the question of who is a citizen has been debated for several decades, and especially during the Bangladesh war of 1971, when large scale migration of people occurred, in the border areas of Assam and West Bengal. This is in addition to the people who came to the northeastern and eastern parts of India during partition.

According to the Assam Accord (signed in 1985 after the 6 year long and bloody agitation against illegal immigrants), the name of a person who came to Assam on or after January 1, 1966 but before March 25, 1971, and has lived in Assam since coming, shall be included in the electoral rolls.

The determination of citizenship for the NRC requires rigorous documentation, which is often very difficult for the migrant communities. Those who cannot prove their citizenship on the above basis are labeled as ‘D voters’ (doubtful voters) or “dubious citizens” or ‘foreigners’. These are sent to state run prisons called ‘detention centres’. No journalist or researcher can meet them in the detention centres.

Most of these D citizens are from Bangladesh and a few from Myanmar. Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge them as its citizens. Many immigrants have no knowledge of their place of origin.

India and Bangladesh have yet to sign an extradition treaty regarding Bangladeshi people living “illegally” in India.

The vast majority of the refugees in India have been compelled, for decades on end, to live in the most poverty-stricken and deplorable conditions, deprived of citizenship status and hence, of all rights and entitlements from the state. They do not have any legal work permits and are forced to slave for a meager livelihood, vulnerable to the most horrible forms of exploitation. The threat of being declared “illegal immigrants” and jailed and deported constantly hangs over their heads like a Damocle’s sword. They are reduced to utterly helpless victims of the state and its agencies, to be manipulated as it suits the authorities.

The stand of the Indian State to the Chakmas and Hajongs is but the latest confirmation of its diabolical strategy. Chakma and Hajong refugees originate from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). They had come into India as refugees in the face of the persecution at the hands of the Pakistani state. Between 1964 and 1969, the Indian state had rehabilitated these refugees in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Ever since, the Indian state and its political parties have deliberately sowed divisions between the tribal inhabitants of Arunachal Pradesh and the refugees. All the problems facing the people of the state — the cutting down of the vast forests by the timber traders, the lack of employment opportunities, lack of housing, are all deliberately attributed to the presence of refugees.

Five decades later, these refugees still do not have citizenship. In September 2015, the Supreme Court, in response to a petition by the Committee for Citizenship Rights of the Chakmas, ordered that the Chakmas be granted citizenship within three months. This order was opposed by the Arunachal Pradesh Government, political parties and mass organisations in Arunachal Pradesh, including the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union (AAPSU).

Two years after the Supreme Court order, the central government announced on September 13, 2017 that the Chakma and Hajong refugees would be granted “limited citizenship”. They would not have the right to own land. There were mass protests in Arunachal Pradesh against the Central government’s decision. Just a week later, on September 19, the Central government said the Supreme Court’s order on granting citizenship to the over one lakh Chakma and Hajong refugees was “not implementable”.

The Citizenship Act 1955

Citizenship in India is defined by The Citizenship Act 1955, which defines citizenship by birth and citizenship by naturalization.

The Act stipulates a period of continuous residence in the country for 11 years for citizenship by naturalization.It denies citizenship rights to any illegal immigrant, whereby an ‘illegal immigrant’ is defined as a person who (i) enters India without a valid passport or with forged documents, or (ii) who stays in the country beyond the visa permit.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July 2016, seeks to grant citizenship to illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsior Christian religious communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan. It seeks to reduce the required period of residency in India to 6 years, from the present 11 years, for such migrants. It does not extend these rights to illegal Muslim migrants or other minority communities in the three neighbouring countries, such as Jews, Bahais etc.

This is an openly communal amendment. Its aim is to further communalise the political climate in Assam, Bengal and other states. Various state sponsored organisations have been organizing rallies supporting the bill saying now Bangladeshi Hindu migrants will be granted citizenship. On the other hand, various other organisations of Assam have been opposing this amendment, saying that it will lead to citizenship rights to 1.5 lakh undocumented Hindu Bangladeshis.They have accused the central government of violating the Assam accord 1985 which declares any person who is found to have entered the state from Bangladesh after March 24, 1971 as “illegal immigrant”.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 is not the first time that religion is being made the consideration for the conferral of citizenship. Article 6 and 7 of the Constitution discriminate on the basis of religion. Article 6 confers citizenship to people who migrated to India after partition, whereas article 7 grants citizenship to individuals who migrated to Pakistan after the announcement of partition but returned to India later on.

While article 6 was directed towards Pakistani Hindus who had moved to India, article 7 implicitly referred to the Indian Muslims who had left India during the violence of partition but wanted to return to their homes later on. Those included in the second category had to go through an elaborate process of registration and much harassment before they could be awarded citizenship rights, allegedly since their “loyalties could not be determined”.

The clauses that define Citizenship by birth were amended in 1987 to state that every person born in India before July 1987 would be a citizen of India. In 2004, it was further amended to declare that those born between 1987 and January 2004 would be considered citizens, if one of their parents was a citizen. However a person born after January 2004 would be denied citizenship if one of her parents was an “illegal migrant”, even though the other parent is an Indian citizen. As a result of 2004 amendment, lakhs of people born in India to people termed “illegal migrants” have been deprived of citizenship rights. On the other hand, people who should be considered as citizens by birth according to the Citizenship Act, including the Chakmas, Hajongs, Tibetans, and many migrants originating from Bangladesh are still denied citizenship.


Whether it be a question of citizenship by birth, or citizenship by naturalization, the outlook of the Indian state has been thoroughly communal. It has always viewed people from the point of view of their religion.

Undivided India consisted of many nations, nationalities and peoples. Partition led to the forcible division of the nations of Punjab and Bengal. The Central state working on behalf of the big bourgeoisie, savagely exploits and oppresses all the nations and peoples of India. In particular, the Assamese, Manipuri and other peoples of the North East have been the victims of savage exploitation and plunder and national oppression. The peoples of the North East have been fighting against this exploitation and oppression by the Central state for decades. The Indian state has deliberately imposed communal and sectarian divisions in these movements, to divert the attention of the people from the source of their problems, the Central State. The migrants from Bangladesh have been used as a pawn in this diabolical game played by the Central state.

In the existing political system and process in our country, people are marginalized from political power, from the decision making process. People are divided into “special interest groups”, on the basis of caste, religion, ethnic origin, etc. Political parties of the ruling class seek votes from these “special interest groups” and thus deepen the divisions within the polity, to further their own political interests. This only serves to increase the disempowerment and marginalization of people.

All factors that serve to obscure the modern definition of a citizen, that create the notion that a person should be identified by any other factors than her/his citizenship, act as a roadblock to the struggle for renewal of democracy.

According to the Webster English Dictionary, a ‘citizen’ is ‘a member of a state with full political privileges’. It is a political statement when it is said that a person is a citizen of a country.

Citizenship should not be confused with nationality, religion, language or ethnic origin. There can be people with more than one nationality, religion, language or ethnic origin within a state or polity. A citizen can have any racial or national background, can belong to any religion, can be of any gender, born in the country or an immigrant. An individual being a citizen means that she/he enjoys rights and must perform duties within a polity.

The political power, i.e. the state must represent the interests of all its citizens. The fundamental law of the land, i.e. the Constitution must guarantee equal status, equal rights and duties for every citizen. A citizen should be recognized only by the fact that she/he is part of a polity and on no other basis.

The present Indian state does not represent the interests of all its citizens. It represents the interests of the biggest monopolies who are riding roughshod over the interests of the vast masses of Indian people. Depriving large sections of people of citizenship by declaring them “illegal immigrants” serves the ruling bourgeoisie to divide the toiling people and perpetuate its rule.

India needs to be reconstituted on new foundations wherein the state will actually represent the interests of all its citizens and guarantee equal rights to all.

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