22, Jan 2020 | Rachel Chitra & Partha Sinha
BENGALURU/MUMBAI: Even as protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act rage across India, a review of government orders (GO) by TOI shows that the government has been steadily placing hurdles in the way of Muslims seeking Indian citizenship since December 2014.
The most significant GO is the October 22, 2018 amendment to the Passport (Entry into India) Rules, 1950 and Foreigners Act, 1946, discriminating against Muslims and atheists for the grant of long-term visas (LTVs). The changed LTV regulations say, “Only members of minority communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, are eligible to apply for long-term visas.”
Under the Citizenship Act of 1955, a residential permit, or LTV, is one of the main requirements for getting Indian citizenship through naturalisation. Denying LTVs to Muslim migrants, in effect, filters them out of the process from the start, regardless of the passage of the CAA this year.
Lawyers have now moved the Supreme Court seeking the repeal of the CAA and some of these government orders. The first hearing on the plea is scheduled in the Supreme Court on January 22. The Joint Forum Against NRC has been working on this since 2016, when the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was introduced, said activist Prasenjit Bose, who has challenged the CAA and some of these government orders in the SC. “We realised that the foundation for the CAA was laid long before it was enacted,” Bose said.
Lawyers say the orders discriminate on grounds of religion and should be deemed unconstitutional as per Article 14 of the Constitution. “The LTV rules could have been separately challenged as being ultra vires the act,” said Sanjay Hegde, a Supreme Court lawyer. “Amendments to the Citizenship Act now seek to put parliamentary approval on what prima facie appear to be discriminatory rules. The mere existence of earlier discriminatory rules does not in any manner validate discriminatory legislation,” Hegde said.
“As human rights workers, we feel the government orders of 2015 and 2017 amending the passport rules are violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution. We demand that they be immediately repealed or amended to include all migrants, irrespective of religion, from all neighbouring countries,” said Teesta Setalvad, activist with the Centre for Justice and Peace.
Emails sent to officials at the ministry of external affairs remained unanswered. However, an MEA official who declined to be named said, “No one should feel jealous or angry towards refugees. These are people fleeing extreme conditions of violence and unrest, so the government has granted a special exemption to them.”
Lawyers say the government’s moves are a human rights issue more than a legal one. “When it comes to the CAA-NRC-NPR, they have already said Aadhaar, voter ID cards and passports are not proof of citizenship, only ancestry is. When you place the burden of proof on a country with more than 270 million people living below the poverty line, it would be fair to surmise many do not have such documents,” said Nikhil Narendran, a lawyer.
Narendran pointed out the government orders are also problematic as they recognise only religious persecution of specific communities. “Ahmadiyya Muslims from Pakistan and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar also face religious persecution, as do atheists in Bangladesh. There are other forms of persecution, such as ethnic persecution that Sri Lankan Tamils faced. There’s also the question of linguistic persecution, which led to Bengali-speaking Muslims fleeing to Assam in large numbers, giving rise to the current NRC exercise there.”
Activists also warn of a human rights crisis on India’s borders. “Religious discrimination could turn into other rights violations. What happens to the 19 lakh people already declared non-citizens in Assam,” Bose asked. “Who is a citizen, who is not, who can be allowed to enter, who is barred? Would families be allowed to live together in detention camps? Would children be separated from parents? The government wants us to worry over our future with such questions, without creating any solution for the problems the Assam NRC has caused,” Bose said.