USCIRF, the Commission concerned over Citizenship Bill; what are its functions?
GS Paper II
Topic: Indian Constitution- historical underpinnings, evolution, features, amendments, significant provisions and basic structure.
Mains: The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2016
What’s the News?
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was “deeply troubled” by the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Lok Sabha, “given the religion criterion in the Bill”, and recommended that “if the CAB passes in both Houses of Parliament, the US government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership”.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), 2016:
- With this, the government plans to change the definition of illegal migrants. The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 15, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to illegal migrants, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. However, the Act doesn’t have a provision for Muslim sects like Shias and Ahmediyas who also face persecution in Pakistan.
- The Bill also seeks to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalisation.
According to the Citizenship Act, 1955, an illegal immigrant is one who enters India without a valid passport or with forged documents or, a person who stays beyond the visa permit.
Principle of jus soli or jus sanguinis:
- After independence, the Constituent Assembly settled on the principle of jus soli or birth-based citizenship as opposed to the “racial citizenship” implied by the rival descent-based principle of jus sanguinis.
- A shift from soil to blood as the basis of citizenship began to occur from 1985 onwards.
- In 2004, an exception to birth-based citizenship was created for individuals born in India but having one parent who was an illegal migrant (impliedly Bangladeshi Muslim) at the time of their birth.
- The CAB and the NRC will only consolidate this shift to a jus sanguinis citizenship regime.
Need for the Bill:
- There are thousands of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who have entered India after facing religious persecution in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan without any valid document.
- These refugees have been facing difficulty in getting Long Term Visa (LTV) or Citizenship.
- The existing Citizenship law does not allow anyone granting Indian nationality if he or she cannot show proof of documents on country of birth and therefore they have to stay at least 12 years in India.
Challenges and consequences of the Bill:
- It makes illegal migrants eligible for citizenship based on their religion and clearly violates Article 14 of the Constitution.
- The bill clearly violates the Assam Accord. Whatever one may think of it, the issue of the credibility of an accord signed by the Union of India is not entirely a trivial one. And it may have ramifications for future negotiations.
- Hostile towards one community: In both its intent and wording, the proposed amendment singles out a community for hostile treatment.
- The Bill carefully avoids the words ‘persecuted minorities’: but the Statement of Objects and Reasons says “many persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities have faced persecution on grounds of religions” in three countries.
- A key argument against the CAB is that it will not extend to those persecuted in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, from where Rohingya Muslims and Tamils are staying in the country as refugees. Further, it fails to allow Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims, who also face persecution, to apply for citizenship.
- Classification fails the main intent: It demonstrates the need for careful and meaningful categorisation, something that the main provisions fail to do. If protecting persecuted neighbourhood minorities is the objective, the classification may fail the test of constitutionality because of the exclusion of some countries and communities using religion.
- Based on political expediency: The exemption from the application of the CAB’s provisions in tribal areas in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, and the Inner Line Permit areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram, with Manipur to be added soon, is clearly based on political expediency. The bill has potentially interesting implications for asymmetric federalism. One of the proposals under consideration is to exempt the North-East States.
- It is an advisory or a consultative body, which advises the US Congress and the administration on issues pertaining to international religious freedom.
- It is an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission that was created by The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
- In practice, the USCIRF has little teeth in implementation, but acts as a conscience-keeper for the two branches in the US government — the legislature and the executive.
- It often takes maximalist or extreme positions, and has been used by civil society groups to put pressure on US Congress members and administration officials.
The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) 1998:
- It was passed by the 105th US Congress (1997-99) and signed into law by then President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998.
- To strengthen United States advocacy on behalf of, individuals persecuted in foreign countries on account of religion;
- To authorize United States actions in response to violations of religious freedom in foreign countries; to establish an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom within the Department of State.
Functions and Responsibilities of USCIRF:
- To monitor the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad — not in the United States — using international standards to do so and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress.
- It recommends countries that the Secretary of State should designate as “Countries of Particular Concern” for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom”; documents conditions in about 30 countries; reports on significant trends; and makes recommendations for US policy.
- To engage Congress by working with Congressional offices, advising on legislation, testifying at hearings, and holding briefings on religious freedom issues.
- To meet regularly with Executive Branch officials, including the Departments of State and Homeland Security, to share information, highlight situations of concern, and discuss USCIRF’s recommendations for US policy.
USCIRF definition of “freedom of religion or belief abroad”:
- Religious freedom is an important human right recognized in international law and treaties.
- The freedom of religion or belief is an expansive right that includes the freedoms of thought and conscience, and is intertwined with the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly.
- The promotion of this freedom is a necessary component of US foreign policy.
Its views on CAB:
- It is a dangerous turn in the wrong direction; it runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith.
- In conjunction with the ongoing National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam and nationwide NRC that the Home Minister seeks to propose, USCIRF fears that the Indian government is creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims.
National Register of Citizens (NRC)
- The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is meant to identify a bona fide citizen. In other words, by the order of the Supreme Court of India, NRC is being currently updated in Assam to detect Bangladeshi nationals who might have entered the State illegally after the midnight of March 24, 1971.
- The date was decided in the 1985 Assam Accord, which was signed between the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the AASU.
- The NRC was first published after the 1951 Census in the independent India when parts of Assam went to the East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
In the past:
- In July 2008, it had urged the US State Department to deny a tourist visa to then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who had been invited to attend a conference in New Jersey.
- It had said that “Modi was previously denied entrance to the United States due to his role in riots that overtook the Indian state of Gujarat from February to May 2002 in which reportedly as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed, thousands raped, and over 200,000 displaced.