There is an urgent need for the government to communicate with the people on issues like CAA and NRC
The 2019 amendment to the Citizenship Act is unambiguous and does not adversely affect any Indian or the pluralistic, secular character of our polity or the Constitution. However there appears to be a lot of misinformation engendering apprehension, opposition and protests. There is the imperative need to allay all fears and reassure the people.
The amendment does not even remotely touch in any manner any Indian of whatever faith. Nor does the amendment deny Indian citizenship to any person. Articles 5 to 10 of the Constitution govern citizenship at the commencement of the Constitution.
Article 11 empowers Parliament to enact law regulating the right of citizenship. The Citizenship Act, 1955 is such a law providing for the acquisition, determination and termination of citizenship subsequent to the commencement of the Constitution. Foreigners who enter India without valid documents are illegal migrants and are not entitled to stay in India.
Any person of any nationality and faith is entitled to apply for Indian citizenship and to be granted that under the Citizenship Act. An illegal migrant is defined thereunder – Section 2(b). There is no change in the law except that the amendment has carved out an exception by adding a proviso to Section 2(b).
This is what has generated widespread, though misplaced, criticism and protest. It provides that Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan (religious minorities who suffered persecution there) who entered India on or before 31 January 2014 and who are exempted from the adverse, penal consequences of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946 shall not be illegal migrants.
Such exemption notifications had already been issued in 2015 and 2016 and such exempted persons were also made eligible for long term visa. The present amendment is only a normal sequel to all this and makes such persons eligible for citizenship. It is also a natural follow up to the partition and the events of 1947 and the fulfillment of the promises since then over the years.
The exemption notifications and the orders regarding long term visa have been in place for some years now. There has not been any objection or challenge to all this, and rightly so. This has now become plenary law and such persons as mentioned in the proviso are made eligible for being granted citizenship, subject to the prescribed statutory conditions.
It is to be emphasised that every other person of whatever nationality or faith is entitled to apply for and seek Indian citizenship like those persons mentioned in the proviso. It is only that for that class mentioned in the proviso there is a fast tracking in the matter of granting citizenship; nothing more.
This has nothing to do with NRC (National Register of Citizens) and NPR (National Population Register) and does not affect any Indian. Linking CAA with NRC or NPR is far-fetched.
The concept of NRC is, however, not anything new. The Citizenship Act in Section 14A provides for registration of every Indian citizen and issue of national identity card to him/her. It also provides for maintaining a National Register of Indian citizens and establishment of a National Registration Authority for that purpose.
This provision has been in force since December 2004 and significantly there has been no objection or challenge to this for all these 15 years. Indeed there can be no objection. Every country maintains a register of its citizens. This is nothing unknown to civilised polities. The National Population Register is equally unexceptionable.
Deficiency, if any, in the working of the system is an independent issue that would have to be addressed. The concept per se cannot be faulted. The grievance of most of the critics and agitators appears to be not so much against the law but more of an antipathy to the present government and expression of the wish of what the law should be.
Government has to be responsible and responsive. Law must reflect the ‘general will’ - public opinion which is evolved as a consensus through informed debates and discussion. Law is not an end in itself but only a means of achieving social good.
The power of the State to implement and enforce obedience to the law carries with it the duty and responsibility of making the law known and understood in the right perspective. Government, it is said, is a potent, omnipresent teacher. It is the duty of every civilised government to promote the intelligence of its people.
Government should embark upon an exercise to educate the people on the nuances of the law with patience and understanding. The right to protest entails the duty to listen to other voices and shun any rigidity or intolerance. Or else democracy will degenerate into mobocracy which gives the crown to the mob with the loudest voices, the biggest sticks and the readiest fists.
The protests are a result of a wrong impression and apprehension that the law may be used to deprive some citizens of their citizenship or drive them out of India. This is totally baseless. The law is clear and deals with conferring citizenship on a class of persons more easily. It does not preclude persons outside the class from applying for and getting Indian citizenship in the regular course. It certainly does not deprive any citizen of his rights nor can it be used for such ends.
It is accepted constitutional jurisprudence that individuals have rights against the state that are prior to rights created by explicit legislation. This is also the philosophy and purport of the US Constitution Ninth Amendment.
More significantly Article 19 confers on the citizens the fundamental rights to move freely throughout the territory of India and to reside and settle in any part of India. Article 19 refers to natural or common law rights as distinguished from rights created by a statute.
As the Supreme Court has held, Article 19(1) guarantees those great basic rights which are recognised and guaranteed as the natural rights inherent in the status of a citizen of a free country.
They inhere in the person and are not the gift of any law or the Constitution. They cannot be taken away even by a Constitution amendment.
Therefore all fears about depriving citizens of their rights are a result of misinformation and require to be set at naught.