In the year 1950, the Immigrant (Expulsion from Assam) Act was passed by the Parliament. The objects and purpose of the Act read: “During the last few months a serious situation had arisen from the immigration of a very large number of East Bengal residents into Assam. Such large migration is disturbing the economy of the province besides giving rise to a serious law and order problem” (see here). While the Act allowed the Central Government to give “directions in regard to” the removal of individuals from Assam, the application of the Act was barred against individuals who “on account of civil disturbances or the fear of such disturbances in any area” of Pakistan had been “displaced” or left their residence. While this Act marked the beginning of issues concerning migration, these issues came into the limelight with the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, which led to a widespread migration from Bangladesh to Assam.
The subsequent enfranchisement of refugees/migrants prompted the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to spearhead an “anti-foreigner” agitation in 1979, demanding “detection, disenfranchisement and deportation” of foreigners. Despite this agitation and resistance, Indira Gandhi’s government called for assembly elections in Assam in February 1983. While the AASU demanded for a boycott of elections, sections of Bengali Muslims decided to vote nonetheless in order to “effectively prove their claim to Indian citizenship”. These tensions culminated in the Nellie massacre which claimed around 1800 people according to official records, most of whom were Bengali Muslims. In the aftermath of Nellie, two legal developments followed. First, in 1985, a political settlement was reached between the agitators and the Central and State Governments, named the Assam Accord. Introduced through an amendment, Section 6A of the Citizenship Act was a legislative enactment for furthering the terms of this accord. Under Section 6A, any person who entered Assam from Bangladesh before the 1st of January, 1966 will be deemed a citizen of India. Persons who settled in the state between January 2, 1966 and March 24, 1971 would have to register themselves according to the rules laid down by the Central Government and would enjoy all other rights except the right to vote for a ten-year period. (see here) At the lapse of the ten-year period, they would become eligible to be enrolled in the electoral rolls. Finally, all those who migrated after the aforementioned date were to be expelled.
The second important development happened two years before the Assam Accord, wherein Parliament passed the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals Act) of 1983. Read with Illegal Migrant Rules of 1984, these two would act in conjunction to “detect and deport” foreigners by Tribunals established under this Act. The IMDT Act allowed for complaints to be brought to the police by a person living within a 3 kilometer radius of the foreigner suspected to have entered India without the necessary travel documents. It also placed the burden of proof on the State and the complainant, to establish the person’s status as “illegal migrant”. However, the Act was challenged by Sarbananda Sonowal before the Supreme Court.
In pronouncing the judgement, the Court relied upon a report by the Governor of Assam, S.K. Sinha which claimed that, “Muslim militant organisations [had] mushroomed in Assam” as a result of illegal migration from Bangladesh. While Governor Sinha’s report was not backed by any data or surveys, the Court nonetheless held that there was an “external aggression” against the State of Assam. Subsequently, invoking Article 355 of the Constitution, the Court held that IMDT’s placement of burdens was insufficient to check the issues laid down in Sinha’s report, and hence went on to hold the Act and the Rules unconstitutional. After Sarbananda Sonowal, the regime, rather than being governed by IMDT, returned to Section 6A of the Citizenship Act, the Foreigners Act, and the Foreigners Tribunal Order.
Section 6A and the Assam Accord are often seen as the “genesis of the updated NRC in Assam”. Section 6A is instrumental in the creation of the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) in Assam, which is currently being updated under the supervision of the Supreme Court. The process requires a person to prove their Indian citizenship by providing government documents that establish their family legacy and their right to reside in India. This tedious process is often impossible for persons with limited resources, resulting in them being left off the NRC and stripped of the protection offered by citizenship.
It is in this context that Section 6A of the Citizenship Act was challenged before the Supreme Court in a petition by a Guwahati-based civil society organisation, Assam Sanmilita Mahasangha (ASM) in 2012. While referring the case to a bigger bench, Justice Nariman framed thirteen questions of law.
While a five-judge constitution bench was instituted by Chief Justice J.S. Khehar in 2017 which conducted two hearings, it was decided to reconstitute a fresh bench later. Subsequently, as the question still remains unanswered, it is evident that the lack of clarity has resulted in a lack of clarity about applicable legal standards for citizenship determination in Assam. There is an imminent need for the Supreme Court to rule on the validity of the Section. Delaying the ruling will only be harmful to the lives of thousands whose citizenship hangs in the balance.
Suggested Reading Material :-
- Anupama Roy, Mapping Citizenship in India (Oxford University Press 2010) ch 2.
- Abdul Kalam Azad, M. Mohsin Alam Bhat and Harsh Mander, ‘Citizenship and the Mass Production of Statelessness in Assam’, India Exclusion Report 2019-2020 http://centreforequitystudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/India-Exclusion-Report-2019-20-e-copy.pdf accessed 16 June 2021.
- Ashna Ashesh and Arun Thiruvengadam, ‘Report on Citizenship Law: India’, GlobalCit Country Report July 2017 https://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/47124/GLOBALCIT_CR_2017_12.pdf?sequence=1 accessed 16 June 2021.
- Niraja Gopala Jayal, ‘Citizenship’ in Sujit Choudhary, Madhav Khosla, and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution (Oxford University Press 2016).