The Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019 triggered a nationwide debate about illegal migrants and the claim to an Indian identity, but for over fifteen years before it was passed, the citizenship regime witnessed numerous developments that set the stage for the controversial law. In 2003, with LK Advani as the home minister, the Bharatiya Janata Party government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee proposed amending the Citizenship Act, 1955 to introduce a category of “illegal migrants” into the law, who would be prevented them from getting Indian citizenship. At the time, the law did not specify any exceptions for refugees fleeing persecution, treating them all as illegal migrants alike. With the CAA, the Narendra Modi government brought religious differences into the legal framework, protecting only six non-Muslim minority refugees from three neighbouring countries from being considered illegal migrants.
Yet, data that the home ministry has presented time and again before the parliament indicates that there was no real necessity for these changes to the law. Despite not being a signatory to the United Nations legal regime awarding protection to refugees, India had maintained policies that granted—at least formally—security to individuals fleeing persecution. In fact, the Indian governments had also introduced a system of granting long-term visas to certain migrants, which helped them obtain Indian citizenship as well, and thousands had already done so before the enactment of the CAA. Given this context, it is unclear why the BJP government chose to bring an amendment to the Citizenship Act and why it refuses to revoke it even after nearly two months of continuous protests against the move.
The original Citizenship Act of 1955 provides for acquisition of citizenship through four ways—by birth, descent, naturalisation and registration. In 2003, the Vajpayee government introduced the amendment that inserted “illegal migrants” to the legal framework, defined as those who either entered the country without valid documents or who entered with valid document but remained in the country beyond permitted time. The amendment bill also stated that illegal migrants would not get citizenship though naturalisation or registration, which was the only available route for migrants to gain citizenship. It further stated that a person born in India after commencement of the 2003 act, either of whose parents was an illegal migrant, would not be an Indian citizen.
In May 2003, the bill was sent to the parliamentary standing committee on home affairs, where several concerns were raised on the proposed exclusion of illegal migrants. Over six sittings, between June and December that year, the committee heard representations from various stakeholders on a variety of issues, including, as the report noted, the “constant influx of refugees from neighbouring countries due to civil commotion and religious persecution.” Different organisations expressed concerns that these refugees would be detected and deported following the proposed amendment. In response, the home ministry clarified that refugees who entered India fearing persecution in their home countries would not be forcibly sent back.
The committee submitted its report, adopted by all members without any noted dissent, on 10 December 2003, upholding the proposal to exclude illegal migrants. It recommended that “all humanitarian assistance” must be extended to individuals fleeing persecution, and that the Indian government should put diplomatic pressure on the neighbouring countries “to create conducive atmosphere … for early return of the refugees.”