Citizenship Act Section 6A: Assam's indigenous people will become foreigners, petitioners tell SC

The top court is examining the constitutional validity of section 6A of the Citizenship Act relating to illegal immigrants in Assam.
FILE - Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. (Photo | PTI)
FILE - Supreme Court of India in New Delhi. (Photo | PTI)

NEW DELHI: The indigenous people of Assam are bound to become landless and foreigners in their own homeland, the petitioners who have challenged section 6A of the Citizenship Act, which applies only to the northeastern state, told the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The submission was made by several Assam-based organisations through senior advocate Shyam Divan before a five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud. The top court is examining the constitutional validity of section 6A of the Citizenship Act relating to illegal immigrants in Assam.

The SC-bench sought data on the beneficiaries of section 6A of the Citizenship Act in Assam, saying there was no material before it which could indicate that the effect of granting Indian citizenship to Bangladeshi immigrants between 1966 and 1971 was so great that it impacted the demographic and cultural identity of the border state.

While acknowledging the problem of cross-border infiltration in Assam, the bench referred to the humanitarian aspect of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war for the liberation of Bangladesh which also led to the influx of immigrants.

The bench also took note of the submission of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and said it was not dealing with the validity of Assam's National Register of Citizens (NRC) and would confine itself to facets of section 6A of the Act. It also asked SG Mehta to provide data on the beneficiaries of the legislation from 1966 to July 16, 2013.

The provision says those who came to Assam on or after January 1, 1966, but before March 25, 1971, from specified territories, including Bangladesh, as per the Citizenship Act amended in 1985, and are residents of Assam ever since must register themselves under section 18 for citizenship. As a result, it fixes March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date for granting citizenship to Bangladeshi migrants in Assam.

"But to test your argument there is no material before us to indicate that the impact of granting certain benefits to citizens who came in between 1966-71 was so grave that the demographic and cultural identity of the state was affected by those 5 years," the bench told senior advocate Shyam Divan who said the socio-cultural, economic and other rights of the indigenous people are getting affected due to the influx and the special provision.

"Yes, we will have to see whether the impact of section 6 A was such that between 1966 and 1971 a radical change in demography took place in the state to affect the cultural identity of Assam," the bench remarked.

Referring to the report of Lt.Gen S K Sinha, a former governor of the state, Divan said the unabated influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh threatened to reduce the Assamese people to a minority in their own state as had happened in Tripura and Sikkim.

"Some of his observations are - Bangladesh census records indicate a reduction of 39 Lakh Hindus between 1971-1981 and another 36 Lakh between 1981-1989. These Hindus have been coming to India...The Muslim population of Assam has shown a rise of 77.42 per cent in 1991 from what it was in 1971. The  Hindu population has risen by nearly 41.89 per cent in this period," the senior advocate said.

Responding to the submissions, CJI Chandrachud said, "I am not sure if they are authenticated figures, whether they are accepted by the government...the figures of Government of India are the census and we can safely go by..."

Referring to Sinha's report, Divan said this may be taken as a trend.

"But it is an important trend...the most serious threats to the land rights of the indigenous people of Assam, more precisely, to the very identity of indigenous people of Assam comes from unabated influx from Bangladesh," Divan said.

"The indigenous people are bound to become landless people and become foreigners in their own homes," he added.

The bench said the statutory amendment was the result of the political solution arrived at by the political executive. "Suppose the amendment from the legislature was that anyone who entered into Assam after March 25, 1971, and for 10 years not deleted from electoral rolls, after 10 years they would get citizenship. Then perhaps it would be a different scenario because then you would be encouraging illegal immigration," it said.

The bench said the amendment freezes the operation of the law in 1971 and it is a "one-time measure."

"What about our rights?" Divan asked, adding "This is a kind of demographic invasion. We are saying that if you are so welcoming then please do not burden the state of Assam. You have so many border states and hence, where is the question of having a special regime only for Assam."

Divan will resume his submissions on Wednesday.

As many as 17 petitions, including the one filed by NGO Assam Public Works on the issue in 2009, are pending in the apex court.

Under the Assam Accord signed by the All Assam Students Union, the Assam government and the Government of India on August 15, 1985, to detect and deport foreigners, Section 6A was inserted into the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to people who have migrated to the northeastern state.

A Guwahati-based NGO challenged section 6A in 2012, terming it arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional, and claiming it provides different dates for regularising illegal migrants in Assam.

A two-judge bench had referred the matter to the Constitution bench in 2014.

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