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Saturday, 26 May 2012

NDA’s perfidy on foreigner issue - A Surya Prakash

July 31, 2011


A fortnight ago, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party were stunned by the caustic remarks of Mr KS Sudarshan, the sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh about the party and the quality of Government provided by the BJP when it was in power. While senior leaders of the BJP including Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mr LK Advani have preferred silence to a slanging match with the RSS chief, Mr Brajesh Mishra, who was then, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, has chosen to take on Mr Sudarshan.

Mr Mishra was particularly piqued by the RSS chief’s accusation that he (Mr Mishra) was aligned to both Ms Gandhi and the BJP. Stung by these remarks, Mr Mishra hit back saying that Mr Sudarshan’s comments were inane and absurd. He told The Indian Express that Mr Sudarshan was prone to making wild, fictitious allegations.

Is Mr Sudarshan completely off the mark or is there some basis for his accusations against the BJP’s top leadership and the NDA Government? Given the raging controversy within the Sangh parivar on these issues, there is need to sift fact from fiction.

The BJP raised the foreigner issue many years ago and made it a key campaign point in the run-up to the 1994 as well as the 2004 elections. Meeting after meeting, leaders of this party told voters that for the sake of national pride and national security, they must ensure that only a natural-born Indian headed the Union Government. Ms Sonia Gandhi, by virtue of her Italian origin, was unfit to be the prime minister, they said. Given these assertions, the general perception was that the party was committed to the position that naturalised citizens should be kept out of constitutional offices. Available evidence suggests that this is more fiction than fact.

It may surprise readers to know that despite this public posturing, the BJP-led Government took deliberate steps to clear the way for foreigners. Further, while the people were made to believe that the party was fighting a political battle with Ms Sonia Gandhi and people around her, elements in that Government were shielding some of her friends.

There are three reasons why I say this: (i) The cunningly executed amendment of the Citizenship Act to remove a major obstacle in the path of naturalised citizens seeking political office in India; (ii) the NDA Government’s preposterous assertions in an affidavit before the Delhi High Court in a case pertaining to Ms Gandhi’s citizenship; and (iii) the NDA Government’s refusal to grant permission to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to prosecute Mr Satish Sharma in respect of cases pertaining to petrol pump allotments made by him.

While the world at large believed that the BJP leadership stood committed to barring naturalised citizens from constitutional offices, the Government led by it pushed through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003, in the Rajya Sabha on December 18, 2003. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha the very next day and passed by that House on December 22. Thereafter, the Government acted hastily to obtain the President’s assent on January 7, 2004.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons appended to the Bill claimed that it had two main purposes: Creation of a new category of citizens called Overseas Citizens, to grant dual citizenship to the Indian diaspora, and introduction of a scheme for compulsory registration of every citizen of India and issuance of national identity cards. These objectives were indeed laudable, but embedded in these provisions was a politically significant pro-foreigner provision, which the Statement of Objects made no mention of!

The amendment, which had the effect of weakening the case against naturalised citizens like Ms Sonia Gandhi, was that relating to Section 5 of the Act. The section refers to a category of citizens called Citizens by Registration, which includes foreigners who marry Indian citizens. Section 5 said that subject to such conditions and restrictions as may be prescribed, such persons could be granted citizenship. This Section also had a proviso which was most inconvenient for Citizens by Registration. It said: "Provided that in prescribing the conditions and restrictions subject to which persons of any such country may be registered as citizens of India under this clause, the Central Government shall have due regard to the conditions subject to which citizens of India may, by law or practice of that country, become citizens of that country by registration."

Deciphering this mumbo-jumbo: With such a law coming into force, if a foreigner marries an Indian citizen and applies for Indian citizenship, the Government should, while granting citizenship to that person, impose such conditions and restrictions as may be imposed on an Indian seeking citizenship under similar circumstances in the applicant’s country of origin. In other words, this proviso makes it incumbent on the Government to ensure reciprocity to ensure that a Citizen by Registration does not acquire civil and political rights which are not available to Indians seeking citizenship in the applicant’s country. Strange but true, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill deleted this important proviso removing the biggest legal impediment faced by foreigners nurturing political ambitions. The NDA could not have given a better gift to Ms Gandhi! Why did the NDA Government remove this provision? Why was it done in stealth? Who in the Government was batting for Ms Gandhi?

That the Government’s intentions were not sanguine are obvious from the Statement of Objects and Reasons that was appended to that Bill. Apart from the fact that it made no reference to the deletion of this important proviso, it actually tried to mislead Members of Parliament and citizens by saying that the purpose of the amending bill was to make acquisition of Indian citizenship by registration and naturalisation more stringent!

The other act of the BJP-led Government which ran contrary to its public utterances vis-à-vis the foreigner issue, was the Counter Affidavit filed by the Central Government before the Delhi High Court on September 5, 2001, in the Rashtriya Mukti Morcha Case. In this affidavit, the Government repeatedly asserted that there was only one class of citizens in the country. Once citizenship is acquired, there remained no distinction in the citizens thereafter, it said. This assertion, which is blatantly false, was made 17 times in the said Affidavit.

Anyone who reads ‘The Citizenship Act, 1955′ can see the distinction between Citizens by Birth and other category of citizens. While citizenship is permanent for Citizens by Birth, it is impermanent in respect of Citizens by Registration and Citizens by Naturalisation. No Government has the power to interfere with the citizenship of a Citizen by Birth.

However, the citizenship of those who come under the other categories is subject to conditions and restrictions. These citizens have to comply with the conditions stipulated in Section 10 of the Act at all times. Should citizens falling under these categories violate these provisions, their citizenship can be cancelled. Further, this affidavit was filed on September 5, 2001, when the proviso to Section 5 of the Act (reciprocity clause) was still intact. Therefore, the argument, "There is no distinction among different categories of citizens," was, to say the least, preposterous.

Finally, a word on the NDA Government’s kindness towards Ms Gandhi’s friends. The most glaring example was the Government’s refusal to grant permission to the CBI to prosecute Mr Satish Sharma. While its own minister Mr Ram Naik was pilloried by the Congress party for favouring friends in the allotment of petrol pumps, the BJP was unwilling to permit the CBI to proceed against former Petroleum Minister Satish Sharma, who faced similar charges.

Who in the NDA Government had put a protective shield around Satish Sharma? Who was behind the hidden agenda in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2003 and the affidavit? There are obviously some embedded Sonia-men in the BJP. The BJP cannot hope to retrieve its lost ground unless its top leadership is ready to identify those who betrayed the cause, and weed them out.

(Courtesy: The Pioneer; April 26, 2005)

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