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Explainer: How does one become an Indian Citizen? What changed with the CAA?


Violent protests have erupted across the country after the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was notified. But how does one acquire Indian Citizenship? What does this amendment change? Here is an explainer.


Violent protests have erupted in different parts of India following the amendment made to the Citizenship Act of 1955. The Central Government stated that through this act, the persecuted religious minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis & Christians) from three neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh & Afghanistan will be granted citizenship under certain conditions. But who is a citizen of India? How can one acquire Indian citizenship? What is this amendment made in 2019, popularly known as the CAA, which has sparked a lot of controversy? Here is an explainer.

Citizenship Amendment Act_Gazette

Citizenship and rules for acquiring it are different in different countries

Different countries have different rules pertaining to citizenship based on history, treaties and public international law. For instance, in the United States, a person acquires US Citizenship just by birth in the country. Being a permanent resident (authorised to live and work in US) in the country for five years makes one eligible to apply for citizenship by naturalisation.

In India, citizenship and its acquisition has been defined in detail in the Citizenship Act of 1955. This act was originally passed in 1955 and since then, has been amended five times- in 1986, 2003, 2005, 2015 and 2019. The act defines who an Indian citizen is and how one can acquire the same. The Home Ministry is the sole authority for any issue pertaining to Indian citizenship.

As per the act, there are four ways to obtain Indian Citizenship-

  • by birth
  • by descent
  • by registration
  • by naturalisation
  • by incorporation

What about by Birth?

Every person born in India on or after 26 January 1950 and  before 01 July 1987 is an Indian citizen. An amendment made in 2003 granted citizenship to those born in India between 1 July 1987 till the date of notification of the ‘Citizenship Amendment Act of 2003’, provided at least one parent was an Indian citizen when the person was born. Since the amendment made in 2003, one will be an Indian citizen by birth only if at least one of the parents is an Indian citizen and the other is not an illegal migrant.

Citizenship by descent, as the title suggests, refers to citizenship by virtue of Parentage

A person who is born outside India between 26 January 1950 and 10 December 1992 will be granted Indian citizenship if his/her father was an Indian citizen by birth at the time of the person’s birth.  In case of persons born outside India between 10 December 1992 and before 03 December 2004, citizenship will be granted only if either of their parents is an Indian citizen by birth.

In both the cases, to acquire Indian citizenship, if the parent is an Indian citizen by descent, then the person’s birth should be registered in the concerned Indian Consulate within one year from the date of birth. 

As per the 2003 amendment, post 03 December 2004, citizenship will be granted to those born outside the country only if the parents declare that the minor does not hold the passport of any other country and the birth of the person should have also been registered in the Indian Consulate within one year.    

The Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 has redefined illegal migrants

The recent amendment act of 2019 defines illegal migrant as a foreigner in India who

  • entered the country without valid documents like passport or
  • those with valid documents, but has been overstaying in India beyond the permitted time

The latest amendment to the act states the following:

Citizenship Amendment Act_Amendment

In other words, those persons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religious communities, who entered India on or before 31 December 2014 are no longer considered illegal migrants.

What is Citizenship by Registration?

Except for illegal migrants, Indian citizenship can also be acquired by registration. Those persons of Indian origin, who have been residing in the country for seven years or are residents in countries outside undivided India are eligible to register for citizenship. Even those persons who have been registered as overseas citizens of India for five years can apply provided they have been living in India for one year before applying. Spouses of Indian citizens who have resided in India for seven years and minor children of Indian citizens are also eligible to apply. However, the discretion/authority on whether or not to grant citizenship lies with the Government of India.

Foreigners can also apply for Indian citizenship through naturalisation

The fourth mode of acquiring citizenship is through naturalisation. Any foreigner, other than illegal migrants, who has been living in India for 12 months before applying for citizenship and has lived in the country for at least 11 years of the 14 years prior to the 12-month period mentioned above will be granted a certificate of naturalisation.

The Central Government can also grant citizenship to foreigners who have contributed significantly to world peace, art, science, literature, philosophy and human progress. People like Adnan Sami are granted citizenship under this category.

In addition to the above-discussed means of acquiring Indian citizenship, if a new territory gets added to India, then the Central Government can notify through the gazette, who among those living in the territory will be deemed, Indian citizens. This is known as Citizenship by incorporation of territory.

Goa, Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli became a part of India in 1961 after liberation from Portugal. Citizenship to those living in these areas was granted as per the Goa, Daman and Diu (Citizenship) Order, 1962.  The case of Pondicherry, Karrikal, Mahe and Yannam is also similar.

What changes with the Current amendment?

‘Citizenship by Naturalization’ is where the latest amendment comes into picture.  The persons from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, belonging to the six religious communities as mentioned earlier can also be granted a certificate of naturalisation. However, the period of residence in India should be a minimum of five years prior to the twelve-month period instead of the 11-year period for others.

Citizenship Amendment Act_Current Amendment

Some areas have been excluded from the amendment

The amendment excludes certain areas in the North-East.  This is not applicable in the tribal dominated regions of the North-Eastern states of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram, and the area that falls under ‘The Inner Line’ as notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873. Inner Line Permit (ILP) is an official travel document issued by the Government of India to allow travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period. Indian citizens from outside those states cannot enter these areas without obtaining a permit.

OCI card holders’ card can be cancelled if they violate any rule

Another amendment made through the act is with respect to OCI card holders. OCI or Overseas Citizenship of India card holders are foreign citizens of Indian origin. They are not entitled to all the rights that citizens of India have. But they can travel, live, work and study in India. The current amendment states that if an OCI card holder violates any law notified by the Central Government, the OCI card can be cancelled. The card holder will be given a chance to be heard.   

What else about the amendment should one know?

In the amendment, reference is made to Passport (Entry to India) Act, 1920 and provisions of Foreigners Act, 1946.

According to Section 3 of the Passport (Entry to India) Act of 1920, the Central Government has the authority to allow ‘some people or a class of people’ enter the country even though they do not possess a passport. The Foreigners Act, on the other hand, grants power to the Central Government to regulate the entry of foreigners in the country.

The government on 07 September 2015 notified an amendment to the Passport (Entry to India) Rules of 1950 which says that religious minorities (Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians) persecuted in Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered the country before 31 December 2014, irrespective of possession of valid documents, were exempted from possessing passport to enter India.

This rule was further amended in 2016 through a notification on July 18 , to include the persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan.

In short, the government has permitted those persecuted religious minorities from the aforementioned religions and countries to live in India in spite of not having any valid document. They will not fall into the category of illegal migrants.

What is the crux of the current amendment?

The CAA makes some major changes as far as citizenship to persons from the three specified countries. They are

  1. The amendment ensures that those who entered India on or before 31 December 2014 (belonging to the three specified countries and the six specified religions) either without valid documents or have overstayed in India, will not be declared illegal migrants and hence will be eligible for citizenship. This is not the case with persons from other religions like Muslims who entered India without valid documents or have overstayed. They will be deemed illegal migrants and will not be eligible for citizenship by registration or naturalization.
  2. This amendment also allows persons from the three specified countries and the six specified religions to gain citizenship faster than others by naturalization since the 11-year period is reduced to 5-years.
  3. Muslims from these three countries can still apply for citizenship by naturalization provided they have valid documents, have not been declared an illegal migrant and have satisfied the 11-year criteria.

However, there is no clarity on how these will be implemented in terms of documents to be submitted as evidence, for one to prove his religion or period of stay since the rules are yet to be notified.

The issue of National Register of Citizens (NRC) combined with the CAA is also being discussed. We will look into this in the subsequent stories.

Featured Image: Citizenship Amendment Act


About Author

A bachelor’s degree in mathematics and master’s in social science, she is driven by ardent desire to work with this unique combination to create her own path instead of following the herd. Having served a stint as the college union chairperson, she is a strategist who is also passionate about nature conservation, art and loves solving Sudoku.


  1. I did not know this was such a complex matter. Such complex process is explained clearly. Second and third images should be compressed as they are going outside the margin of the text.

    By the way, it seems the citizenship is denied for any Muslims. Anyone can still apply like they do for any other country. This does not change in anyway the definition of illegal immigrants.

    Only people who don’t come to India with valid documents ought to worry.

    Now even if one is one of the six religions from the three countries as per the latest amendment, they still need to provide valid documents to say they were from one of the three countries. Now I am wondering how they become illegal. The other point of overstay. Yes that is the only thing making them become citizen early.

    But regardless of overstay, if one doesn’t have valid document, one doesn’t get citizenship, as per the latest amendment explained here. So not all illegal immigrants will become citizens. But the protests in the country are such that some imminent danger is affecting large section of the population. They should all get this clarity first.

    • There are two things. One is the definition of ‘illegal migrant’ and the other is applying for citizenship and both these are linked. The persons from the 3 countries and 6 religions will be not be treated as an illegal migrant even if they do not have valid documents. Hence they can apply for citizenship. But a muslim without valid documents will be treated as an illegal migrant and cannot apply for citizenship.
      In the case of the people from 3 countries and 6 religions, the duration for naturalization is reduced from 11 years to 5 years. However, what all documents will they have to submit for this is still not clear as these will only be given in the rules. In the case of Muslims, they cannot apply if they are illegal migrants. They can apply if they have valid documents and 11-years will be the time frame for them.

  2. I made a typo there in second para. “By the way, it seems the citizenship is denied for any Muslims. ”
    I meant “By the way, it seems the citizenship is not denied for any Muslims.”

  3. Rakesh, a lot of folks in AP are confused about this whole issue. You should probably do a Telugu version of this post so that it can reach more people. All said and done, understanding this incredible piece requires fairly advanced English knowledge.