Citizenship For Bangladeshi Hindus: Some Concerns
By Parvin Sultana
13 May, 2015
One thing that was constantly present in the BJP’s campaign in last Lok Sabha elections was the use of populist rhetoric and controversial claims. Their campaign in Assam was no different. Starting from deporting every last illegal immigrant to Bangladesh, not giving an inch of Assam’s land to Bangladesh, solving the perennial problem of underdevelopment, the party went so far as promising citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh while denying the same to Muslim immigrants. The BJP was successful in appropriating all the causes championed by Asom Gana Parishad, hence rendering the regional party irrelevant electorally. But it diverged from AGP when the question of Hindu immigrants came. The AGP did not differentiate between Hindu and Muslim immigrants who entered the country illegally after the cutoff date of 1971 and wanted all irrespective of religion to be deported. But BJP’s aim to give citizenship to Hindu immigrants seems nothing more than communalizing a humanitarian crisis.
India has been a home to a large number of refugees who have faced persecution or have been displaced by conflicts, natural disasters, economic hardships etc. However Hindus from Bangladesh are not the only religious minority seeking refuge in India. Another group which faced persecution of the worst kind is the Rohingiya Muslims of Myanmar. This stateless minority which is not recognized in Myanmar continues to face hardships after migrating to India and Bangladesh. While they were denied entry to Bangladesh, their fate is not much better in India. Denied of any rights this religious minority continues to languish in the margins. Terrifying stories of how the Rohingiyas were not allowed to study, work in Myanmar and finally had to fled a massacre abounds. These are refugees and not migrants who were forced to flee anti-Muslim violence in the Arakan state. In India far from citizenship rights, many have not been given the temporary refugee card from UNHCR.
Another minority group which has been living as refugees for the last few decades is the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh. With much confusion with regard to Chittagong Hill Tracts, the CHT was finally made a part of Pakistan and Chakmas were unwillingly made to join erstwhile East Pakistan. But their influx to India started from partition onwards. Settled in northeast, their demand for citizenship and ST status enters the sixth decade. They have been denied citizenship on several occasions even after the Indira-Mujib agreement of 1972 which makes it mandatory for the Indian government to treat their applications lawfully for the grant of citizenship. While their initial absorption in the region was easier as the region was sparsely populated and due to their racial proximity to the local tribes, the current hostility of the local tribes further impinges on their demands for citizenship. They are denied government jobs for belonging to refugee families. Amidst acute livelihood crisis and joblessness, the absence of much needed state support like ration cards have further pushed this community to squandering poverty. In absence of government jobs, educated youths have taken up work as agricultural labour and farmhands. The absence of any specific policy of the state for handling the refugee issue has not only violated their socio-economic rights but also their human rights.
Another persecuted minority whose plight cannot be sidelined are the Tibetans. Under Indian law Tibetans are not even recognized as refugees but rather as foreigners. While the Indian government refers to Tibetans as ‘refugees’, they don’t enjoy any rights comparable to refugee rights under international treaty law. While the honorable Dalai Lama enjoys political asylum, the other Tibetans who fled to India later remain undocumented and reside in India under more precarious legal status. Their condition remains wholly subject to the discretion of Indian government and shows the absence of a coherent policy towards the refugees. The Tibetans are constrained in multiple ways. They are not allowed to stage protest and are often denied the right to higher education. Tibetans are given a “Registration Card” which needs to be renewed from time to time. While it allows them the right to reside in India, it does not let them buy and own property, register business etc. The condition of India-born Tibetans is no better.
Apart from these cases, Hindu and Sikh minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan have fled to India. Many Muslim Afghans have also fled sectarian violence and persecution which reached its peak under the Taliban. All these refugees live under precarious and ambiguous legal conditions. While India continues to be a safe home to countless refugees mainly from Southeast Asian countries, the absence of a proper refugee specific policy framework have limited the country’s effective management of this problem. This is worsened by the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. India has not agreed to any minimum standards for the treatment of refugees and its policies towards refugees are without the UN supervision. India has also conveniently rebuffed efforts from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international aid organisations to monitor and assist the Indian government with its refugee problem. In the absence of a proper policy, India bases its treatment of various refugee groups on political grounds, resulting in an unstable and ever changing domestic policy. The Foreigners Act of 1946 is the only legislation that deals with all non-citizens within the Indian borders, thus making no differences between tourists, economic migrants, asylum seekers or refugees.
In such a situation where a large number of refugees continue to face hardships on a day to day basis in India, the government of the day seems more interested in scoring brownie points by differentiating between refugees on the basis of religion. While the problem of Hindu immigrants is not limited to one particular state, the focus this time seems to be on Assam which is going to polls soon and where immigration continues to be a crucial issue. The UPA was careful to go slow on this issue since it involved the question of granting rights on the basis of religion but the NDA seems keen to take up this issue. If citizenship is to be extended on humanitarian grounds to persecuted communities, it cannot be denied to Rohingiyas, Chakmas, Tibetans etc. India being a secular country cannot be assumed to be a natural homeland of a particular religion. However the present government’s act of limiting the benefit of citizenship to one particular community, point to the sinister designs of the rightwing NDA government which will lead to further communal polarization and hostility.
Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor in Goalpara College of Assam. Her research interest includes Muslims in Assam, development and northeast, gender etc.
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