Citizenship Amendment Bill and its ramifications: Who are the refugees?

Of the many overhyped promises that are common in election campaigns, the issue of granting citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh on the one hand and deporting illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh on the other figured very prominently in the state Assembly campaigns of BJP in Assam. Riding on a populist wave of chauvinist and exclusivist rhetoric which not only rekindled the age old debate of insider versus outsider, but even changed the definition to an extent, the party gained electorally. While this was a first time for BJP in power in Assam, the hope that populism will give way to pragmatism was ruined with their step towards allowing religious minorities from Bangladesh without any documents stay in India and further allowing them to apply for citizenship by registration. The justification that BJP came up and which did not go down well with many quarters is that it is the moral duty of India to give refuge to victims of religious persecution.

The government in power found itself at crossroads with partner AGP on the issue of granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants. AGP, the regional party formed to give voice to the aspirations of the people, wanted anyone entering the country after March, 1971 to be deported irrespective of their religion, whereas the notification of the present government said that religious minorities which entered the country till December 31st, 2014 will be allowed to stay even without relevant documents. This is nothing short of communalizing a humanitarian issue.

While religious persecution may be a solid ground for taking in refugees and giving them benefits like citizenship, it cannot be restricted to any particular religious group. One cannot overlook the plight of Rohingiya Muslims from Myanmar who have been facing the worst kind of persecution to the extent of being rendered stateless. Turned literally into ‘boat people’, entire families were stranded in water while every successive country closed their gates to the Rohingiyas. 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. The government tried to justify this discrimination by citing the fact that Burma is not a part of the sub-continent. But then the government also claims to promote greater interaction with South East Asia. 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 that United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees issue. This card helps in allowing the refugees in getting benefits like renting a house, getting phone connections and some similar minuscule benefits.

Another community that requires immediate attention are the Chakmas in Arunachal Pradesh have been languishing in similar condition since independence. 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 they enjoyed racial proximity to the indigenous people, 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.

Similar fate has befallen the Tibetans in India. 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.

India has no specific policy framework for solving the refugee problem and neither is it a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. In such a scenario, the newfound love for religious minorities from Bangladesh points something more sinister than mere humanitarian concerns. This notification has very rightly met stiff opposition from the people of Assam. The state saw massive protests and strikes led by groups like AASU, AJYCP etc. For them while most parties have never put an effort to implement the Assam Accord, this notification of BJP amounts to complete subversion of the accord. The Assam Accord did not differentiate immigrants on the basis of religion. This move by BJP seems like an attempt to consolidate the Hindu vote bank with an eye on the upcoming state elections.

If one talks of religious persecution, the worst affected in Bangladesh are atheist bloggers and rationalists. Will such a right be extended to these people as well? How can claims of victimhood  bypass the plight of various minority tribes and groups in Pakistan who are systematically targeted? Outrageous claims that India is the natural homeland of Hindus cannot justify amending the Citizenship Act on religious lines. Considering how natural homelands be it Hitler’s Germany, Jinnah’s Pakistan and Israel have turned out, a democratic nation which still suffers from fissiparous tendencies, should tread carefully on that path.

One of the mottos of this government was to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries. But this amendment didn’t take into account the repercussion of such a statement in Bangladesh. The pro India Awami League government which is trying very hard to strengthen its secular credentials, is worried that such an announcement will encourage more Hindus to leave the country. This is a bad news as this will weaken the base of secular parties in the country.

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. If citizenship is to be extended on humanitarian grounds to persecuted communities, it cannot be denied to Rohingiyas, Chakmas, Tibetans etc. A state which is already reeling under excessive pressure on resources and ethnic clashes are usually a frequent outcome of such contestations, the state must rethink such divisive policies. The Assamese community has often feared being turn into minority in its own state. While most Muslims of East Bengal origin assimilated to the Assamese culture, the same may not be in case of Hindu Bangladeshis who might be more comfortable in continuing with their Bengali language and culture. In such a backdrop, the present government’s act of granting citizens to a community based solely on religious identity just to re-entrench polarization is bound to further complicate an already complex situation.

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Parvin Sultana is an Assistant Professor and teaches Political Science at Pramathesh Barua College in Dhubri, Assam. She writes on socio-political and gender issues. She can be reached at [email protected]