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 Lok Sabha election campaigns of BJP in Assam. While the party did achieve electoral benefits based on its stand on the question of migration, their latest step towards allowing religious minorities from Bangladesh without any documents have not gone well with the Assamese population. The justification that BJP came up with is the religious persecution that these minorities face in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan where political rule sometimes swings to governments run by radical elements.
While the BJP rode on the popular wave of opposition to illegal immigration and successfully cut into the votes of both Asom Gana Parishad and Congress, on the issue of citizenship for Bangladeshi Hindus, it diverged from the regional party. AGP 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, the Hindus from Bangladesh are not the only persecuted lot. One cannot overlook the plight of Rohingiya Muslims from Myanmar who have been facing a worst kind of persecution to the extent of being rendered stateless. 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.
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 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. Under, Tibetan Rehabilitation Policy, there are guidelines on how can Tibetans do business and take up economic activities in India. But the policy was passed only in 2014 and it is a rather cumbersome process. Before this, Tibetans were given a “Registration Card” which needed to be renewed from time to time. While the policy 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 completely subvert 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.
Also the government which claimed to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries didn’t take into account the repercussion of such a statement in Bangladesh. The 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. 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. 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.