The Narendra Modi government has taken the initiative to grant citizenship to non-Muslim asylum seekers from India’s neighbouring countries.
This move has been opposed by the Congress and the Left parties and supported by some others.
India may be a secular, pluralistic and tolerant nation, but many people in this populous country want India turned into Bharat, a symbol of Hindu culture. For India, the residents of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan may be foreigners, but for Bharat, all the Hindu people are regarded as their natives.
The very sentiment of the proud Bharatiya people has been reflected in some initiatives of the present Union government in New Delhi. The classic example is Narendra Modi government’s initiative to grant citizenship to non-Muslim asylum seekers from India’s neighbouring countries.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government at the centre recently introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 in the Parliament. However, stiff opposition from the Congress and the Left parties compelled the Modi government to refer the bill to a Parliamentary panel, which had already sought a public view over it.
In respect of their entry and stay in India, The centre had earlier proposed to exempt nationals belonging to religious minority communities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan (who entered India on or before 31 December 2014) from some of the rules under the Passport (Entry into India) Act 1920 and the Foreigners Act 1946.
The proposed bill intends to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 for the benefit of minority people like Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain and Parsi from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, so that they can acquire Indian citizenship much faster.
The opposition parties cry that the amendment was conceived following the BJP’s inherent agenda to make India a Hindu-centric nation. The party’s ideologue, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), strongly pursues that every persecuted Hindu across the globe is welcome to take refuge in Bharat as it is their natural home.
India is, however, no stranger to asylum seekers. The country today supports nearly half a million refugees from Tibet, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, among others.
As reported here, “According to the World Refugee Survey (conducted by US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), the estimated number of refugees who are taking shelter in India would be over 4,50,000 nationals.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has an office in New Delhi, recognises over 1,85,000 refugees in India. The actual number of refugees or asylum seekers in the country from its neighbouring countries should be much higher.
Even though the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in India since 1995, New Delhi is yet to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Moreover, it has not ratified its 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees.
Not just India, but most of the Asian nations are yet to sign up for the Refugee Convention. The leaders of Asian countries are seemingly not convinced that the UN convention can provide a solution to the problem of refugees, instead complicating the problem with a greater influx of asylum seekers.
The lack of a consistent policy and comprehensive laws to deal with refugees in these countries only creates confusion among the indigenous residents. However, New Delhi’s refusal to sign the convention on refugees has hardly been reflected in the approach of its citizens towards asylum seekers. Indian people as a whole have never been harsh to refugees.
Nonetheless, the new initiative of the Modi government has sparked a row of protests in North East India. Most of the active civil society groups in the alienated region have come to the streets opposing the proposed bill. They argue that the region is already flooded with illegal migrants, mostly Muslim nationals from Bangladesh, and so they would not allow any more foreigners to settle in their localities.
It’s worth noting here that Bangladeshi nationals entered India before their country (then East Pakistan) was born in 1971. During their freedom movement (Muktijoddha), millions of Bangladeshis entered the eastern Indian territories to escape the persecution of Pakistani forces, but most of them did not duly return to Bangladesh. Ever since, there has been a lack of information and guidelines on how to deal with these people. Unconfirmed reports suggest that no less than 30 million Bangladeshi nationals are currently taking shelter in India without proper travel documents.
All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led the historic Assam movement in the eighties demanding the deportation of illegal Bangladeshi nationals from Assam, have maintained their demand that all illegal migrants from Bangladesh irrespective of their religion must be deported.
According to the Assam Accord, which was signed by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi-led Union government and the Assam agitators in 1985, the illegal Bangladeshi migrants who had entered Assam after 25 March 1971 would be deported. Therefore, according to the AASU, the centre’s initiative was an insult to the historic accord.
Similar voices were also raised by Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity, All Bodo Students Union, Karbi Students’ Union, Matak Students’ Union and so on, all of who have demonstrated their anger against the latest move of New Delhi to support migrants, mostly from Bangladesh. Various political parties like the Congress, AIUDF and the Left parties have expressed resentment over the centre’s action.
Now, an ally of Sarbananda Sonowal’s BJP-led government in Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), also maintains this stand. Once formed by the senior AASU leaders after the culmination of the six-year-long Assam movement, the AGP officially claims that bringing more migrants from Bangladesh into Assam would only threaten the identity of indigenous communities.
Amidst all opposition, however, a nationalistic citizens’ forum, the Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA), has come out in support of the move. It has urged the government to settle these people across the country.
As reported here, PPFA argues that those “fleeing non-Muslim nationals of the Indian subcontinent (Bharatbarsa) can never be identified as foreigners in India as they were compelled to adopt their citizenship of Pakistan and Bangladesh” without their consent. Those residents were not responsible for the division of India in 1947.