Citizenship snag

Plan to give citizenship to Hindus and other non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries faces huge backlash in India's northeast

Left  Kanwar Lal and Gyan Chand migrated to India from Pakistan in 2013 because they said they faced religious persecution and discrimination there. Photo: Narendra Kaushik

Kanwar Lal, Gyan Chand and Akbar Ram Jaipal swear by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The three residents of Mansarovar, a sprawling colony in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state, migrated to India from Punjab state of Pakistan in 2013 because they faced religious persecution and discrimination there.

The trio are diehard supporters of Mr Modi and the citizenship amendment bill, which has created a furore in the Northeast of India.

The amendment to the Citizenship Act, if passed, would give citizenship to all Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and other non-Muslims who migrated to the country from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan up to Dec 31, 2014, once they have stayed in the country for six years.

The bill has been passed by the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament and awaits a test in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) lacks a majority.

However, the plan has kicked up a storm in northeastern states including Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland, where indigenous residents fear they may lose their distinct identity due to an influx of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.

Mr Modi and BJP leaders have defended the bill on the grounds that his government should stand with "children of mother India" who have faced persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

Lal, Chand and Jaipal agree. "It must be legal to grant citizenship to all Hindus coming from the neighbouring countries," Mr Chand told Asia Focus. "Wasn't India meant to house Hindus only? There are other countries for Muslims. The BJP is doing the right thing."

Mr Lal, 52, a father of five sons and three daughters, is happy that the bill will cut down the waiting period for Indian citizenship from seven to six years. Mr Jaipal credits Mr Modi for giving Pakistani Hindus shelter.

The three men say Pakistani Hindus face danger from Islamabad's blasphemy law, among other things, and that their identity, wealth and culture are not safe there.

A spokesman for the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, said it was India's moral duty to give shelter to Hindus who faced persecution in any part of the world. "We support the BJP on this," Tikrthankadas Kalita said in a telephone interview from Assam.

The primary beneficiaries of the exercise, he said, would be Hindus settled in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh states.

According to Hindu Singh Sodha, founder of the Universal Just Action Society, which campaigns for the rights of Pakistani Hindu migrants in India, about 25,000 such people are settled in Rajasthan alone. Many were granted citizenship in the past by different BJP-led governments.

Mr Modi said in Jammu on Jan 4 that there were many children in pre-independence India who faced torture in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. "We shall have to stand for justice and protection of the rights of all these people who were once part of undivided India and got separated during 1947," he said.

The amendment faces its toughest test in Assam, a state ruled by a BJP-led coalition. It is currently updating its National Register of Citizens (NRC) to weed out illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There are fears that out of the 4 million applicants found illegal in a population of 32.9 million, many may be Bangladeshi Hindus who would be eligible for citizenship if the bill clears the upper house in Delhi.

"This is a communal and unconstitutional bill. It violates the 1985 Assam accord signed between former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the All Assam Students Union (AASU). It will affect the indigenous population of the Northeast. The region is not a dumping ground," said Samujjal Bhattacharyya, chief adviser to the AASU.

The Assam accord set a cut-off date of March 24, 1974 (the liberation of Dhaka from Islamabad) to grant citizenship to people who had come from Bangladesh. The BJP had promised to implement the accord by updating the NRC.

"This is political injustice. All Bangladeshi illegal immigrants -- be they Hindu or Muslim – should be deported. Even the Supreme Court of India ordered their deportation," Mr Bhattacharyya told Asia Focus.

When told that Bangladesh would not accept the immigrants, he said it was the duty of New Delhi to pursue the matter with Dhaka.

Mr Bhattacharyya castigated the joint parliamentary committee that cleared citizenship amendment bill before the Lok Sabha passed it. He said members only visited Guwahati, Silchar (Assam) and Shillong (the capital of Meghalaya state) to elicit the views of people in the Northeast, and yet 29 points of input out of a total of 37 were opposed to the bill.

India, he said, is for Indians and not for foreigners even if they are Hindus.

Dr Hiren Gohain, a former professor at Gauhati University, noted that the population of Hindus in Bangladesh declined from 13.5% in 1974 to 8.5% in 1991. One reason, he believes, is that many settled illegally in Assam and other northeastern states of India.

"Indigenous people will become a minority after the bill. Their identity will be extinct," Dr Gohain said in an interview, citing the example of Tripura state where he claimed the percentage of indigenous people has fallen from 80% to 30% since 1951.

When asked whether opponents of the bill would allow its application in the country minus the Northeast, Dr Gohain said he feared that future central governments might decide to apply it to the Northeast later.

The BJP wrested Assam from Congress in May 2016 on the slogan of community, land, home and synergy between Hindutva and Assamese nationalism. It now rules six out of the eight northeastern states. Besides Assam, it has governments in Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur. It is also part of the ruling alliances in Nagaland and Meghalaya.

Many of its alliance partners are opposing the citizenship bill, among them the National People's Party in Meghalaya. The BJP government in Manipur wants New Delhi to implement the Manipur People's (Protection) Bill, which seeks to regulate entry of non-Manipuris into the state.

Assam faced a violent agitation against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants from 1979 to 1985. The Assam accord promised to "protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social and linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people".

Under the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, an individual with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, or nationality is deemed a refugee.

Pakistani Hindus meet this criterion but India is neither a signatory to the convention nor to its 1967 protocol which stipulates the rights and services that the host country must provide to refugees.


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