The Union government has proposed certain changes to India’s citizenship laws, in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The present legal framework has no provision for religion-based citizenship and the proposed amendment plans to change that.
At present, an illegal migrant entering the territory of the Indian Union is prohibited from becoming a citizen. The amendment proposes that illegal migrants belonging to six specific religious minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will not be prohibited from attaining citizenship, even if they migrated to the territory illegally.
The move, to mark out illegal migrants of specific religious minorities originating from neighbouring sovereign territories for special treatment, started a little while back. In a series of orders between September 2015 and July 2016, the government exempted from deportation the illegal migrants belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religion. These previous moves laid down the framework for the present proposed amendment.
Illegal migrants from these countries belong to all religions. However, the reasons of illegal migration are not similar across all religions. Having said that, the reasons are also not similar across all adherents of a particular religion.
The elephant in the room is that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are Muslim majority sovereign territories. But that’s not all. These are also territories where in the last many decades the population proportion of non-Muslims has continually fallen, in contrast to the Hindu majority Indian Union where the population proportion of Christians and Muslims have sharply risen over the last few decades.
By this basic factor, it can be surmised that the minority situation in the Indian Union is far from ideal and that the situation differs from its neighbours. Population proportion surely cannot be the only measure of welfare of a community but, as far as growing and thriving in numbers is concerned, India’s situation is better compared to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Given the reality of the communal partition of British colonial territories of the subcontinent, the post-colonial fragments maintain in its body politic that ‘partition’ ideology of communal homelands. This imagination shows up in practice in various ways, overt and covert, in a continuum of toxic destructiveness.
It is probably not accidental then that the subcontinent’s only post-colonial fragment that has seen a decrease in population proportion of those belonging to the majority religious community is also the only one where the Constitution does not mention any specific state religion.
Many powerful political parties, all with Hindus constituting a majority of their voter base, have expressed their opposition to this proposed amendment precisely on that count – the way it names who it includes and by implication, who it excludes.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC), which rules West Bengal, a state that is probably host to the largest number of illegal immigrants, has opposed the proposal. Veteran Trinamool Member of Parliament (MP) Saugata Roy said, “We have decided that we will oppose the amendment on the floor of Parliament. This amendment is an attack on the secular fabric of our country. How can there be discrimination on the basis of religion? If you are Hindu, you will be eligible and if you are Muslim, you will be kept out? Our Constitution does not allow this. The West Bengal government will also oppose it.”
Roy is correct. The proposed amendment does include and exclude on the basis of religion. But it is not as if this was unprecedented. Various other legislations or proposed legislations have done that in all but name – including the almost irrelevant Enemy Property Act (which discriminated against Muslims, without mentioning that explicitly) or the proposed and shelved Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence (Access to Justice and Reparations) Bill (which discriminated against Hindus, being the commonest majority community in most territories of India).
In practical political terms, the TMC probably has calculated that it cannot appear to support a legislation that clearly excludes members of a religious community who form nearly 30 percent of the population in West Bengal and is represented even more disproportionately higher in its supporter base.
Such a stance is a game of extreme brinkmanship given West Bengal is also host to the largest number of Hindu refugees, who keep on coming from Bangladesh in incessant trickles and spurts to this day – a phenomenon that will continue into the foreseeable future.
The recent large-scale anti-Hindu attacks by Muslim radicals in Brahmanbaria district in Bangladesh, in collusion with a section of the local branch of the ruling party, inspires little hope that migrations into West Bengal triggered by persecution of religious minorities in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh) will stop anytime soon.
The reverse, that is, migration to East Bengal from West Bengal due to religious persecution has not happened in any significant numbers since the mid-sixties. Thus, in a post-Partition state which is tacitly conceived as a permanent Hindu Bengali majority homeland since 1947, the non-acknowledgment of the special status of non-Muslim, primarily Hindu, Bengalis vis-à-vis West Bengal and worse still, the narrative of parity that TMC seems to advocate might be used to consolidate the already existing communal divisions in West Bengal. This divide has gotten much worse since the rise of BJP in the state, especially in pockets with significant non-Bengali populations. The recent communal disturbances in Chandannagar are a case in point.
For all practical purposes, India denies citizenship to those who crossed over from East Bengal after 25 March 1971, the day when major atrocities by the Pakistan army started in Dhaka. The 2003 Citizenship (Amendment) Act took away the possibility of birth right citizenship from the children of many of those who fled persecution in East Bengal.
Due to the amendment, many Dalit Bengalis were identified as ‘infiltrators’ and deportation proceedings were started. The Matuas, one of the largest low caste groups of primarily East Bengali of the Namasudras origin settled in West Bengal, have long been protesting this 2003 amendment, passed by a BJP-led government.
Ultimately, the persecuted Hindus of East Bengal (refugees and residents) are mere pawns.
The prime beneficiaries of Partition crafted the Nehru-Liaquat Pact of 1950. Many did not move due to the false sense of assurance (including the assurance of the door being permanently open) that came with this largely ceremonial gesture.
By this, India effectively washed off its hands from the ‘minority problem’ in Pakistan. ‘Shutting the door’ has been the Indian policy post-1971 (similar to what Pakistan did to stranded Pakistanis in Dhaka); something it cannot implement – one of the natural consequences of claiming full monitoring abilities over an absurd frontier.
For decades, India has systematically discriminated against the Eastern frontier refugees (mostly Bengalis) on questions of compensation, entitlement, relief, citizenship, etc compared to the Western frontier (Punjabi and Sindhi) refugees. The Indian Union owes reparation to these people, for the Indian Union’s creation and its geographical contours are intimately tied to their migration and impoverishment.
In Assam, the other state that will be most affected by this decision, the fault-lines are different. All strands of Assamese nationalism, from the independence seeking United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) to the BJP-collaborator Asom Gana Parishad, oppose the proposed amendment. Powerful Assamese nationalist student bodies like AASU and AJYCP also oppose it.
However, here the fault-line is more along ethnic lines. As per the terms of the Assam accord of 1985, all illegal migrants who have entered Assam after 24 March, 1971 are to be identified and deported. Even with its Muslim exclusion, this proposed amendment will pave the path to citizenship for many Hindu Bengalis who are illegal migrants in Assam.
The BJP hopes that its anti-Muslim plank (couched not so subtly under the anti-Bangladeshi slogan) will help “unite” non-Muslims across ethnic lines. That is precisely the uniting factor in its much-touted North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA).
Himanta Biswa Sarma, former AASU activist, a Congressman till recently and now top BJP organisation man in Assam, has clearly learnt the communally divisive political lines of his new party when he says, “The whole thing is that we have to decide who our enemy is. Who is our enemy, the 1-1.5 lakh people or the 55 lakh people?”
Those numbers ostensibly correspond to numbers of Hindu Bengali and Muslim Bengali illegal migrants in Assam respectively. This tactical accommodation of Hindu Bengalis into the fold shows the existential crisis of Assamese nationalism, whose homeland imaginary has always been so over-stretched that it now cannot stand up effectively to the BJP.
The BJP, meanwhile, has taken on the mantle of Assamese demographic anxiety with an obligatory Hindu unity twist to suit its Delhi headquarters. The proposed amendment thus is a direct contravention of the Assam accord – arguably the biggest achievement of the Assamese nationalist current.
While it is true that Delhi-centric political forces never wanted the Assam accord to be implemented, no one has declared the accord to be null and void yet. As of now, the proposed amendment contains no Assam exception clause which it ideally should, if the government thinks that it should not renege on the pledge given to the people of Assam in the turbulent days of the Assam movement.
The problem with “accords” is that they are done in good faith between entities who expect each other to keep their word. If there is no Assam exception in the final bill, it will mean that the Assam accord was a fraud executed by the government on the people of Assam.
With regards to the illegal migrant issue, one has to distinguish between victims of human rights violations (including but not only religious persecution), that is, refugees, and those who migrate due other reasons. Such cases can be assessed on a case by case basis. A blanket inclusion for non-Muslims and a blanket exclusion of Muslims is clearly discriminatory.
The citizenship debate is primarily a demographic dominance and anxiety debate. The Indian Union is primarily made up of Hindu majority homelands or part homelands of ethno-linguistic nationalities. Thus, the fear of being swamped in their own homeland in a demographic and economic sense is behind many of these debates.
Given the hugely different fertility rates between Hindi and non-Hindi states in the Indian Union, another demographic invasion that is presently not illegal also threatens the socio-cultural-political fabric of many parts of India. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has boldly opened this debate.
The reality is that it is not within the feasible limits of ability of the Indian Union administration to deport all existing illegal migrants who are simply economic migrants. Nor will it be possible to stop such illegal migration in the near future.
A possible solution in such a scenario can be in the form of amnesty for all Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan origin illegal migrants with the possibility of dual or tiered citizenship and expanded work permits schemes.
At the same time, other demographic anxieties that exist between different parts of India can also be addressed within such citizenship frameworks that keep Indian Union citizenship as a common framework and also give state governments expanded control of residency rights, property ownership, entry and settling rules so that diversity is robustly preserved in the united framework.
A model for this already exists in various states of India in the form of residency based property ownership laws and entry control mechanisms through permits. Such initiatives need to be expanded as part of a thorough reform of the citizenship question.