(In the light of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh introducing in the Lok Sabha a Bill to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act, The Quint presents a debate on the contentious issue of granting Indian citizenship to non-Muslim minorities from neighbouring countries.)
- The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, seeks to amend the 1955 Citizenship Act.
- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians not to be treated as illegal immigrants.
- For such minorities, aggregate period of residence or government service in India will be six and not 11 years.
- Illegal immigrants without valid documents can apply for citizenship.
- Period of residency reduced from 12 to seven years for eligibility via naturalisation route.
- Centre can cancel registration of overseas citizens who violate Citizenship Act.
In India, as in other democracies, immigration and citizenship are contentious issues. When Home Minister Rajnath Singh introduced the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, in the Lok Sabha it was a conscious, well-thought-out political decision to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus and other minority groups from a few adjoining countries.
The Bill says:
Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan… shall not be treated as illegal migrants for the purposes of this Act.
Political changes in India are certainly appearing to be major determinants of the Narendra Modi government’s decision.
This is certainly in keeping with the BJP’s long-pending objective, but this government’s move to pave the way for Bangladeshi Hindu illegal immigrants to acquire Indian citizenship is not the result of any high utilitarian or liberal concerns.
It is purely aimed at increasing its vote share among the Hindu immigrants settled in West Bengal and is therefore partisan and discriminatory.
Waves of Migration
Historically, West Bengal has experienced waves of migration from 1947 onwards. While in the early phases – from Partition to 1971 (when Bangladesh emerged as an independent country and immigration restrictions came into place) – the scale and magnitude of the human inflow to West Bengal was massive.
But when border restrictions and other immigration control mechanisms – barbed wire fencing – came into force, immigration from Bangladesh did not stop. Clandestine means were adopted, by both Muslims and Hindus, to cross over.
While Muslims, who are in greater numbers, emigrate for economic reasons, Bangladeshi Hindus do so because of alleged religious persecution they face at the hands of the majority community in that country.
Of course, religious persecution cannot be ruled out, but repression alone does not explain their border crossings. In hundreds – if not thousands – of cases, land grabbing by one brother forces the other to emigrate from his village. Such examples abound.
There are no reliable figures on the number of Bangladeshis – immigration of minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan is too negligible to even be statistically significant – but estimates suggest anywhere between 15-20 million Bangladeshis, mostly Muslims, have crossed over and settled in various parts of India, largely in West Bengal and Assam.
The BJP-led NDA government of AB Vajpayee made some initial noises about illegal immigration from Bangladesh but took no firm steps to stop the border crossings.
Centre and Assam’s Approaches
This time around, however, the BJP government at the Centre and in Assam appear to be following a calibrated approach: while the Modi government seeks to bring into the citizenship fold the Hindu immigrants, the Sarbananda Sonowal regime in Assam wants to bar Muslim immigrants. A dual inclusive-exclusive policy is at work.
So what drives this dual policy? To most people, the answer to this question will seem obvious enough. The power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise that power in pursuit of its own national interest, even if that means denying entry to peaceful, needy foreigners.
Governments of immigrant-receiving states may choose to be generous in admitting immigrants or granting citizenship status to those already settled within its borders, but they are under no obligation to do so.
Muslims Immigrants as Threat
The BJP government perhaps believes that admitting Hindu immigrants into India’s citizenship fold would entail no political risks, as the country’s ethnic composition would not be altered if minorities from Bangladesh are absorbed as citizens.
On the other hand, its decision to welcome Hindu and not Muslim immigrants maybe because the latter are perceived as a political threat or a security risk to India.
Like pro-immigration policies, anti-immigration positions of governments have a potential electoral payoff but are unlikely to get much traction among citizens unless political actors and associations make them appear to be pressing public problems and therefore electorally important issues.
In Assam, the BJP and other political forces such as the All Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Gana Parishad have used anti-immigration mobilisation in the past with grisly consequences.
As a matter of policy, the Indian government has consistently employed the security-stability framework to deter and stop immigration from Bangladesh. While this approach has mostly failed because of lax border controls and cynical politics in states such as Bengal and Assam, little attention has been paid by successive governments at the Centre to address the question – Who is a citizen?
Quite obviously, the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, who, over time, have been able to procure citizenship documents (as have Muslim immigrants), will be naturalised citizens, if the central government is serious about its proposal.
But this is at best a political gimmick designed to keep the immigration pot boiling on low sim. The Modi government’s decision, therefore, is largely aimed at playing to the gallery and in expectation of electoral dividends, especially in Bengal.
Most Hindu immigrants in Bengal describe themselves as “refugees” who have moved to India because of atrocities perpetrated on them by the Muslims in Bangladesh.
The Modi government will find it challenging to determine whether Hindus fleeing Bangladesh are persecuted refugees for two reasons. First, India is not a signatory to international treaties or conventions on refugees and therefore the question of granting them asylum never arose.
Second, the decision to accord citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, based on their fear of persecution, real or imagined, in their home country, would create an adversarial relationship with Bangladesh with which India has been trying to deepen bilateral relations.