Citizenship rules are one of the fundamental aspects of any state – the nature of rules reflect who is it for and who is it not for, who it considers its own and who it doesn’t. Thus citizenship laws that mention some religions and don’t mention others are not compatible with a secular constitution.
The Union government has proposed certain changes to Indian citizenship laws in the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The present legal framework, as it stands, does not have any clause for citizenship that is based on the religion of a person.
The proposed amendment plans to change that. At present, an illegal migrant who enters the territory of the Indian Union is prohibited from becoming an Indian citizen. The bill proposes that illegal migrants belonging to six specific religious minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan will be not be prohibited from Indian citizenship even if they migrated to the territory illegally.
The move to mark out illegal migrants of particular religious minorities originating from neighbouring sovereign territories for special treatment started a little while back.
In a series of orders, the Union government exempted from deportation the illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, belonging to the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian religion. These previous moves laid the framework for the present proposed amendment.
Illegal migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who enter Indian Territory belong to all religions. However, the reasons for illegal migration are not similar across all faiths. Having said that, the reasons for illegal migration are also not same across all adherents of a particular religion.
The elephant in the room is the religion of Islam. Population proportion surely cannot be the only measure of the welfare of a community, but in so far as growing and thriving in numbers is concerned, the Indian Union’s situation is better compared to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
It is probably not accidental 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.
Having said this, the proposal of such a communally restrictive legislation is entirely unprecedented in the recent political history of the Indian Union. The Trinamool has vociferously opposed the proposal. Veteran Trinamool MP Saugata Roy said, “We have decided that we will vote against the amendment on the floor of the Parliament. This amendment is an attack on the secular fabric of our country.
How can there be discrimination by religion? If you are Hindu, you will be eligible, and if Muslim, you will be kept out? Our constitution does not allow this. The West Bengal government will also oppose it”. Saugata Roy is correct.
The proposed amendment does include and exclude on the basis of religion. West Bengal is host to the largest number of Hindu refugees who keep on coming from the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in incessant trickles and spurts to this day and a phenomenon that will continue into the foreseeable future.
The recent large-scale anti-Hindu attacks by Muslims radicals in Bangladesh’s Brahmanbaria in collusion with a section of the local branch of the ruling party inspires little hope that migrations into West Bengal triggered by the persecution of religious minorities in East Bengal 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 is being used to consolidate already existing communal divisions in West Bengal, which have gotten much worse after the rise of the BJP in Bengal especially in pockets with significant non-Bengali populations. The recent communal disturbances in Chandannagar are an example.
East Bengali Hindu migrants are unfortunate. 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 guarantee of the door being permanently open) that came with this largely ceremonial gesture. By this, the Indian Union effectively washed off its hands from the ‘minority problem’ in Pakistan.
‘Shutting the door’ has been the Indian Union 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, the Indian Union has systematically discriminated Eastern frontier refugees (mostly Bengalis) on questions of compensation, entitlement, relief, citizenship, etc. compared to Western frontier (Punjabi and Sindhi). 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 25th 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).
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.
As of now, the proposed amendment contains no Assam exception clause which it ideally should, if the Government of India 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 make the Assam accord a fraud executed by the Government of India 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 to other reasons. 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 mostly made up of Hindu majority homelands or part homelands of ethnolinguistic nationalities. Thus, the fear of being swamped in a demographic and economic sense in their own homeland is behind many of these debates. Given 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 the Indian Union. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has boldly opened this debate.
It is not within the possible limits of the ability of the Indian Union administration to deport all existing illegal migrants who are just 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 the Indian Union 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 setting rules so that diversity is robustly preserved in the united framework.
A model for this already exists in various states of the Indian Union 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.