Granting citizenship to Hindu refugees and making India “a natural home for persecuted Hindus” were among the promises made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his election manifesto. Modi, in a 2014 election rally, specifically promised citizenship to Hindu-Bangladeshis, saying that they would be removed from the migrant camps. Since then, the current government has taken many steps which may seem majoritarian and anti-Muslim.
Against this backdrop, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seems to be aimed toward making India a haven for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from neighboring countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. A closer look at the provisions indicates that the current government is attempting to increase its Hindu voter count. The BJP government’s website about Hindutva ideology clearly draws from Israel’s law of return and aims to do the same for Hindus in India. This policy in the Indian context would be contrary to the ideals of secularism and pluralism and thus unconstitutional.
The provisions of the bill would affect over 200,000 Hindus from Pakistan and Bangladesh and their migration into the border states of India would change the voter demographics in the region. The BJP government came to power in Assam in 2016, for the first time in 15 years, by using the agenda of ending illegal migration from Bangladesh. According to the Census of India (2011), 34.2 percent of Assam’s population is Muslim and the census shows that there has been a 4 percent rise in Muslim population over the past five years. The BJP government used the data as the basis of their campaign to gain votes in the region. If the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is passed, in its current form, then the border regions would face an influx of Hindu migrants, which would change the voter demographics in the region.
The bill aims to save religious minorities from violence and blasphemy laws in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan. The rationale for selecting just these three countries, which are Muslim-dominated countries, is a cause for concern. The bill at first glance seems like a humanitarian effort to help persecuted minorities but it only seeks to help Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from the neighboring Muslim countries. Muslim minority communities facing oppression in other countries have been completely ignored. If the bill was really an attempt to provide a safe haven for minorities facing violence in their countries then it should also offer the same provisions to the minority Muslim communities in China and Myanmar as well. The Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Uyghur Muslims in China, and the Ahmaddiya Muslims in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been facing persecution for years. Further, Myanmar’s Hindus have also been ignored in the bill.
India is not a signatory of the United Nation Refugee Convention; therefore it is not required to provide safe haven to people seeking asylum from persecution in other countries. No attempts have been made by the government to debate the issue of joining the United Nation Refugee Convention. That would have been the natural step to take if the government was indeed interested in formulating a humanitarian refugee policy. Further, the provisions of refugee protection cater to all minorities fleeing countries due to a humanitarian crisis but, in this bill, India is offering citizenship based on religious predilections. The bill, if passed in its current form, seeks to give preference to Hindu refugees over Muslim refugees migrating to India, which is unconstitutional as, the preamble of the Constitution confirms India as a secular state.
The refugees who will actually benefit from this policy are living in abject poverty with no sanitation and infrastructure facilities. The government, instead of using a blanket refugee policy, has made this a communal issue with a veiled political agenda, which would be counterproductive to the seemingly humanitarian goal of the bill.
A member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Dr. Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, revealed in the National Assembly that around 5,000 Hindus migrate from Pakistan to India every year. In 2015, the BJP government approved citizenship for 4,230 Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Afghanistan who sought refuge in India. The BJP had earlier claimed that they had granted Indian citizenship to 4,300 Pakistani nationals during 2014-15. However, a response to a query filed under the Right to Information by Seemant Lok Sanghthan showed that only 289 Pakistani Hindus were granted Indian citizenship in this period. This furthers the argument that the BJP’s political agenda supersedes its humanitarian goals.
It is also interesting to note that BJP’s stance on refugees has completely turned around in the last decade. In 2003 when 213 “Bangladeshi citizens” were stranded in the no man’s land between India and Bangladesh, neither country accepted them. Yet the BJP, in 2014, declared itself as a “natural home for persecuted Indians” and extended long-term visas in various states and provided citizenship to Hindus from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The constant emphasis on granting refuge on the basis of religion is in keeping with the Hindutva ideology popularly advocated by the current government.
The bill, if passed and made into an act, could be challenged and struck down by the judiciary later because of its unconstitutional nature — the provisions go against the secularism enshrined under the preamble. The government’s stance of helping refugees only if they fall under the category of persecuted religious minorities is heavily biased.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 may be presented as a move to protect the religious minorities in other countries from being persecuted but, the underlying issue clear: the bill is meant to address the BJP’s stated objective of making India the “Hindu Homeland.” The provisions blatantly ignore Muslims in the protection clauses and mention only religious minorities in Muslim-dominated countries. Further, the bill will change the demographics of the border states. The Bill adds to an ominous trend of a government which is not afraid of pushing a religious ideology, even when it is in contravention of the Constitution, in order to further its own political agenda.
Wamika Kapur (@kamikaze_mahila) is a Research Assistant to Legislators at Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, Jawahar Bhavan, India.