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Only Hindu refugees welcome

CITIZENSHIP ACT AMENDMENTS : By welcoming refugees of only one religion, we are ostensibly turning back all those who are not of that religion.

When ‘Team Refugees’, marched in the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at Rio, they marched under one flag, not according to their religion or country of origin.

The world applauded. Yet, one can’t escape the irony that the world over, no one wants refugees and the irony becomes crueller, when you welcome refugees of one religion and not another. In India, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 that has been sent to a joint select committee at the request of a united Opposition in the Parliament, can be accused of doing just that.

Introduced in the Lok Sabha by Home Minister Rajnath Singh last month, this bill aims to reiterate an assertion made by the BJP in its party manifesto for the 2014 general elections. The party had promised, under the section titled ‘Foreign Relations – Nations First, Universal Brotherhood’, that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”

While the original Citizenship Act of 1955 had denied granting of citizenship to undocumented migrants and stamped any foreigner who entered India without a valid passport or travel document or who stayed beyond the permitted time, as an illegal migrant, this amendment seeks to allow citizenship to undocumented migrants of all faiths, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians but except Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These amendments to the Citizenship Rules of 2009, approved by the Cabinet, propose to allow foreign nationals to apply for citizenship after a continuous residence of three years on Indian soil, which earlier was seven years. This relaxation facilitates India becoming a natural home for persecuted Hindus who are “welcome to seek refuge”.

Undoubtedly, this is a huge relief to minority nationals from neighbouring countries who are seeking refuge on the grounds of fearing religious persecution and also perhaps a ‘historic’ decision, which pushes us to view persecution suffered by these people through the lens of compassion.

But closer attention needs to be paid to the official line of the government that most emphatically claims: “We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them. We will have to accommodate them.” One cannot remove the spotlight from the nonchalant and repeated assertion that this refuge is only for Hindus and not Muslims.

The danger here lies in this distinction being made between Hindu and Muslim refugees and the ostensible argument being made that only the former shall be accommodated. Criticism has come from the Opposition, particularly the Congress, which has questioned the rationale behind leaving out migrants from one community and said the amendments give granting of citizenship a religious twist.

Article 1 of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as, “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

Politics of terminology

It is only ironical that while the very definition of a refugee in international law enumerates persecution on five counts as reasons behind the creation of refugee status (religious persecution being one of them), these amendments in India seek to discriminate amongst those seeking asylum on the basis of their religion. 

The principle of victimhood and the assumption behind it that Muslim nationals in Muslim-majority countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh will not have reasons to allege persecution is a flawed one. This generalisation further accentuates the politics of terminology that until now, in the forced migration discourse in India, have been segregating Bangladeshi Hindus crossing into India as ‘migrants’ and Bangladeshi Muslims as ‘infiltrators’.

One needs to ask why is one religion being made to bear the burden of alleged ‘illegality’ when both groups technically are economic migrants, crossing borders in search of better lives and livelihoods. The semantics of illegality in migration has been the central argument of party politics in states like Assam where this issue has triggered a controversy as granting citizenship to Hindu Bengalis was one of the poll promises made by the BJP.

The BJP-led state government there has sought clarification on the bill from the Centre, pointing out that the move has led to resentment among the people of Assam. Besides, Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia, TMC MP Sudip Bandhopadhyay, CPM MP Mohammad Salim, Bhartruhari Mahtab of the Biju Janata Dal have all come together to raise the issue that while this bill is an important one, it needs detailed scrutiny. Thus, it has been submitted to a Joint Parliamentary Committee which should work within a time frame.

While India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still obliged to adhere to the principle of non-refoulement, which forms a crucial part of customary international law and forbids refugees from being returned or expelled to places where their lives or freedoms could be threatened. By welcoming refugees of only one religion, we are ostensibly turning back all those who are not of that religion.

Any move that aims at providing succour to refugees from neighbouring countries but with a religious angle must not be glossed over. It sends out a politically incorrect message to the world that India as a nation-state welcomes only Hindu refugees. Asylum is a human right for all irrespective of religion.

(The writer is an alumnus of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford and is currently Faculty, Master’s Department of Political Science, St Joseph’s College, Bengaluru)

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