Should the Government grant Citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus?

By Nayanika Tiwari, NMIMS School of Law.

In July 2012 two NGOs Swajan and Bimalangshu Roy Foundation filed a petition with the Supreme Court of India on the issue of grant of citizenship or refugee status to thousands of displaced persons, mostly in Assam, of minority communities like Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians due to their alleged religious persecution in Bangladesh, must not be bracketed with illegal migrants and sent back. The petition filed through counsel Shuvodeep Roy stated that in spite of a specific mandate of Section 2 of Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 protecting from expulsion victims of civil disturbances, no measures have been taken either by the Centre or Assam to provide ameliorative steps for displaced persons.

The petitions demanded grant of refugee status to these persons, which could later be converted to citizenship. It was made clear that the focus of the case was on Assam where animosity towards refugees from Bangladesh is a strong political issue.

However, in July 2013, the Supreme Court made the case into a national issue — the Bench hearing the case made 18 States a party to it, observing that the problem of religious minorities coming from Bangladesh to India was not confined to Assam alone. The UPA government was careful to go slow on the case since it involved the question of granting rights on the basis of religion. The files show that since 2012, the government had not filed any official response to the petition and had not even sent a lawyer to attend the hearings.

When the previous Government was in power, an amendment to the Citizenship Act was effected in 2003 that made it easier for Hindus who had come from Pakistan and were residing in Gujarat and Rajasthan to be given citizenship. Attempting something similar for eastern India, however, will prove more problematic.

Problems related to the issue –

  1. Bi-Lateral ties –

Since the Supreme Court case covers the period from 1971 the government will have to specify a time period during which it feels that Hindus and other minorities faced persecution in Bangladesh. Depending on which period is chosen this could complicate ties with Bangladesh as that would amount to casting aspersions on its ability to protect minorities. Given that this is a good moment in the confidence-building process between the two countries, with India just having passed the Land Boundary Agreement; such a partisan move could rock the boat again.

  1. Oppression from opposition –

The BJP-led NDA government’s initiative to provide either citizenship or long-term visa to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh has sparked strong protests from various organizations in Assam- be it All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) or the regional Asom Gana Parishad (AGP)

The Centre’s move has come at a time when the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh is a grave problem for the indigenous people of Assam, so much so, that these locals are on the verge of losing their dominance in the state.

Making their stand clear, AASU adviser Dr Samujjal Bhattacharya strongly opposed the Central government’s bid to accord either long-term visa or citizenship to Hindu ‘refugees’ migrants from Bangladesh.

  1. Assam Accord –

Another major hurdle which the Government will have to overcome if it wants to grant citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus is the Assam Accord.

After facing a lot of violence in the year 1983, both, the Central Government and Assam, not ready to deal with more traumas, once again resumed negotiations in earnest. Finally, the Rajiv Gandhi government was able to sign an accord with the leaders of the movement on 15 August 1985. According to the provisions of the Accord, All those foreigners who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1961 were to be given full citizenship, including the right to vote; those who had done so after 1971 were to be deported; the entrants between 1961 and 1971 were to be denied voting rights for ten years but would enjoy all other rights of citizenship.

Thus this move of the Government granting them citizenship is being challenged by others on the grounds that it violates the provisions of the Assam Accord.

  1. Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha

The Asom Sanmilita Mahasangha is an umbrella organization of 40 strong indigenous organizations representing the aboriginal and indigenous populations of Assam cutting across belief systems.

During the indigenous peoples’ convention held in Jorhat on April 25, 26 recently, the Mahasangha expressed grave concern on what it calls PM Modi’s divisive and communal rationale.

The Mahasangha vide its resolution (13), strongly condemned the Modi led BJP government for dividing and favoring Hindu migrants on the basis of religion calling the attempt an ill-intended conspiracy.

The Mahasangha demanded that illegal migrants must all be considered migrants irrespective of being by belief system, HindusMuslims, Buddhists or Christians and dealt with under the due provisions of the country.

  1. Communal divide

According to various sources, during and after the two Indo-Pak Wars, a lot of migrants of various religions came and settled in India. And therefore, the decision to grant Indian citizenship selectively to Hindus alone by the Modi led government has been strongly condemned.

This is also being considered as a tremendous blow to the multi ethno religious foundation of India and an anti-Constitutional effort on the Government’s part.

Response of the Government –

The Home Ministry will have to consider several variables in elaborate detail while formulating its response that will decide the fate of thousands of Bangladeshi Hindus living in 19 States. Because the period in question is since 1971, the first variable is the number of Hindu migrants that the case will cover. Second, it has to fix the timeframes.  In order to argue that Hindus were persecuted in Bangladesh before coming to India, the Ministry has to cite specific events that took place in Bangladesh.

The BJP has already declared that the immigration policy will be a major plank on which it will contest the Assam Assembly elections next year. “Some Hindus have come from Bangladesh owing to religious disturbances. The BJP will give all of them citizenship once we come to power in Assam next year,” party president Amit Shah had said at a rally in Assam on April 27. He said his party would also work towards giving Indian citizenship to all Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants across the country.

However the refugees are not confident about the support of the Government as the Government itself is giving contradicting views on this matter.

Earlier the party president had stated that Citizenship status would be granted to all the refugees who had come from Bangladesh. However, at the same time, echoing the campaign speeches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. Shah said the BJP sought to get rid of illegal immigrants or “infiltrators” Muslims who come over from Bangladesh.

Conclusion –

In conclusion it can be seen that granting citizenship to only Bangladeshi Hindus is neither an easy task nor is it advisable. Such a decision, if taken hastily by the current government could create a lot of issues and a lot of problems, both, internally and externally.

The Government should instead of granting citizenship, give a long-term visa to all immigrants living here since 1971, not just Bangladeshi Hindus.