The Citizenship Bill 2019 is a bold step that seeks to restore dignity to hundreds of thousands of persecuted religious minorities living as virtual prisoners in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while also seeking to deal mortal body blow to perpetrators of Muslim vote bank politics of the past six or seven decades
Dr Sudip Kar Purkayastha
The stiff opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 by sections of political parties, even after it went through the scrutiny by a joint parliamentary committee and its adoption by the Lok Sabha is surprising.
Purpose of the Bill
The Citizenship Bill 2019 seeks to render justice to hundreds of thousands of refugees living virtually as stateless people in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan for the past few decades by making them eligible for the citizenship of India. People of six specified religions viz., Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the three countries, are covered under the scope of the bill, to evade religious persecution.
Simultaneously, this bill, by implication, presents for the first time the scope to identify and frame a policy with regard to non-refugee illegal migrants (NRIM) consisting mostly of Bangladeshi Muslims residing in India, through a political consensus and in a manner which is best for our national interest. This can hopefully become a deterrent to the growing trend of vote bank politics in the country today.
Viewed from both the perspectives, the bill is a bold step forward. It is in the national interest and is certainly not oriented towards one state or another. It has to be seen accordingly by all political parties and people of all states, including Assam.
INSESNITIVITY TO REFUGEES, LACK OF A CLEAR POLICY
India has been in denial mode about the misery of the refugees persecuted based on religion (RPR) in the three countries. She has been equally unconcerned about the non-refugee illegal migrants (NRIMs) gradually gaining a stronghold in the political system of the country. Successive regimes at the Centre have tried to handle the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants through ad hoc measures rather than formulating a clear-cut policy – a blunder that brought grief to refugees and giving birth to vote bank politics.
People demanding the implementation of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam
Why is a refugee policy the crying need of the hour? India was partitioned in 1947 due to deeply, divisive and incorrigible communal and religious politics. The fate of religious minorities in Pakistan was doomed from the very start. It is a historical irony that the top Congress leaders found it impossible to run a coalition government with the Muslim League at the Centre in 1946-47 and went for ‘partition’ to rule over a ‘truncated’ India to the exclusion of the communal League leaders, but did not bother to protect the tens of millions of religious minorities under the rule of those very League leaders. The Nehru-Liaquat pact of 1950 probably gave them some excuse that they did their duty to the persecuted minorities in Pakistan, but it was an elaborate deceit that simply failed to stop the exodus of religious minorities. The persecuted religious minorities from Pakistan, especially East Pakistan, kept entering India with no other places to go or to seek shelter. Ironically, there was also clandestine infiltration by NRIM population from Pakistan into the border states of India by taking advantage of absence of any refugee policy and encouraged by sections of political parties that saw a great potential for vote bank in illegal Bengladeshi Muslim immigrants.
DISASTEROUS IMPACT OF INDIRA-MUJIB ACCORD
The emergence of Bangladesh as a nation at the dissolution of East Pakistan in December 1971 had a temporary effect on the fate of the religious minorities. Though India played a significant role in the liberation of Bangladesh, it led to the signing of Indira-Mujib Accord in March 1972. The accord later seemed to have been unwarranted. It had echoed in the accord’s preamble which, inter alia, mentioned that the two countries were ”determined to maintain fraternity and good neighbourly relations and transform their borders into a border of eternal peace and friendship…..’. Following the assassination of Mujib-ur-Rahman in 1975, anti-Hindu sentiments began to rear its ugly head in Bangladesh, resulting in resumption of refugee influx into India.
The showdown comes in protest against the amendment to the Citizenship Act
In hindsight, the impact of Indira-Mujib pact has been severe on India in terms of influx of NRIM population in India. A year prior to the pact, eastern states such as West Bengal, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and others had received hundreds of thousands of East Pakistanis comprising of both Muslims and religious minorities rushing to escape atrocities by the Pakistani army. Sizeable sections amongst both groups did not go back to the newly-created Bangladesh. To add to the problem, the impact of the Indira-Mujib pact tilted towards ‘leniency and tolerance’ rather than send them back. As if that was not enough, the Accord of 1972 was instrumental in ‘facilitating’ the arrival of more NRIMs in the coming decades that followed.
Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, there was resumption of religious persecution and consequently of fresh inflow of refugees into India. And there was no effective stopping of NRIM infiltration into India. But reluctance on the part of India at political level at the Centre to review the Accord of 1972, especially in terms of refugee issues and the absence of an refugee policy, created a policy paralysis in the eastern and north eastern states with regard to segregating refugees and non-refugee migrants and treating each on respective merits. Not only that, the policy paralysis also encouraged greedy political parties to view the NRIMs as potential vote banks. Thanks to such political patronage, the NRIMs began to enter into the political processes through illegally procuring identity documents such as ration card, voter card, and even Aadhar card etc.
ASSAM ACCORD: A NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
The ever changing religious and ethnic demography in Eastern India was first recognized in Assam leading to intense agitation between 1979 and 85 and signing of the Assam Accord between the Union of India, on the one hand, and AASU and AAGSP, on the other. Its main weakness was its inability on the part of both parties to deal with issues of RPRs and NRIMs based on individual own merits. It used the Foreigners Act, 1946 of the colonial era to address a serious post-Independence problem arising out of an unwritten, anti-minority policy of the state of Pakistan. The pact even ignored Assam’s responsibility to refugees, especially those resulting from her partition by way of Sylhet referendum, applied the same formula for the purpose of both citizenship and ‘deportation’ to the RPRs and NRIMs. The Accord resulted in achieving very little result. In fact, both population groups tried to manage identity documents with varying success by bribing lower bureaucracy and or with political clout.
Besides failing to achieve its purpose, the Accord, by virtue of its very architecture and subsequent modification of Citizenship Act by inserting Section 6A, resulted in potentially regularizing the entire NRIMs who entered Assam on or before the cut-off date i.e., 24th March 1971 as citizens of India. Similarly, it ended up removing the differentiation between RPRs and NRIMs in public perception by its ‘deportation’ norm, which was to apply to every-one who entered Assam after this cut-off date. The Accord, therefore, created a bottleneck in extending human treatment to the RPRs. At the same time, it paved the way for the NRIMs in getting access to the political system.
IMPACT OF INFILTRATION IN WEST BENGAL POLITICS
There is widely-held notion in public that, unlike political treatment of the issue in Assam, the Left Front regime in West Bengal used the blurring of distinctions between the two ‘groups’ to silently cultivate the NRIMs as its vote bank to help prolong its 34 years of rule in the state. Though this strategy had harmful consequences on society, politics and economy, the regime managed to divert public attention away through ideological rhetoric. Several political analysts attribute the ouster of Left Front regime in that state in 2011 to losing support from and growing political aspirations of this voters’ segment. At the same time, the RPRs faced a life of great hardship, misery and uncertainty. The fact that the citizenship issue has been a cause of the decades long misery for the ‘Matua’ community in the state is a strong indicator that a sizeable section of the RPRs may be living virtually like stateless people in the state due to lack of a refugee policy by the centre and discriminatory attitude of local political parties.
WHAT MADE GOVT TO SIT UP & TAKE NOTICE
The ostrich like policy of the government at the Centre that the fire of NRIM-based vote bank politics would consume only the eastern states and not travel beyond its borders, had to end one day. Sporadic reports of NRIM settlements in national and various state capitals as well as far-flung areas deep inside India from their base settlements in West Bengal, Assam and other northeastern states and their coming into conflicts with law and order machineries at times have been a cause for concerns to the whole nation in the last decade.
In reply to a written question in Rajya Sabha in November 2016, the MoS Home had assessed the illegal Bangladeshi migrants in the country at around 2 crore. To make things worse, a perceptional bias in the political spectrum that this population group has sympathy of the Indian Muslim population, has been giving them some kind of immunity against eviction measures and even helping them to sneak into political processes by obtaining ID documents.
WHAT CAN THE BILL DO?
The present Bill is finally a bold attempt at recognizing the reality and rectifying the great injustice. It can act as a pillar for defining refugee policy, and to cleanse the polity of the vote bank politics based on religious minority, Arguments that it discriminates against Muslims and violates the secular character of India as enshrined in Indian Constitution sounds shallow. India, of course, treats all her citizens equally but insisting that a conveniently cherry-picked doctrine be applied to illegal aliens from neighbouring countries is stretching things too far. She has to, for more historical, humanitarian and moral reasons, treat religious persecutions of refugees of Indian origin as her responsibility. At the same time, she cannot afford even financially or economically to accommodate all persecuted persons across the world in her land, even if she wished to.
IT’S NOT ASSAM-CENTRIC
Though it was only to be expected that the people of North East, especially Assam, would welcome the Bill, their adverse reactions are indeed surprising and appear to have been inspired by a small section of vocal leaders afflicted by either myopia or with hidden agenda.
To take an analytical view, the Bill is not Assam-centric. It is national in character, while it seeks to address the concerns of Assam’s indigenous people in a justifiable manner as part of a national initiative. Notwithstanding, the extensive agitation against the Bill in Assam prima facie suggest few strands of thoughts. Firstly, the indigenous people are relying exclusively on NRC to address their problem and see the Bill as a kind of disruption to that process; Secondly, they seem to be under the impression that the entire burden of refugees after they are regularized as citizenship would devolve on Assam; Thirdly, the Bill would encourage more refugees from Bangladesh in the future and they too would be a burden on Assam.
Much of these reservations would disappear if the Centre takes up the ‘citizenship’ exercise on a national scale encouraging all eligible refugees in the country including those in Assam to enter into the process. Probably it would be sensible to carry out extensive social campaign simultaneously together with some measure of financial assistance to encourage the RPRs to enroll for relocation, if necessary.
The agitating people of Assam also need to consider the fact that most political parties who are opposing the Bill, have been opposing the NRC as well. These parties want ‘status quo’ in the state at any cost. Further, there is widespread notion of manipulation of ‘legacy data’ on ground. If it is true, the NRC may not address their concerns.
The indigenous people of Assam would find full-fledged co-operation with the Centre advisable to safeguard their present rights and also to ensure protection for future generations. The Centre’s proposal to consider ST status to six indigenous population group and constitution of a Clause 6 Committee can give them some early relief. As for the future, Assam has been in the radar of radical Islamist force from the pre-independence period and reports suggest many of these outfits have been active in the northeast to bring it under their influence. Assam has long border with Bangladesh. The population density differentials between the two of 398/sq km and 1127/ sq.km respectively creates a natural gravitational tendency for people of Bangladesh to infiltrate in to Assam unless the borders are well protected. When the Centre has a well thought holistic plan to protect the interests of Assamese people against demographic invasion from Bangladesh, the best course would be to co-operate. Mindless opposition would do harm than bringing dividend.
NEED TO INVOLVE BANGLADESH
The government would do well to enlist the support of Bangladesh for effective implementation of the Bill. From time to time, Bangladesh prime minister has expressed gratitude for India’s help to her country’s liberation struggle. India has continued her good gesture ever since through various measures such as giving more than its fair share of Ganga water through Farakka, investments in connectivity projects, lines of credit of a few billion dollars, conceding larger areas to Bangladesh in exchange for border enclaves, etc. In return, India can make a legitimate request to Bangladesh to help with the repatriation of her people. Friendship cannot be a one-way traffic. Moreover, her help would also be critical to ensure that the outflow of religious minorities is prevented in future. If the Bangladeshi government is not confident of stopping persecution of its minorities by the extremists, both countries may work together in finding ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions to the problem.
ALL-ROUND SUPPORT TO THE BILL
On the whole, this bill is an important initiative which would not only render justice to large number of persecuted children of Mother India but can also deliver body blow to vote bank politics. Therefore, it deserves support from all right-thinking nationalist parties and people. The people and parties of Assam have a special responsibility. History will not forgive them if they frittered away the advantage of this momentous initiative because of their myopic views.
(The writer is an author. His latest two volume work is ‘On the Road to Freedom: Footprints on Indian History’)