India-Bangladesh Bhai Bhai, But Only Hindus Please

Posted on May 14, 2015 in Politics

By Karthik Shankar:

Your neighbours could very soon become your (constitutionally mandated) brothers and sisters. If the government’s move to grant citizenship to Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh in 18 states takes off, we could see an influx of people streaming into the country through our porous borders. It’s clear that this move is politically motivated, both to appease the party’s staunch conservatives as well as to continue the BJP’s advantage in the 2016 Assam elections.

For representational purposes only
For representational purposes only

Yet, the issue of giving citizenship to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants has been a divisive topic in our country, especially in Assam where they have been blamed for a demographic and political divide. The question is, how this is going to stop Assam’s demographic changes? And the answer is, in almost no way. The anti-Bangladesh sentiment in Assam is not one of Hindus vs Muslims, it’s an age-old concern over illegal citizens infiltrating our land that just has the additional cloak of religion. The Assam Accord also explicitly states that illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who arrive after 1971 are to be deported.

Moreover, giving citizenship to just one segment of Bangladesh’s population is problematic. The ghost of the Nellie massacre still haunts Assam more than two decades later. When Indira Gandhi gave four million Bangladeshi refugees Indian citizenship, the ethnic cleansing that followed claimed the lives of more than 2000 people according to official sources (Journalistic reports speculate the real number could be as high as 5000).

Such a move continues the BJP’s divisive rhetoric. By reducing immigration into essentially one of Hindus vs Muslims, the issue is re-contextualised in terms of religion instead of immigration. The idea of religion being used as a basis to grant citizenship, without assessing other factors is ludicrous. Of course, most people who stream into India illegally do so not for nefarious reasons, but because they are marginalised in their own societies. This oppression can be economic, which explains the migration from Bangladesh to Assam, ethnic, as in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamils, or political, which is the case for Tibetans in exile. Religious persecution is just one facet of many forms of oppression, and in our secular society we cannot single out one religion for special treatment.

There’s also the supreme irony of the Modi-led government taking such a stance when the Gujarat riots happened under his watch. Just imagine the furore if the victims of religious violence in Gujarat were offered citizenship in Pakistan!

If the government is really serious about protecting embattled refugees, why not make a political statement by giving exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen Indian citizenship, something she has been clamouring for. After all, hers is the quintessential tale of right to free speech being quashed by extremist elements. Then come the Muslims who have borne the brunt of targeted terror attacks. Al Qaeda attacks on the Shiite minority have become increasingly common in recent years. Doesn’t that count as religious persecution?

There are also other historically oppressed refugee groups in India – the Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils. If any process aims to abet easier citizenship for refugees, shouldn’t it become wider to cover such groups as well? If the government is serious about India becoming a Mecca for refugees, then we should ratify the 1951 Convention Relating To The Status Of Refugees (CRSR). At the very least, it would be constitutional.

Still we live under a government that is trying very hard to burnish its Hindu credentials. For all you know Nitin Gadkari might come up with the offer of citizenship in return for religious conversion. Whoever said ‘Ghar Wapsi’ was done with?