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Why Is India Hesitant To Give Citizenship To Rohingya Muslims?

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Citizenship has always been a contested category with its definition being mostly ambiguous, to say the least. However, it is also the essence of the political order and hence a ‘necessary evil’ – necessary as it earmarks rights and duties and evil because it is inherently exclusionary. At the time when the forefathers of the Indian Constitution were deliberating on its nitty-gritty, deliberating ‘citizenship’ formed the most herculean of all tasks.

Ascribing citizenship rights in India is guided by the Citizenship Act, 1955 by four ways, i.e. birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. At the time of independence, the compulsions of partition and rampant migration across the newly demarcated border brought the question of citizenship as a legal claim to the territory and an associational belonging into the fore.

Though the convention was to utilise ethnicity to differentiate personhood from citizenship, there was a wide-ranging consensus amongst academicians that the discourse was highly inclusive at that time. The identification of citizens evolved in multifarious and at times, convoluted ways, but broadly a ‘jus sanguine’ (citizenship by descent) approach was taken. The Citizenship Act, 1955 has seen various amendments guided either by political expediency or people’s demands and have broadly been in the direction of making citizenship laws stringent and more compartmentalised.

When the question of a relationship between nationality and citizenship was to tread the fine line of pluralism, the solution was found within the domain of ‘group-differentiated rights’ or ‘community rights’. Catering to a largely heterogeneous population, the Indian constitution did recognise the substantive notion of equality and had fared better dealing with a large exodus of people from outside than relatively compact and homogenous western states.

The Indian Constitution is largely an affirmation of the ideal propounded by the post-nationalists. Under conditions of pluralism, prior allegiance to a particular nationality cannot serve an integrative function. Collective identity in the modern states has to be based upon universalistic legal principles. People coming from outside should engage with these principles with their distinct history and interpretation. It is only this form of engagement that completes the definition of citizenship as not just a legal claim but a moral belonging.

Chakmas And Hajongs To Be Granted Citizenship Status

The recent Supreme Court order to grant citizenship status to Chakmas and Hajongs and their families who were settled in Arunachal Pradesh in the 1960s is in line with the aforementioned views. Since their settlement in the then NEFA (North East Frontier Agency), they have engaged in farming activities, social customs, married in India, and have had families living as a stateless population for over three decades.

The Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions, submitting its 105th report in 1997 recommended ascribing citizenship rights to Chakmas who came before 1971 and to those who were born in India. These recommendations were never implemented and in their absence, arbitrary rules were used to grant citizenship rights to them. Premising its judgement on the Citizenship Act, 1955, the Supreme Court (SC) ruling states that citizenship rights have to be given to all those who satisfy Section 5 of the Act.

Section 5 (1) (a) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 states that all people of Indian origin residing for seven years in India can be granted citizenship by registration. The Centre has therefore promised to resolve this problem while paying heed to the concerns of the Arunachalis who will be reduced to a minority if the Chakmas are given complete rights. Though the concerns of a change in the ethnic composition are not unfounded, one cannot ignore the fact that the Chakmas have been participants in the economy and society of Arunachal Pradesh even before it was formed. They are, therefore, as much an integral part of the socio-cultural milieu and it is about time that their legal-political rights be recognised. This being said they should not impinge upon the individual privileges of the original inhabitants. This is a classic case of the Indian state making stakeholders out of rebels as enunciated by citizenship theorists like Subrata Mitra.

So Why Deport The Rohingya?

If the Indian state has, therefore, historically accommodated refugees and been responsive to their demands, why has it suddenly upped the ante against Rohingya Muslims? Why has it waged a multi-pronged battle for their deportation? It is important to note here, that this is not the first time that such a decision has been taken and that these people fall into the category of ‘illegal immigrants’ who are bound to be deported by the law of the land.

The Foreigners Act, 1946 gives powers of discretion to the Centre in matters of entry or departure of foreigners, and thus the state is only exercising its jurisprudence in this regard. The influx of ‘illegal migrants’ from Bangladesh has always been a menacing issue facing the Indian state and its people. The 1983 Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was struck down by the SC in 2005 for exacerbating the crisis in Assam and for failing to return Muslims who entered Assam post-1971. It is therefore not just the present government in power but also the judiciary that recognises the gravity of the issue.

The argument that there has been a differential treatment of the Rohingya owing to their religion holds no steam. The Assam Accord stipulated that all those who came to Assam before 1966 or were registered in the 1967 electoral rolls are legitimate citizens. While those who came after 1966 would have to go through a process of registration, the ones who entered post-1971 were regarded as “illegal immigrants”. Not only is the legal-political recognition of their rights a contravention of the Citizenship Act, but they have also never constructively engaged in social relations and consequently never have been consolidated.

While misgivings about their presence as a threat to national security should not be generalised across the community, their legal claim to reside within the territory of India is itself mistaken. Most of them have entered India without any documents and permission and are therefore illegal residents. The Constitution envisages certain rights to all people residing within its territory irrespective of their citizenship status. However, its applicability to ‘illegal migrants’ can be taken only with a pinch of salt. Besides, the 2003 Amendment to the Citizenship Act has seised the citizenship rights of all illegal immigrants. Hence, the state is entitled to take all due measures to deport illegal migrants albeit in a rule-bound manner.

This is not to say that the state has no obligation towards the refugee population in distress but to emphasise the importance of a bonded world for rights and duties to have meaning. An elected state by its very definition is responsible for providing social goods first to its citizens. As scholars like Michael Walzer put it, even social goods have culturally-specific meaning and relevance and can, therefore, operate within a bonded world.

The nation as a political community is the closest to a world of common meanings which are created, sustained and de-constructed by the citizens who by default are also the prime beneficiaries. They are the stakeholders as they have a real link to and an interest in the permanent membership of the political community. The welfare of the citizens of a nation will always remain the first principle even in the face of de-territorialisation of certain rights. So even while citizenship remains a concept in a state of flux, citizenship rights remain a legal constant for the state to oversee.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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