[Note: This article was sent to The Assam Tribune and The Sentinel in January-February 2019 but since it was not published – and has since then been supreceded by events, it is being published on SBP's website for the record.]
India has welcomed migrants for thousands of years regardless of any religion they may profess. We welcome the presumably humane intent of the BJP government for India to absorb those who are being persecuted in our neighbouring countries.
But Mr Modi is not doing this the right way. The way the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016, currently awaiting approval in the Rajya Sabha, has been drafted, it amounts to an attack on everything that India has stood for, for thousands of years. The Bill makes eligible for Indian citizenship illegal migrants from neighbouring countries who have lived here for more than six years, but only those from the Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religions.
This approach is abhorrent in the extreme and violates the very notion of Bharat. Never in our thousands of years old history have we discriminated amongst migrants based on their religion. The Bill as drafted is also unconstitutional since it does not treat potential citizens equally under the law, i.e. without regard to their belief. And the Bill violates the liberal principle of separation of religion and state. It is possible to restrict citizenship where a refugee has a criminal background, but nothing else must come in the way.
It is obvious that the real reason for this badly drafted Bill is RSS’s and B JP’s poisonous two-nation theory which our freedom fighters firmly rejected. In Mr Modi’s regime the Muslims and other religious minorities of India and the atheists and agnostics are being treated as second class citizens. The Bill is an attempt to create a de facto Hindu rashtra by stealth.
I hope the Rajya Sabha will reject the Bill but even if it is passed, I am confident that the Bill will be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Instead of taking such a bigoted and hateful approach to citizenship, we need a well-considered approach in which genuine refugees are prioritised in accordance with international law. We believe that entirely different approaches should apply to refugees and economic migrants. We need to call for a White Paper on Citizenship to consider all aspects of citizenship in the light of international law.
We believe that refugees should be dealt with in accordance with the UNHCR Refugee Convention which defines a refugee. India is one of the very few democracies in the world not to have signed the Convention. But if we want to be a world leader, then we must stand for universal freedom and humanity. We must commit to sheltering our fellow humans who are forced to flee oppressive regimes. Even as we do that, we must retain the absolute power to expel any economic migrant who crosses into our border without prior approval. All economic migrants must be processed through India’s embassies outside India. No exception.
The advantage of signing the Refugee Convention is that migrants who are accepted as genuine refugees by the UNHCR’s settlement process will become eligible for being settled in developed nations across the world. The costs and burden is then shared globally. In any event, we must immediately stop labelling genuine refugees as “illegal migrants”.
The Assam Accord can now be readily reconciled in the context of the Refugee Convention. A vast number of refugees flooded into Assam from erstwhile East Pakistan as the consequence of a variety of internal disturbances and the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak wars. Based on the principles embedded in the Refugee Convention, we can agree that these were genuine refugees – as distinct from those who came in after 25 March 1971, who are economic migrants. The Assam Accord rightly regularised the pre-1971 refugees as citizens but through clause 5.8 confirmed clearly that those who came into India after 25 March 1971, namely, the economic migrants, would be expelled.
How many of these post-1971 migrants are in India today? I had conducted detailed modelling on this question and provided my advice to the then Chief Minister Prafulla Mahanta in 1989 as part of my role as Assam’s second-in-command in the Election Department. During the modelling I had discussed and explained the logic and statistics to AASU’s nominated leaders and to their advisor Indrajit Barua as well as other demographic experts. I believe that my report and calculations should be publicly released by the Assam Government for open discussion. I broadly recall that in my report I had found that while the number of illegal migrants in Assam in 1989 was still quite significant, it was far less than many other estimates.
The next question is: is it possible to identify these illegal migrants? While I was Deputy Commissioner of Barpeta district in the late 1980s, the AASU had sent a delegation to me and provided me with a list of potential illegal migrants in the char areas of Barpeta. I agreed to personally investigate the matter and went door to door to study the records of the alleged migrants. I found that everyone had links to a pre-1971 documents and this information was also provided to the highest levels of government. Possessing a pre-1971 document is not proof of genuineness since these documents are largely on flimsy rice paper, with some signature and seal that is often hard decipher. It is theoretically possible that some of these documents could be fake. But to investigate each case would impose a cost that the government simply cannot afford.
There is also a huge issue that many genuine citizens did not have proper pre-1971 records and many who had them could have easily lost them in floods. Therefore it remains extremely challenging to identify illegal immigrants, while also not excluding genuine citizens.
The great problem with the 2016 Citizenship Bill is that it can potentially enable many of the illegal economic migrants to get citizenship. They would of course have to formally apply, thereby effectively declaring that any of their previous documents were false. But the legal position regarding these migrants must be made very clear.
We will be able to support the Bill only under two conditions: first, the mention of religion must be eliminated and substituted by a commitment to shelter persecuted refugees. Second, an explicit clause must state that anyone who entered Assam from Bangladesh post-25 March 1971 will be expelled from India and shall not be eligible for citizenship. All post-1971 economic migrants must be expelled and must apply through formal channels from outside India. If any of them turns out to be a genuine refugee, being persecuted in Bangladesh, then they should be treated as refugees under an amended Citizenship Act.