Is granting right to residence to members of persecuted minority from Bangladesh and Pakistan an election ploy towards voters in Assam?

An election ploy?
Prasenjit Biswas
14 September, 2015

The recent notification granting right to residence and stay to members of minority religious groups persecuted in Bangladesh and Pakistan is an exemption aimed at garnering Hindu votes in Assam’s fractured polity. The Centre’s humanitarian gesture swells the support base of Bengali Hindus for the BJP even when hundreds of their ilk live in detention camps on suspicion of being illegal migrants. The irony is that many of these suspects are declared illegal ex-parte, many of them proving to be bonafide Indians after a strenuous legal battle.

The ex-parte modus operandi of declaring such bonafide Indians “non-citizens” amounts to the enforcement of a sense of stateless on soft targets like Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims. In many a proceeding under the foreigners’ tribunal, appropriate legal recourse, appeal and safeguards under the law were denied to suspected foreign nationals and they were sent to detention camps, the first step in their disenfranchisement and statelessness prior to deportation.

Interestingly, although India does not have an extradition treaty with Bangladesh to send back people declared “foreigners”, many have been pushed back without any explanation. More often than not they are shot on the border, which, according to international law, is not only anti-immigrant but also an abomination on humanity. Where, one may ask, in national and international law is such a practice permitted?

There is no certainty that the lives of such legally-created stateless individuals, belonging to some persecuted communit or the other, is going to change because they are exempt from being termed foreigners under a set of pre-Independence laws like the Passport Act, 1920 and Foreigners’ Act, 1946. Indeed, such outdated laws and and their provisions found reincarnation in Clause 2(1)(b) of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003 that retains the notion of “illegal migrant” for those who enter India without valid papers from specified territories (read Bangladesh and Pakistan) and which still remains in vogue and applicable within judicial purview in determining the status of persecuted entrants from other countries. The notification, drawn up under the previous Acts of 1920 and 1946, does not provide a legally foolproof safeguard for such persecuted migrants against being called illegal and rendered stateless.

Further, rules framed under the Citizenship Act, 2003. which relate to a revision of the National Register of Citizens requires legacy data within 1971, which again is another mechanism to revoke citizenship. Such a play with citizenship laws continues to threaten Assam’s large non-Assamese population, including Bengali Hindus, in keeping them in limbo between non-citizen and citizen.

The situation shows up two opposite and contrasting tendencies. On the one hand, India, under the broad scope of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954, grants “exemption” to persecuted religious minorities of Bangladesh and Pakistan, keeping in mind the contextual situation in Assam. This very idea of exemption from having to produce valid passport and other travel documents is a declared humanitarian consideration for those being persecuted and displaced as a result of violence — a scenario that Bengali-speaking Hindus of Assam’s Barak Valley are all too familiar with.

There had been many victory processions by the BJP in Barak Valley claiming to protect the persecuted Hindu minorities who had come from Bangladesh and Pakistan. In the Brahmaputra valley, the same party merely paid lip service with regard to allowing persecuted migrants to remain in India. This has angered ethno-nationalists of the Brahmaputra valley, who see this as the imposition of a burden on the state’s refugees. Apparently, the exemption is a great political ploy to win over Assam’s sizeable Bengali Hindu vote that would allow the BJP to form the next government in Assam. Arguably, the exemption could be utilised to allay the fears of Bengali Hindus. Legally, the exemption would restrain the police from harassing religiously persecuted minorities at the slightest pretext.

The shrewd mix of politics and law, combined with a humanitarian concern produces a “fast pitch” for the BJP in Assam to bowl out the already beleaguered Tarun Gogoi government by placing on it the task of “freeing Hindus” from detention camps and even winding up these camps since “suspected foreigners” are kept there along with hardcore criminals. In response, Gogoi has placed the ball in the Centre’s court by claiming Assam has nothing to do with the issue.

According to Gogoi’s interpretation, if the Centre has granted these exemptions then it alone can grant Hindus immunity from legal proceedings on citizenship and, hence, he preferred to have nothing to do with it. This, needless to say, has given the BJP the gumption to accuse the Congress of being anti-Hindu. The political outcome of such legal exemptions, therefore, is a pretty kettle of fish that completely marginalises the case of Muslim migrants being given any exemption on any humanitarian grounds. There is no gainsaying that a large number of Muslim inhabitants of lower Assam districts are victims of ethnic cleansing and natural calamities, deprived of all their belongings and documents. Does not the heart of secular India bleed for such woebegotten religious and linguistic minorities living in Assam and elsewhere?

(The writer is Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong and Vice Chairperson of Barak Human Rights Protection Committee (BHRPC), Silchar, Assam)

The piece was originally published in the Statesmen and available  at http://www.thestatesman.com/news/north-east-page/an-election-ploy/89927.html

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