The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC), National Population Register (NPR) and detention centres are in the forefront of the country’s politics today. Many important issues like economic slowdown, industrial deceleration, agrarian unrest and joblessness have been are relegated to the background.
The BJP’s obsession with its unfinished ideological agenda and its haste in trying to railroad it is intriguing. It is in the first year of its second term and has more than four years to deal with such controversial issues. Its ham-handed abrogation of Article 370 is still rankling. There are no signs of the return of normalcy in Jammu & Kashmir for over four months now. Yet, trying to steamroll CAA, NRC, NPR, etc, in such haste is perplexing politics.
After independence, the Indian government passed the Citizenship Act in 1955. This Act, and its subsequent amendments, provided many ways of obtaining Indian citizenship. But there was no provision for unauthorised migrants in India to obtain Indian citizenship. India is also not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and does not have a national policy on refugees. All refugees are classed as ‘illegal migrants’.
The present amendment to the Citizenship Act is undertaken for fast-tracking the naturalisation process to individuals belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan only, and not to other groups of migrants.
India has been hosting refugees regularly since a very long time, particularly since independence. India has hosted refugees from Tibet since 1959; from Bangladesh since 1971; Chakmas, a Buddhist ethnic minority from erstwhile East Pakistan, since 1963; and refugees from Sri Lanka since 1983, 1989 and 1995 due to the civil war. Conflict in Afghanistan since the 1980s and Myanmar’s instability of the 1990s prompted further waves of migration. As per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of 2014, over 2 lakh refugees are living in India.
It is good that India proposes to have a definitive policy on its illegal migrants. But, it should be based on the standards followed internationally, or even if it is specific to India, it should be applicable equitably to all migrants as per the Constitution or the treaties with the countries concerned, if any. The Act fits with the government’s move to make religious persecution as the principal ground to confer citizenship. So it does not apply to migrants belonging to the Muslim communities in these countries, who are seeking asylum in India as well as to the refugees of other countries like Tibetan Buddhists and Sri Lankan Hindus living in India for years.
Infringing upon Rights
The new Act deliberately uses the term ‘migrant’ to deprive these refugees the help of international refugee law. The Act also infringes upon the right to equality, which is guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution that prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, caste, creed, sex or place of birth, and other fundamental freedoms. In contravention here, it deals with refugee status without any uniformity of law and policy.
The UNHCR estimated in September 2014 that there are 109,000 Tibetan refugees, 65,700 Sri Lankan, 14,300 Rohingyas, 10,400 Afghan, 746 Somali and 918 other refugees who are registered with the agency in India. The Indian government does not officially recognise these refugees, but it allows the UNHCR to extend de facto protection, including for Muslim refugees. The current Act is unconstitutional as it must include Islam along with other faiths in its ambit, or it must have a religion-free migrant or refugee definition.
Absence of Refugee Law
In India, the absence of national legislation on refugees has placed refugee rights in a vacuum. The country with such large illegal migrant population, and from such diverse countries, needs to have a coherent policy for unlawful migrants. Such rights cannot be regarded as privileges that can only be claimed by those refugees who are politically advantageous for the power structures in the country. The UN Refugee Convention could be considered as the basis of such domestic refugee law. India may make modifications or changes in tune with its national requirements and the principles of its Constitution.
India could redefine a model of global standing for refugee issues in the world if only it chooses a different path. For example, it could use the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to consider the 2004 South Asian Declaration on Refugees and the Eminent Persons Group’s proposed National Model Law, which formulated an ideal law on refugees with global human rights standards. This law is based on international conventions and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees.
India needs to go for a refugee law for maintaining its territorial integrity; for securing the porous borders; for ensuring homeland security; for evading international pressure in the name of refugee rights; and for establishing its high benchmarks of respecting international human rights. It cannot have an Act of just extending citizenship rights to some non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan only, leaving the other majority migrants in the lurch and sending them to detention camps.
The present government intends to prepare an NRC from all States spending huge money and time of the nation. The people would have to go through the fire of proving their citizenship and all this to catch just less than 5% of illegal migrants. And then send them to detention camps as no country would take them in and India does not have scope to send them to other countries.
Finally, after all of it, the government anyway has to keep the migrants, in the detention camps and take care of them forever. Why and what better difference the whole humongous effort makes from the present situation is not comprehensible.
Deterred by large-scale opposition to the CAA and the defeat in Jharkhand, the BJP government is sidestepping the NRC proposal for the time being and pretending to opt for NPR, a compilation of ‘usual’ inhabitants of the country, and then the regular decennial Population Census of 2021 on its heels. It is not known why there is a need for so many overlapping surveys in these days of sophisticated information technology. One data bank can be created to serve all the purposes, if it is not for the political skulduggery and the obvious religious proclivities.
(The author is a freelance journalist)