It is a peculiar understanding of secularism that has provoked so many leaders of the opposition, including BSP’s Mayawati on Thursday, to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which proposes to allow religious minorities of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to become citizens of India. Muslims, who constitute the majority in these countries, are excluded, as they comprise almost entirely economic migrants who have been the cause of much unrest in India, particularly the states of the North East. This is entirely a pragmatic and humane decision and certainly does not reflect any discrimination against Muslims. And it is not that persecuted Muslims are not given refuge in India as is evident from the presence of writer Taslima Nasreen, who ironically enough has been opposed by none other than the secular lot. The same goes for those that have fled from the troubles in Afghanistan over the decades and live peacefully in several parts of India.
It is also true that in some states, primarily West Bengal, migrants from Bangladesh have been exploited as votebanks by parties such as the TMC and the Communists. It is only natural, therefore, that there is resistance against such persons being divested of their voting rights. In the North East, there is concern also about non-Muslim Bengalis whose numbers could upset the fractious ethnic balance that has always been a cause of political turmoil, even anti-national movements. In the face of protests, the proposed bill also seeks to keep the asylum seekers out of this part of the country.
In actual fact, the progress made by Bangladesh in recent years has considerably diminished the inflow of economic refugees. The matter would not have so aggravated the present government had it not been for the influx of Rohingyas, who have pushed through Bangladesh from Myanmar. Although genuinely victims of persecution, they are of Bangladeshi origin and require to be resettled in their traditional homes. With many groups among them having been radicalised due to the conflict in Myanmar, they pose a threat to India’s security as well as communal harmony. As such, they cannot be allowed to sneak through because of shortcomings in the law.
It is also true that almost all Bangladeshis that have made it into India over the past many years have more or less integrated with local societies and fill crucial gaps in the workforce. The present move to identify ‘foreigners’ and create a National Register of Citizenship will impact them considerably. This could lead to considerable suffering, but there is certainly no question of forcibly pushing out those who are already here. But, there needs to be clarity on who is an Indian, particularly to deal with challenges likely to appear in the future. The government needs to be legally empowered to do this.