Migration of Hindu refugees to India is not just a continuing hangover of Partition or the Bangladesh liberation war, as many here are wont to believe. It is a problem alive and kicking, a fallout of anti-minority fundamentalist violence running amok in both Bangladesh and Pakistan. The looming threat is such that 10 lakh or more Hindu refugees may leave everything and rush headlong towards Indian borders within a year or two. The targeting of Hindus for murderous attacks in Bangladesh has been up by several notches of intensity in the last few months. The Sheikh Hasi government has been friendly to India, but it is definitely struggling to keep the Islamists at bay. Hindus there are down to 8 percent of the population; any seismic change in the politics of Bangladesh and they may well go for another large-scale exodus. The likely spillover across the border into Assam is not a far-fetched a threat, rather, it is a distinct possibility the State government needs to factor in its projections. Now that the rendra Modi government is moving deliberately to grant citizenship to Hindu refugees, the politics in Assam is set to undergo more convulsions in the coming days. Still groaning under the burden of over 40 lakh economic refugees who are beginning to domite its political agenda, will this State again shoulder alone the load of more foreigners coming in due to ‘religious persecution’? The Centre will welcome them with special rights and facilities, and expedite getting Indian citizenship. But will it eble them to move anywhere within India, or will they mostly settle in the State they first came to? If it is the latter, Assam will have a huge problem accommodating them. This country, after all, never had a broad policy for refugees — which is why Chakmas in Aruchal are still unwanted, why Tibetan and Myanmarese refugees here still live in the shadows. The Central government may make a special case for ‘minority’ refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Pakistan, and thereby seek to tweak the citizenship laws — but coorditing with State governments to settle them is another matter altogether.
The AGP as the BJP-led government’s alliance partner in Assam now faces the prospect of living with neutralization of the Assam Accord provision that anyone migrating to the State illegally after March 25, 1971 must be deported irrespective of religion. The rendra Modi dispensation soft-pedaled this issue in the run-up to assembly polls in Assam, but after bagging this State, it is going full steam to fulfill its promise in 2014 to its core countrywide electorate. The BJP has long been unequivocal in its stand that India is the ‘only tural home for persecuted Hindus’, that this country has a ‘responsibility’ towards them. In fact, India may not have a defined policy towards refugees, but on the ground, it has been the most liberal country for refugees in the world. Jews, Zoroastrians, Ahmadiyas and many other persecuted sects have made India their home over centuries. Nepal may now blow hot and cold in its relations with India, but its citizens have been free to live and work anywhere in this country. Few other countries have accepted refugees in as open and matter-of-fact manner as Bharatvarsha or India has. To liberal thinkers and activists, any move to differentiate between refugees in terms of religion is athema, a closing of the once generous Indian spirit. They point out that Muslim refugees are not just coming to India for economic opportunities, they may be persecuted as well, as are Shias, Sufis, Bahais, Ahmadiyas and other sects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Should Indian doors be closed to them? To be fair, the Modi government’s bill to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955, aims to grant Indian citizenship after seven years and without papers to persecuted Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis, apart from Hindu refugees. It remains to be seen whether Rajya Sabha will pass the bill or force the government to widen its ambit further. The cabinet decision to issue long term visas to such refugees, allow them to buy residential properties and accommodation for self-employment, open bank accounts, procure PAN card, Aadhaar card and driving license and provide other facilities are all welcome steps. But any piecemeal move to cater to only Hindu or ‘Indian origin’ denomition refugees, which smacks of a rrow agenda, will not do. Civil society and student organizations in Assam are right in opposing any differentiation of refugees on religion basis. It is the principled stand to take, given the State’s inclusive ethos. The Central government needs to think of its refugee policy in much broader terms.