August 06, 2015

India should grant citizenship to persecuted refugees but make this religion-neutral (Editorial in The Hindu, 6 Aug 2015)

The Hindu August 6, 2015

Refugees as citizens

None can object to the Union government’s move to grant citizenship to undocumented migrants who have come to India fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Not just Hindus but also Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sikhs and Jains are eligible for citizenship under the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act. But ideally, so long as those seeking citizenship are able to prove they are victims of religious persecution in the neighbouring country, their religious persuasion should not be a criterion for grant of citizenship. Minority sects within Islam too face persecution, especially in Pakistan. The real difficulty, however, would be to distinguish between illegal migrants who came to India seeking work opportunities and a better life, and those who fled Pakistan or Bangladesh fearing persecution. In a situation where the Narendra Modi government continues to push for a tough stand against “infiltration” and illegal migration, the religious identity of the migrants should not be the basis for deciding their eligibility for citizenship. Given the past rhetoric of the BJP, which in the 2014 election manifesto described India as the “natural home of persecuted Hindus”, and the election speeches of Mr. Modi himself, in which he asked Bangladeshis to be ready to pack up and leave, the initial fears were that only Hindus, or at the most those adhering to Indian-origin religions, would be chosen for citizenship. That there has been some rethinking is a welcome sign. The government ought to make this religion-neutral.

However, what needs to change more urgently is India’s attitude to refugees in general. India must remain open to all those seeking refuge, and not just those fleeing religious persecution. Although not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, under which it would have been obliged not to send refugees back to a territory against their will if they fear threats to life or freedom, India cannot escape its responsibilities under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to respect the rights and freedoms of all people in its territories. Article 14(1) is categorical in stating that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” Any well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group, or political opinion qualifies for refugee status. Worries about the impact this would have on relations with Bangladesh at a time when a friendly government is in place are misplaced. In any case, India cannot compromise on its commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms. If there is a problem with the proposals, it is that they do not go far enough.