Newly installed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is being anxiously watched over the treatment of millions of non-Hindu refugees and asylum seekers who have made their homes in the country for decades.
It isn’t certain. It is very difficult at this stage to forecast what Modi will do in any area - first because he is turning himself into a responsible statesman so doesn’t want to do anything extreme, second because there are forces in the Bharitiya Janata Party that will try to make him more hardline, and third because he may himself want to take hard lines but may not want to show this till later in this five-year government or till the next one. He has also expressed a public wish for good relations with neighboring Bangladesh.
But while campaigning for the 16th Lok Sabha election held in April and May, Modi publicly assured voters in eastern India that illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh must leave the country, at the same time pointing out that Hindu migrants from Bangladesh would be welcomed as refugees on Indian soil. Unconfirmed reports suggest that no less than 20 million Bangladeshi nationals are in India without valid documents.
“I want to warn from here, brothers and sisters write it down, that after May 16, we will send these Bangladeshis beyond the border with their bags and baggages," Modi told a rally in West Bengal.
The BJP from which Modi springs is widely regarded as the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist organization whose aims include the protection of India's Hindu cultural identity, and what it perceived to be the appeasement of Muslims and Pakistan. Although the party has moderated its early radicalism as it grew in size and power, its Hindu nationalism aims remain.
Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan, was a part of India before 1947. During its freedom movement, or Muktijuddha in 1971, when Pakistan split in half to create Bangladesh, millions of Bangladeshi people entered Indian territory to escape Pakistani forces attempting to reunify the country. Most didn’t return home.
Deporting illegal Bangladeshi nationals from India has remained a matter of debate ever since. Assam Province in northeastern India, which shares a border with Bangladesh, witnessed a six year student movement that culminated with an accord signed by the representatives of the All Assam Students Union and the Indian Union government then led by the late Rajiv Gandhi in 1985. The accord stipulates that all Bangladeshi nationals who entered India after 25 March 1971 are subject to deportation.
Certainly India has a major refugee problem. As New Delhi has yet to have a complete list of its own nationals in various parts of the country, confusion continues regarding the number of actual Bangladeshi migrants as well as those from other neighboring nations.
India also supports nearly half a million asylum seekers from Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, etc. According to the World Refugee Survey conducted by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the estimated number of refugees other than Bangladeshis taking shelter in India number around 456,000.
Although the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has recognized only 185,300 refugees in India, the actual numbers are obviously much higher. Although the UNHCR functions from an office in New Delhi, India is yet to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention that created it and has not ratified the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees.
More shockingly, India does not have a national legal framework to distinguish the asylum seekers with an aim to protect their interest. Refugees are legally allowed to enjoy some basic rights including life, liberty, equality, healthcare, primary education, work etc. although that may not entitle them to that status permanently. Once the refugee voluntarily indicates a preference to return to his/her country of origin or any other country of choice and the circumstances that made him/her a refugee are resolved or improved significantly, the asylum seeker would cease to receive those rights.
For Indian officials and citizens, any foreign national without a visa is an illegal migrant, because New Delhi still abides by the Foreigners Act 1946 which deals with the entry, stay and exit of all foreigners. This act, which does not give space to refugees, simply empowers the authority to detect and deport all foreign nationals without valid documents.
Nonetheless India remains a place of refuge for millions of foreign nationals. A major exodus of Tibetan Buddhists took place in 1959 when they fled what was then their country following the aggression of the Han Chinese.
Led by their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, more than 100,000 Tibetans arrived in India in groups following the invasion. Today they run a government-in-exile at Dharmasala in Himachal Pradesh in north India. Refugees from Chinese persecution continue to arrive in small numbers although Nepal and other countries, succumbing to Chinese wishes, attempt to stop them and send them back.
They were followed by a huge group of Christian Chin refugees from Myanmar who entered India during the 1988 democracy uprising through the Christian-dominated north-eastern province of Mizoram.
The migration from the Burmese States of Chin and Arakan continues to today. India has nearly 100,000 Burmese refugees, many of them recognized by the UNHCR office in New Delhi. Similarly around 120,000 Sri Lankan Hindus migrated to the south Indian province of Tamil Nadu as they faced continuing persecution by Sri Lankan government seeking to end anti-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) operations.
Regarding the volume of illegal Bangladeshi nationals in India, the statistics vary from 2 million to 20 million settlers. George Fernandez, as a Union minister in 2003 asserted that there were no fewer than 20 million. Assam’s former Governor SK Sinha also estimated that India is the home of over 20 million illegal Bangladeshi nationals.
India shares a 4,000 km land border with Bangladesh, the longest among other neighbors including Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma. The people of Assam believe that the population of illegal Bangladeshi nationals, who speak Bengali, is increasing in an alarming rate as they continue entering India through the porous border, to the point where it could change the demography of Assam, with a population of 30 million. The indigenous Assamese have made it clear that anybody from Bangladesh should leave.
“We want all illegal Bangladeshi nationals who have entered India after 25 March 1971 to go, said Samujjal Bhattacharya, a leader of the All Assam Students Association. “The historic Assam Accord has not made any discrimination regarding the religion of the Bangladeshi people living in India and we want the accord to be implemented in true spirit.”
Bhattacharya strongly opposes the division of illegal migrants in the name of religions. He terms it as a populist policy of BJP leaders including Modi and an inherent agenda by the saffron party to increase its traditional Hindu vote bank in the country.
Meanwhile, the Patriotic Forum of Assam argues that while Hindu Bangladeshi nationals are migrating to India to escaping Bangladeshi religious persecution, Muslims are economic migrants, seeking better opportunity here. The organization is demanding a scientific refugee policy in India, so that the issue of illegal Bangladeshi nationals in India can be addressed properly.
“Unless there is a recognized policy, we cannot distinguish between the illegal migrants and refugees,” said Rupam Barua, president of the forum, adding that the Indians as a whole would expect a complete legal framework in this regard from the new government at the Center.
“Although we have full sympathy towards the Hindu Bangladeshi nationals who left their country because of relentless religious persecution, we can do little,” Barua said.
Nava Thakuria is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel