Dhaka Courier

Assam’s Citizenship Registry is not just an ‘internal matter’

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A woman walks on her way to check her name in the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) at Pabhokati village in Morigaon district, in Assam. ( AP )

Early this year, ahead of the general elections, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s head Amit Shah declared his government was determined to expel a total of some 4 million Bangladeshis from Assam. He called them termites, who were eating the grain that should go to the poor and taking their jobs. Once the BJP returns to power, he pledged, all of them will be expelled.

“BJP sarkaar ek ek ghuspaithiye ko chun chun kar matdata suchi se hatane ka kaam karegi.” He declared to thousands of cheering BJP supporters.

Clearly, with the publication of the so-called National Registry of Citizens, the BJP government in Delhi has moved closer to fulfilling its promise. The registry has left out a total of 1.9 million people in Assam –  purportedly ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh – who would not be considered as Indian citizens and be eventually expelled.  The fact that the list now identifies only 1.9 million ‘infiltrators’ – and not the promised 4 million – has left many BJP supporters unhappy. The chief of the local chapter of BJP in Assam has told his despondent followers not to worry. This is not the last word on the citizenship registry, we will not rest until all ‘infiltrators’ are ousted, he said.

Comparing migrants to termites and worse – who don’t deserve to be called humans – is not new. US President Donald Trump has compared migrants coming from Mexico as ‘rapists’ and ‘drug dealers’. Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban has called migrants ‘poison’. In Myanmar, the chief of the national army felt the Rohingya women – all outsiders in his view – are so ugly that his soldiers would not even consider raping them. Nigel Farage of Ukip Party in UK cautioned his countrymen that unless all Muslim immigrants were expelled, they would bring Jihad to Europe.

In other words, migrants – whether they are refugees or asylum seekers – aren’t really normal human beings who deserve respect and should have rights or social dignity. These outsiders are here to change our society – our culture, our language, our religion – and must be stopped before it is too late. Using fear as a potent political stick, politicians in these countries have whipped up anti-immigrant sentiments to garner votes. That this tactic is working is proven by the success enjoyed by the Trumps and Orbans of the world.

India’s BJP and Narendra Modi are cut from the same cloth. They want to build an India for Hindus, where all rights and privileges will be set aside for Hindus. If a migrant is Hindu, he too shall enjoy the same rights and privileges.  Hindus – as well as Christians and Buddhists - from the neighbouring countries, are welcome, but not Muslims. Many of the Muslims who have lived in India for generations now fear that they will be identified as outsiders. Clearly, the sole purpose of singling out Muslims is generating anti-Muslim sentiment and rally Hindus behind BJP’s Hindu Bharat project.

Migrants, whether legal or not – are entitled to certain rights. Numerous international laws and covenants exist that uphold such rights. The UN General Assembly, UN Economic and Social Council and the International Labour Organisation through numerous resolutions and declarations have called upon member states to extend to migrants’ rights “equal to that enjoyed by their own nationals with regard to the protection of human rights and to the provisions of their labour legislation and their social legislation.” Three years ago, in September 2016, the Heads of State and Government who had gathered at UN Headquarters for the UN’s annual General Assembly session adopted with much fanfare the so-called New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, outlining a collective, rights-based response. Among those present at the summit was India’s Prime Minister Modi.

Migrants’ rights are also recognized in most national constitutions, including India’s.   Article 14 of the Indian constitution guarantees that “the State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.

Notwithstanding the solemn declarations at United Nations fora, the BJP government is plowing ahead with its citizenship registry with the sole purpose of denying the rights of millions of people, even though they have lived there for many years. If Amit Shah’s thunderous call for expelling all migrants is carried out, where would these people go? The BJP President Shah was clear in his denunciation – push them out to Bangladesh. Alarmed by such prospects but careful not to annoy its big brother neighbor, the Bangladesh Government has chosen to keep mum. This is India’s internal matter, therefore we have nothing to say, our Foreign Minister has concluded.

Yet, when the question of citizenship and human rights of millions of people are involved, how could this be considered an ‘internal matter’? If this is an internal matter, so is the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims. China’s decision to send hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims to concentration camps for ‘political re-education’ can also be legitimized as an internal matter. Likewise, Australia can claim its decision to expel several thousand refugees to Papua New Guinea as internal. The military crackdown by Pakistan against Bengalis in 1971, that too is internal!

No, none of them is just internal. At least not in the eye of international law and human rights practices. In today’s world, all States are committed to protecting ALL people on their territory and to upholding their human rights. Following the genocides that took place in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Rwanda and the Balkans in the last quarter of the 20th century, the international community instituted a new norm that makes each State responsible for protecting the rights of its people. Called the Right to Protect – also known as R2P – it empowers the international community to intervene in the event of failure by a State to protect its own people.

The citizenship registry in Assam that denies almost two million people their citizenship is the first sign of an impending crisis. Some commentators have tried to assure worried readers that the law allows for appeal and review. The bulk of those denied are Hindus and therefore could still be counted in. Even Muslims have nothing to worry, as the government has assured them of issuing work permits.

To those who want to comfort us by saying “no worries’ I would like them to go back and read Amit Shah’s pledge, Chun Chun Kar hatayega’.   The BJP followers in Assam are ready to weaponize the registry and use it to mount expulsion drives.  As a result of the publication of the registry, those listed as illegal will not only lose their legal rights, they will also face social discrimination at every level. In Hitler’s Germany, Jews were given IDs to be carried at all times. That ID on one’s chest meant he is a Jew, and therefore not eligible for government jobs, get bank loans, or send kids to schools. The scariest thought is that a similar thing might happen to millions of Muslims in Assam.

A comparable situation is unfolding in today’s America. Accused of being illegal, people who have lived here for decades are forcibly taken out of their homes and put on planes that will take them to a country they no longer know. What could be a greater mockery of the great American values and its commitment to international law!

Clearly, citing international law or appealing to the good senses of political leaders will not be enough to stop such violations. There has to be a sustained campaign – both within the country and outside – against any plan to disenfranchise a whole section of the Indian population. The lead must come from within India itself. The international community must also be activated to stand firm against any wholesale expulsion. If BJP delivers on its electoral pledge, most – if not all – of the people now left out of the registry could end up in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is already reeling from a million or so Rohingya refugees.  The least that it could have learned from the Rohingya crisis is that keeping silent or seeking resolution through bilateral routes could leave the country with scars that are too deep to be covered by Band-Aid.

Hence, it is time for Bangladesh to raise its voice.

  • Assam’s Citizenship Registry is not just an ‘internal matter’
  • Vol 36
  • Hasan Ferdous
  • Issue 9
  • DhakaCourier

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