As India eases citizenship path for Hindus, Rohingya fear expulsion

REUTERS
JODHPUR / JAIPUR
Published 17.11.2018 00:52
Updated 17.11.2018 01:34

Nar Singh can vividly recall the day in 2014 when Narendra Modi promised to provide refuge to Hindus suffering around the world. The 39-year-old shop owner sat awestruck inside his two-bedroom house in Pakistan's eastern Mirpur Khas district, as Modi's voice boomed from the television during his successful campaign to become India's prime minister.

"If there are atrocities on Hindus in Fiji, where will they go? Should they not come to India? If Hindus are persecuted in Mauritius, where should they go? Hindustan!" Modi declared to a roaring crowd.

He is hopeful he will be granted Indian citizenship, a process that, for immigrants such as Singh, would become much easier under a bill likely to be debated in India's parliament next month. Drafted by the Modi administration, it would tweak the law to relax rules for Hindus and other non-Muslim minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to become Indian citizens.

Critics say the bill is blatantly anti-Muslim and have called it an attempt by the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to increase its Hindu voter base ahead of a national election next year. Protests have erupted in recent weeks in the border state of Assam, where a movement against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh has simmered for decades.

While the BJP denies the bill is discriminatory, it offers no concessions to Muslim asylum-seekers, whatever their predicament. That is evident in the tourist city of Jaipur, some 200 miles east of Singh's new home in Jodhpur, where about 80 Muslim Rohingya families eking out a living share none of his optimism. The group, among the estimated 40,000 Rohingya who live in India after fleeing waves of violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, have recently been asked to submit personal details that they fear will be used to deport them back to the country where they say they face persecution.

"We have no option but to fill these out," said 38-year-old Rohingya community leader Noor Amin as he looked at a stack of forms handed to them by police last week. Amin fled Myanmar in 2008, when he says his madrassa was shut down by the authorities and harsh restrictions on travel for Rohingya made it impossible for him to continue studying.

Bouts of violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine state have continued for many years, culminating in a sweeping military campaign unleashed in August 2017 in response to militant attacks. That crackdown has forced more than 720,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh, in what the United Nations' human rights agency has called "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing." Myanmar has denied almost all the accusations made by refugees against its troops, who it said engaged in legitimate counterinsurgency operations.

The Modi government has said the Rohingya in India are illegal immigrants and a security threat. It deported the first seven Rohingya men back to Myanmar last month, despite warnings by rights groups that conditions in Myanmar were not safe for their return and the move was a violation of international law.

If the Modi government bill passes, critics say it would for the first time seal into law the ruling party's disregard for Muslims, and take the BJP a step closer to achieving its often-stated ambition to make India a Hindu nation.

Modi set up a task force shortly after coming to power in 2014 to speed up the process of granting Pakistani Hindus citizenship. In 2016 the government gave seven states, including Rajasthan, powers to issue citizenship to Hindus and other religious minorities from neighboring Muslim countries, and allowed them to seek driving licenses and national identity cards.

India is home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees, but does not have a legal framework for dealing with them and has not signed the 1951 U.N. Convention for Refugees. Successive governments have dealt with immigrants on an ad hoc basis. While the citizenship bill has been pegged as a humanitarian effort by the Modi government, some experts said the government would draft a refugee policy or sign the convention if it was serious about the issue.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter