Guest post by Nabanipa Bhattacharjee
On 13 September 2017 the Union Home Ministry, following the 2015 order of the Supreme Court, decided to grant citizenship to Chakma and Hajong refugees. Victims of religious persecution in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, the predominantly Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs began immigrating to the north eastern region of India 1960s onwards. The then central government, eventually, moved a large number of these refugees to Arunachal Pradesh; while Arunachal Pradesh is their zone of concentration, a considerable number of Chakmas and Hajongs live in Mizoram and Meghalaya too. The decision of the Home Ministry, however, did not go down well with the indigenous tribal population of Arunachal Pradesh; the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union protested against the move citing threats to life and livelihood of the native inhabitants of the state. On 14 September 2017 the Union government assured the protesters that a middle-ground – between honouring the law and commitment towards protecting the rights of the people of Arunachal Pradesh – would be found.
While we wait for the middle-ground kind of solution of the issue, it is important to understand the reasons behind the government’s initial decision to go ahead with the implementation of the apex court’s order. We can think of three which are: first, commitment to legal principles, second, humanitarian concern for the Chakmas and Hajongs, and third, religious identities of the refugees. About the first two we have nothing much to say, but it is the third reason which is deeply unsettling. For the current BJP led NDA government, of course, this is not the case because ideologically, the RSS-BJP is only too happy to have more Hindus (Hajongs) added to the Hindu parivar (family) and its vote bank; the Buddhists (Chakmas) are treated (appropriated) by the RSS-BJP as nearly Hindu, for Buddhism, among others, is an ancient co-Indic (read Hindu) faith. Legally, the BJP, in addition to the Supreme Court order, hopes to amend – through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 – the Citizenship Act, 1955 which, (if and) when amended, will enable all religious minorities, except for Muslims, fleeing persecution on religious grounds in neighbouring countries to claim, upon completion of a brief period of residence, Indian citizenship. So, whether directed by a 2015 court order or a (future) law, this government is (and expects to be) on a firm legal (plus the ideological) ground regarding the Chakma-Hajong citizenship issue.
The Chakmas and Hajongs, in all likelihood, will get, as they should, their due soon. However, another eastern refugee group, perhaps far more brutally persecuted on the basis of religion in neighbouring Myanmar, may not be so fortunate. We are talking about the Rohingyas, a Muslim majority, stateless people, who have been, for quite some time now, arriving in India – to its northern and north eastern regions – fleeing the military repression unleashed by the Myanmarese state. In the past, India always maintained a civil and open position regarding refugees and asylum seekers from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and so forth. For that matter, it offered shelter to Myanmaris, who fled the last military regime, as well. In most cases the government, with recommendations from the UNHCR, addressed the issues faced by these groups. With the Rohingyas, a large number of whom are registered with the UNHCR too, the earlier humanitarian policy/convention, based on liberal and secular values, has gone for a full toss. The current government, clearly for communal reasons, has refused to grant even asylum status to the Rohingyas because, as Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh says, they are illegal immigrants; their future citizenship is obviously out of the question unless the joint parliamentary committee examining the ideologically crafted, politically motivated Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 rejects it to keep the existing Citizenship Act, 1955 in place.
In fact, the government’s unabashed arrogance and complete disregard for human dignity, rights, compassion and constitutional justice in dealing with this wretched, helpless community has seen its legal counsel press in the Supreme Court for the deportation of close to 40,000 Rohingyas. The government’s legal stand is problematic and unsustainable on two counts: it goes, one, against the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution (Articles 14, 21) and two, certain signed international declarations, conventions and protocols. Anyhow, the three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice, we are certain, will take serious note of these legal lapses in its upcoming detailed hearings; it will benefit additionally by considering the views of agencies like the UNHCR and the NHRC. At the same time, the court must also prepare itself to legally and forcefully counter the government’s absurd argument (accusation) that all Rohingyas are either already fundamentalists/terrorists or on the road of Islamic radicalisation. This has actually been the government’s prime and long-standing defence of the decision to involuntarily deport the confirmed/potential Rohingya Muslim “terrorists” who, we are repeatedly told, pose a grave threat to the nation’s security.
Indeed, when it comes to something as critical as national security and “greater good”, the BJP led government seems to believe that both legal and humanitarian concerns ought to and can be set aside, if required forcibly and violently. National security is important for sure, and the law and order machinery must do its job of identifying and prosecuting the guilty irrespective of their ethnicity and religious affiliation. But to dub an entire community guilty of unlawful activities including plotting to wage war against (Hindu) India without any admissible evidence and fair trial is not only disgraceful but also dangerous. The Sangh Parivar organisations with BJP as the cheerleader have a long history of targeting and campaigning for the deportation of “illegal” Muslim immigrants from Assam, Delhi and elsewhere. The post-truth politics we hear so much about these days was never unknown to these organisations. In case of the Rohingyas, again, it is about to serve its purpose. Moreover, we now have a democratically elected, BJP dominated government to officially manufacture truths/lies on behalf of the Indian nation.
As BJP and the government go about doing what they please, we must, nevertheless, do our bit. Both civil society and the judiciary are not only unwilling to buy such truths/lies but also resist, in a just manner, their spread. The Rohingyas are Muslims, therefore sinners and untouchables for the RSS-BJP. But they are not so for most Indians, and definitely not all Hindus; Hinduism, unless it is the militant RSS variety, neither preaches nor propagates hatred and xenophobia. Moreover, a very large number of Hindus do not require the RSS-BJP for lessons on self-protection and how to relate and respond to fellow human beings; an equal number believes that it is, in fact, the RSS-BJP which is endangering both the spirit of Hinduism and lives of Hindus. This kind of misrepresented Hinduism results in reverse xenophobia in which case a Hindu is targeted either for simply being a Hindu (in many north eastern states) or being a lesser, imperfect (say, meat/beef eating) one. India, and particularly the Indian state, has rarely allowed religion and the clergy to dictate its policies unlike Myanmar or Sri Lanka. Since this seems, quite unfortunately, to be happening now, it is urgent that we rescue it before it is too late. The Rohingya issue can be a starting point, for it has the support of a secular constitution and a well-meaning, human public. By being sensitive to the plight of Rohingyas, India can show, like it did in the past, that a progressive, secular narrative vis-à-vis a (Theravada Buddhist) fundamentalist one is possible. It can confidently tell its people and the world that nothing is more unethical – unrighteous – and violent than indifference to human suffering.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.