The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, is intended to be supportive of religious minorities facing persecution in neighbouring Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But members of those communities living in the three countries do not seem to welcome the proposed amendment. Only those who have moved to India, and now live their lives as members of the majority community, do.
The Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council) for example, has expressed fears that the proposed amendment would make the communities it represents more insecure, not less. It would embolden political forces that would like to evict them from their lands and force them to leave Bangladesh and cross into India. Organisations like the Oikya Parishad have had to fight back rumours that the bill is the result of their reaching out to friendly political forces in India and to the Modi government.
To anyone familiar with the regional dynamics of the minority question in the Subcontinent, this will not come as a surprise. Developments in India have long affected the plight of minorities across the border. The suspicion of dual loyalty has been a persistent source of anxiety and fear for minority communities in the Subcontinent. There are many instances of communal conflict in India creating a backlash against minorities in Bangladesh.
Given this history, it is not unreasonable for the religious minorities in Bangladesh to expect India to be attentive to their predicament and not make their situation worse. The rhetoric of benevolence and humanitarianism that has been used to justify the citizenship amendment bill must sound contrived to their ears.
In the updating of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — the Supreme Court has set June 30 as the deadline — as well as the citizenship amendment bill, there is an illusion of unilateralism that marks Indian policy. In election campaigns in the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, ruling party politicians including Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak incessantly about expelling “Bangladeshis”. Then they opportunistically change their rhetoric in the Barak Valley where a fundamentally different set of memories of the Partition prevails because a large number of people displaced by the Partition live there. In diplomatic meetings with Bangladesh, the same politicians are reluctant to broach the subject of unauthorised migration. They pretend that India has no such problem with Bangladesh. The NRC exercise and the citizenship amendment bill, in their eyes, are meant only to serve domestic constituencies; they do not belong to the high table of diplomacy and strategic affairs.
One can hardly blame Bangladeshi officials for treating the NRC exercise as a matter of Indian domestic politics with no implications for their country. Even as the process nears completion, the official position of Bangladesh remains that there are no unauthorised Bangladeshi migrants in Assam. Senior Bangladeshi officials claim that India has never raised the question of deporting illegal immigrants in discussions at any level with the Bangladeshi government. India has not challenged this position.
This illusion of unilateralism is the main reason why people whose names will not appear in the final NRC in Assam are likely to face a gloomy future. They have long been subjects of suspicion of being false nationals. The NRC will now officially bestow on them the status of stateless citizens or of non-citizens with no rights. It is remarkable that the Supreme Court, which has mandated and monitored the updating of the NRC, has not been more proactive on this aspect of the question.
The Indian approach to the minority question has not always been so insensitive to regional dynamics. The illusion of unilateralism is of relatively recent vintage. Indeed, the NRC exercise and the citizenship amendment bill — and the illusion of unilateralism driving them — would have been incomprehensible to political leaders of the Partition generation.
It is worth recalling that the landmark Nehru-Liaquat Pact of April 1950 was a bilateral agreement between the two governments on the security and the well-being of minorities. Its main goal, in the words of diplomatic historian Pallavi Raghavan, was to reassure “minority populations of their security within the country and to discourage them from migrating”. The two governments not only made a commitment to mutual accountability, the Pact even provided an institutional infrastructure — including provincial and district minority boards — to address the concerns of threatened minorities.
To be sure, the relief that the Nehru-Liaquat Pact would afford proved to be temporary. Yet thanks to this Pact, large numbers of minority migrants who had crossed the Partition’s border because of communal violence felt encouraged to return to their homes on the other side. The bilateral premise of the process may be more relevant today than we recognise.
In the world of diplomacy, the bilateral way of approaching the question of minorities has a long history. Even the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 — conventionally thought of as the foundational event of the modern international state system — included safeguards for religious minorities. Concluding minority treaties was the instrument of choice for the protection of minorities during the early part of the 20th century. This was when the unraveling of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman empires had led to the emergence of a number of new minority situations in the reconfigured political space. In the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the great powers assigned the task of enforcing the minority protection clauses of those treaties to the League of Nations. By the time the Nehru-Liaquat Pact was signed, the United Nations had replaced the League of Nations. But the memory of the League of Nation’s way of dealing with the minority question influenced the thinking of the leaders of the Partition generation.
The events that led to the outbreak of the Second World War discredited the League’s system of minority rights protection. The UN Charter therefore makes no reference to minority rights. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rights of minority communities have featured in a number of bilateral agreements. The security of ethnic Russians that became a minority in many of the former Soviet republics is now a matter of concern for Russia’s foreign policy. Bilateral treaties between Russia and a number of these countries include provisions on minority protection. The European Union also emphasises the bilateral mode of addressing tensions arising out of the minority question.
Abandoning the illusion of unilateralism may be the first step in creating a durable regime of minority protection in the subcontinent. If India continues to hide behind the unilateral illusion, future historians will blame political leaders of the post-Partition generations for being unwitting accomplices to redrawing the demographic map of South Asia.
In an interview he gave just before the end of his term in office in 2016, Mizanur Rahman, the then chairman of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh, painted a grim picture of the condition of minorities in that country. He was very critical of “the way the religious minorities are being treated” and the response of the Bangladeshi state institutions. “If it goes on,” he said, “I think within 15 years there will be no Hindus in Bangladesh.” This would be an ironic vindication of the two-nation theory that India otherwise rejects.