Wednesday, Dec 07, 2022

Protesters’ fears about CAA founded on history, accumulated experience

This is not the first time that a major country has adopted an ideology-driven refugee policy. There are lessons to be drawn from the experience of countries that had adopted similar policies before.

Citizenship Amendment Bill, Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019, CAB, CAB 2019, CAB protests, Citizenship Bill protests, Indian Express This is not the first time that a major country has adopted an ideology driven refugee policy.

The raison d’être for the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 is fundamentally ideological. Home Minister Amit Shah’s claim in the Rajya Sabha that “crores of people” belonging to religious minorities are persecuted for their faith in neighbouring countries, does not exactly sound like a statement based on his supporting officials’ analysis of information from some hitherto unknown database on religious persecution.

Bangladesh’s foreign minister, A K Abdul Momen, has said the “allegations of minority repression in Bangladesh” are false. However, Momen’s challenge to Shah that he visit Bangladesh for a few months to see for himself the amity between religious groups is naïve. Facts and figures that are figments of an inflamed ideological imagination cannot be refuted by empirical evidence.

The idea that even 70 years after the Partition, Hindus who find themselves on the “wrong” side of the border must be recognised as people crossing into India to join the nation to which they “naturally” belong, is a foundational tenet of Hindu nationalism. Dutch historian Willem van Schendel calls it the narrative of homecoming.

The idea of India as a homeland for Hindus can be traced back to some of the earliest ideological tracts that many in the current political establishment consider sacred. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has often asserted that, “no Hindu can be a foreigner in India”. He has said this even in Assam, where both migration from eastern Bengal and opposition to it began well before the Partition — an important bit of regional history that does not interest many Indians.

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This is not the first time that a major country has adopted an ideology-driven refugee policy. There are lessons to be drawn from the experience of countries that had adopted similar policies before. Ideologically-driven refugee policies seem especially prone to be plagued by the law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, our country’s current snap, uninformed, and policy-illiterate style of law-making does not allow for learning from the experience of others.

The pitfalls of such policies are well understood by those who study them. The best examples come from the US during the Cold War. For nearly three decades, the Cold War shaped the very definition of a refugee in US law. A refugee was defined as a person fleeing “from a communist-dominated country or area”.

The Cuban Revolution of 1959, when Fidel Castro’s guerrillas ousted the US-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, prompted a large-scale emigration of Cubans to the US. Not unlike India’s recent Citizenship Amendment Act, the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 was adopted to give permanent resident status to Cubans who had lived in the US for a year even if a person had entered the country illegally. Like India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, it put Cubans on a fast track to citizenship.


During a time when there was little public support for immigration, anti-communism provided the ideological rationale for these policies. Cubans were supposedly voting with their feet. Their making an exit choice testified to the failures of communism and the moral superiority of capitalism and American democracy. US Ambassador Arthur Goldberg told the UN General Assembly that “many thousands of Cubans have seized every available means of transportation which will take them from Cuba to the United States, but no crowds are pounding on Cuba’s gates and seeking admission”. Cold War ideologues expected Cuban exiles to become strategic assets for the US, that they would commit themselves to the task of overthrowing the Castro regime, and would one day return to Cuba.

Things didn’t quite turn out that way. The Cuban population in the US multiplied nearly six-fold between 1960 and 1970 — from 79,000 in 1960 to 4,39,000 in 1970. It soon became clear that very few of them were refugees in the strict sense of the term; they were not escaping persecution, nor were they leaving Cuba because of “a well-founded fear of persecution”. Most Cubans who arrived in the US after the Cuban Adjustment Act were, according to Cuban-born anthropologist Virginia Dominguez, “consumer refugees”.

“Cooperating with the Enemy” was the title of an article on this subject by former Harvard University professor Jorge J Dominguez. Unlike the East German government that built the Berlin Wall to prevent emigration, Castro allowed people to leave the island from time to time. He even claimed that far from inflicting damage on his country, “the US had taken from this country many lumpen proletarians and many lazy people”. While that can be dismissed as political rhetoric, there is ample evidence to suggest that the Castro government used emigration as an escape valve — to export surplus labour as well as political opposition. Meanwhile, since the Cuban Adjustment Act allowed Cuban immigrants to become permanent residents, which put them on a path to US citizenship, as time went on, Cuban exiles had little reason to remain activists seeking the overthrow of the Castro regime. Thus, the US policy toward Cuba, said Dominguez, was rarely made by the US alone. Castro in effect “forced the US government to surrender to Cuba some US sovereign prerogatives to set US immigration policies.”


What are the chances of the Citizenship Amendment Act fueling new waves of Hindu emigration from Bangladesh, as people in Assam and Northeast India now fear? Signaling plays an important role in encouraging or discouraging migration flows. The CAA will be a powerful signal to the remaining Hindu population of Bangladesh to choose the exit option.

Simply to assert that the resistance is misinformed because the law has the cut-off date of December 31, 2014 is a misunderstanding of the history of seven decades of post-Partition migratory flows. After all, with the CAA, Delhi has just got rid of the cut-off dates that were agreed upon in the Assam Accord.

A previous amendment to our citizenship laws was a response to the reality that when Bangladesh became independent in 1971, it refused to take responsibility for migrants who had moved to India during the Pakistan years. Bangladesh agreed to take responsibility only for those who entered India after March 25, 1971, when the Pakistani military crackdown of the liberation struggle in East Pakistan began. India was then faced with a accompli. It had to accept those who entered India before 25, 1971.

Is this a case of a smaller neighbour forcing India to surrender some of its sovereign prerogatives to set immigration policies? That an important date in the annals of Pakistan has acquired such a crucial place in the law and practice of citizenship in India — most recently in the context of the National Register of Citizens — is quite telling.

The protesters are right to fear that by the time the cut-off date of December 31, 2014 becomes irrelevant — giving way to another provisional cut-off date — it will be too late for Assam. Past history and the accumulated wisdom of academic literature is on the side of the protesters.


Baruah is the author of the forthcoming book In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (Stanford University Press, 2020)

First published on: 17-12-2019 at 12:42:22 am
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