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Citizenship for Hindu refugees raises questions

Come Independence Day — celebrated in India with great fanfare on Aug. 15 each year — and Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan living illegally in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled nation will receive the gift of a lifetime — Indian citizenship!
It’s not a surprise gift, though; during the 2014 election campaign Prime Minister Narendra Modi had openly promised to throw open India’s doors to “persecuted Hindus” from any part of the world.
A newspaper has reported Home Ministry officials working furiously on a bill to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to give citizenship to non-Indian Hindus, which will be tabled in the monsoon session of Parliament starting on July 18 so that the legislative process is completed by Independence Day.
But being so kind and generous only to Hindus runs contrary to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits discrimination between citizens on grounds of religion. Article 15 surely covers also those who are about to be given citizenship doesn’t it. Global laws too prohibit bestowing favors to refugees on the basis of their religion.
The beneficiaries of the Modi administration’s religion-specific largesse are an estimated 200,000 Hindus from Bangladesh living illegally mainly in Assam and West Bengal and around 400 Hindus from Pakistan scattered across Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Campaigning in West Bengal in 2014 Modi had publicly declared that those migrants from Bangladesh were “our brothers and as the sons of Mother India would be given citizenship rights.” In the same breath, he warned non-Hindu refugees to “pack their bags” to go back to Bangladesh. Modi sang the same tune in Assam while seeking votes.
Modi kept his word. On Sept. 7, 2015, Indian government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) issued a release stating: “… there are reports that a number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities in those countries, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists, were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution… Hence the government had decided, on humanitarian considerations, to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities who have entered into India on or before Dec. 31, 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India without such documents or after the expiry of those documents, as the case may be.”
The notification legitimized the stay of non-Muslim migrants who entered India until as recently as Dec. 31, 2014 with or without proper documents. At one stroke, tens of thousands of Hindu migrants living illegally in India were given political asylum using religion as a yardstick.
The notification allowed Hindu migrants to live in India without passports or visas and cleared the decks for giving them citizenship. Hence the current exercise by the Home Ministry to prepare a bill amending the Citizenship Act, 1955. The 1955 Act is being virtually rewritten to accommodate the illegal migrants who will be spared the trouble of even having to apply for citizenship — they will get it on a platter!
Under the existing Act, foreign nationals interested in Indian citizenship are required to apply for citizenship after staying in the country for seven years without a break.
The proposed legislation clearly violates Article 15. Moreover, the rationale for the 2015 notification and granting citizenship to migrants is full of holes. If India’s heart really bleeds for victims of religious persecution in its neighborhood and is moved by humanitarian considerations as the notification claims, why New Delhi is doing nothing for the thousands of Rohingyas living illegally in India?
Outspoken Indian diplomat Satyabrata Pal says that the Modi government’s move “reinforces its political bias against Muslims and chips away at the secular cast of India. It permits its leaders to tell the diaspora that they have at one fell swoop settled a problem secular dispensations dithered over, taking Bangladeshi Hindus into the fold and driving the Muslims out. And it can tell the gullible, here and abroad, that it has acted entirely on a humanitarian impulse.”
Another alarming aspect is the message New Delhi is sending to a faithful and tested ally like Bangladesh. The notification and gift of citizenship to Hindus from Bangladesh amounts to accusing Sheikh Hasina, the pro-India premier of Bangladesh, of failing in her duty to protect Hindus.