India a Home Only to Hindus? New Refugee Policy Exacerbates Tensions
Number: 8 | 12/2016 | ISSN: 1862-359X
A new citizenship amendment bill introduced in the Indian parliament in July 2016 proposes easing the path to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In omitting Muslims from this provision, however, the bill has rekindled religious and ethnic tensions in India and South Asia.
India is home to one of the largest refugee populations in South Asia, but does not have an asylum law. It has also not signed the 1951 UN convention on refugees. In the absence of formal mechanisms, India has to date dealt with refugees on a case-by-case basis. The proposed amendment seeks to formalise this process.
The amendment bill, however, does not include Muslim groups such as the Shias and Ahmedis being discriminated against in Pakistan, the Rohingyas being persecuted in Myanmar, and undocumented Bangladeshi Muslims living in India.
By specifically naming Muslim majority countries as the countries of origin for refugees, the bill suggests that it is only in those countries that minorities are persecuted, and thus fuels anti-Muslim sentiment. This tacit institutionalisation of the named countries as religious persecutors also does not bode well for neighbourly relations in South Asia.
More crucially, the tabling of the bill is a step towards the fulfilment of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party’s (BJP) 2014 election promise to make India “the natural home of persecuted Hindus around the world.” By reopening a debate about Indian identity that has its roots in colonial times, the bill risks negatively affecting minority relations in India and its neighbouring countries.
EU decision makers cautiously welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s formation of a majority government in the Indian parliament in 2014, after decades of coalition governments. They hoped for faster decision-making that would pave the way for closer economic ties. With India’s refugee regime now reflecting majoritarian tendencies, however, they need to pay equal attention to political developments, especially in the context of increasing majoritarian nationalisms the world over.
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