While all the noise and light about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) can be heard and felt inside the country, actions related to this new law are more visible on India’s western and eastern frontiers.
Last week, over 200 Hindu families were allowed to cross into Amritsar from the Attari border on a scheduled `pilgrimage’ after being detained by Pakistani authorities in Lahore following reports that they were planning to migrate to India to escape from abductions and attacks on their businesses in the country’s Sindh province.
Though such pilgrimages by Pakistani Hindus to temples and places of worship in India are an annual event, they have come to acquire special significance this year on two counts: First, because of a spate of attacks on members of the Hindu community in Pakistan’s Sindh province, and two and more significant, the decision of the Indian government to award citizenship to persecuted minorities in South Asia, notably Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Simultaneously, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) in Assam, which is spearheading the protests against CAA, has claimed that around 20 lakh Hindu Bangladeshis are poised to become Indians, now that the controversial Act is in place.
KMSS Adviser Akhil Gogoi has quoted the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics as saying that there are around 1.7 crore Hindus, which is 10.7 percent of Bangladesh’s total population and potentially, fit the description of émigrés, as defined by the CAA. "The Act will pave the way for these 1.7 crore people in Bangladesh to come to Assam and get Indian nationality as there is no cut-off date,” he alleged.
Officials in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) have confirmed that the applications of those who want to migrate to India from neighbouring countries have gone up, though no one is willing to provide any numbers.
Pilgrimages by Pakistani Hindus
In Pakistan’s Jacobabad district in Sindh, many Hindus are said to have sold their properties and migrated in recent months for fear of their daughters being kidnapped and forcibly converted. Amarnath, vice-chairman of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (Sindh chapter), told reporters that 50 percent of the Hindu community in Upper Sindh have moved out, many of them to Karachi and some to other countries. After this `exodus’ from Jacobabad, several leading Pakistani politicians have smelt an Indian conspiracy, demanding to know why the Indian mission had been issuing so many visas.
Community leaders in Pakistan, however, state that this is `yatra season’, prompting people to visit India in large groups. However, Amarnath is candid enough to admit that “they are all going on a short-stay visa for pilgrimage or to meet their families. Whether they will all return is not certain.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has said that over the last three years, some 3,000 families have moved to India. In 2019, 300 families had gone to India on pilgrimage and 60 of them stayed back.
Hindus, who have always had a substantial presence in Sind as opposed to Punjab where the community was nearly wiped out during the 1947 communal ethnic cleansing, have, of late, become targets, primarily because of increasing prosperity among some sections of their community. This has made them easy prey for the powerful Wadheras (feudal lords) of the province, a point made repeatedly by members of the Hindu community in media interactions.
In the East, as opposed to the Pakistan border, there is the additional concern raised by the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Both India and Bangladesh have reasons to worry. When more than 19 lakh people, out of 3.29 crore applicants, were excluded from the final NRC list, which was published on August 31, 2019, Bangladesh’s civil society feared that the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Bengali Muslims and Bengali Hindus, from the NRC list would adversely impact the region.
Cross migration in both directions
The concern – going by the decades-old campaign in Assam to drive out “Bengali migrants”, most of whose ancestors had settled in Assam during the colonial era from East Bengal – may not be entirely misplaced from Dhaka’s perspective. There is a fear in Bangladesh that the NRC and the CAA may trigger an exodus of Bengali-speaking Muslims from Assam and create a Rohingya-like crisis.
Confirmation of what could happen has come from the Border Security Force (BSF). In an official release in December 2019, it has noted a substantial increase in the outflow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants to their home country, following the enactment of the CAA.
"There has been substantial increase in outflow of illegal Bangladeshi migrants to the bordering country in last one month... we have recently apprehended 268 illegal Bangladeshi migrants, most of whom were trying to sneak into the neighbouring country," BSF Inspector General (South Bengal Frontier), YB Khurania, told reporters.
The CAA provides for according Indian citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan after six years of residence in India instead of 12 years, which is the norm currently, even if they do not possess any document.
Many organisations in North East India are bitterly opposed to the CAA saying it would nullify the provisions of the Assam Accord of 1985, which fixed March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of illegal immigrants irrespective of religion. But since the enactment of the CAA and the publication of the NRC list in Assam, these fears have been overtaken by cross migration in both directions, the likes of which have not been witnessed since 1947.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
Read his columns here.
First Published: IST