While various European nations are facing a massive influx of mostly victims of wars in Syria Iraq Libya and Afghanistan the North-east is also involved in a similar debate over millions of asylum-seekers read illegal migrants from across international borders. The basic difference however is where European society agrees in favour of supporting Muslim refugees most of the influential civil society groups in Assam are agitating against New Delhi’s decision to support non-Muslim asylum-seekers from Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Centre has taken the initiative to grant citizenship to asylum-seekers from neighbouring countries by introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016. The Narendra Modi nbsp;government at the Centre proposed to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities who entered India on or before 31 December 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and orders 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 said documents as the case may be.

The Centre argues that a large number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities in their countries such as Hindus Sikhs Christians Jains Parsis and Buddhists were compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of the same. They entered India either without any valid documents including passportsother travel documents or with valid documents the validity of which had expired.

It is not known how the other parts of the country reacted to the Centre’s latest initiative but most civil society groups in Assam have opposed it. They allege that the Centre and Dispur have actually favoured Hindu nationals from both the neighbouring countries.

nbsp;Saddled already with illegal migrants mostly Muslims from Bangladesh the people of Assam hence expressed their worries over the new development. It may be mentioned that Bangladeshi nationals used to enter India before their country then East Pakistan was born in 1971. During their freedom movement Muktijuddha literally millions of Bangladeshis crossed over to escape persecution by Pakistani forces. Most of them did not return to Bangladesh.

Regarding Bangladeshi asylum-seekers in India there is a compete lack of information and guidelines with the government not knowing how to deal with these people. Unconfirmed reports suggest that no less than 30 million Bangladeshi nationals are presently sheltering in India without proper travel documents.

The All Assam Studentsrsquo; Union which led the historic Assam movement in the 1980s demanding deportation of illegal Bangladeshi nationals has maintained that all illegal migrants from Bangladesh irrespective of their religion or practice must be deported. According to the Assam Accord 1985 illegal Bangladeshi migrants who had entered Assam after 25 March 1971 should be deported. Hence according to the AASU the Centre’s notification was an insult to the historic accord. Similar voices were also raised by the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity the All Bodo Studentsrsquo; Union the Karbi Studentsrsquo; Union and the Matak Studentsrsquo; Union. They have also voiced their anger against New Delhi’s latest move. Various political parties like the All India United Democratic Front the Congress and Left parties have nbsp;expressed resentment.

Now an ally to Sarbananda Sonowal’s BJP – led government at Dispur the Asom Gana Parishad also maintains the same logic. It says more migrants will threaten the identity of indigenous communities by curtailing their political economic and cultural rights. A senior citizen of Assam asked the Prime Minister not to burden the economically and financially handicapped state with a fresh load of millions of unwanted people and urged him to clarify how Hindu immigrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh would be settled in the country.

DN Chakrabarty a former government officer argued that since 1947 Assam had taken the burden of over seven million illegal Muslim migrants from former East Pakistan and another three million Bengali Hindus either as illegal immigrants or unrecognised refugees. He pointed out that ldquo;the problem of Hindu migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot be solved in isolation but practical measures should be taken to permanently resolve the longstanding problem of minority persecution not only in the Indian subcontinent but also across Southeast Asiardquo;.

Asserting that the fear of loss of identity had gripped the Assamese community for the last six decades Chakrabarty urged the Centre ldquo;not to inundate Assam with a fresh crop of refugees even on humanitarian grounds. While the Assamese people have full sympathy for the persecuted minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh they are not in a position to shoulder any extra burden of refugees from Bangladesh or elsewhererdquo; he stated.

India today officially supports nearly half a million asylum seekers from Tibet Myanmar Sri Lanka Bangladesh Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan with a few other countries. nbsp;nbsp;

According to the World Refugee Survey conducted by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants the estimated number of refugees taking shelter in India would be over 456000. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which has an office in New Delhi recognises over 185000 refugees in India. It is well accepted that the actual number should be much higher. Even though the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in the country since 1995 India is yet to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.

Moreover the leaders of Asian countries are yet to be convinced that the UN convention can provide a solution to the refugee problem which is complicated by the growing influx of asylum seekers. The lack of consistent policy and comprehensive laws to deal with refugees in these countries only encourages confusion.

However New Delhi’s refusal to sign the convention on refugees has not reflected in the approach of its citizens towards the asylum seekers. In fact Indians have never been harsh to refugees preferring to deal with these people with mercy and kindness. With the same spirit a few Barak valley-based organisations in Assam extended their support to New Delhi’s initiative in favour of the minorities from Bangladesh.

The Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanway Samittee leaders commented that the minority Bangladeshi nationals in India had rights to citizenship as they had also fought for the country’s freedom. Similar views were expressed by a Guwahati-based forum of like-minded nationalistic citizens that came out with the demand for citizenship status to those religious minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan. However the Patriotic People’s Front Assam urged the Centre to settle these people equally across the country. It argued that these non-Muslim nationals of the Indian subcontinent Bharatbarsa could never be identified as foreigners in India since they had been compelled to adopt Pakistani and Bangladeshi citizenship. These ldquo;residentsrdquo; were not responsible for the division of India in 1947. Moreover the forum reiterated that one must not forget the declaration of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru assuring these families settling down in both parts of Pakistan that they ccould live happily there but they could opt to migrate to India any time if the situation arose.

THE WRITER IS THE STATESMANrsquo;S GUWAHATI- BASEDnbsp;SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE