The Partition of India and its subsequent turbulent period threw out millions of Hindu Bengalis from their ancestral homeland and many ended up in the State of Assam. Bengali Hindus fled their homeland as victims of religious persecution perpetrated by their countries, covertly or overtly. For the purpose of our discussion here, as far as Assam and D-Voter list are concerned, there are two important dates which are of supreme relevance—1st January 1966 and 25th March 1971. As per the Assam Accord of 1985, which resulted in insertion of section 6a in the Citizenship Act 1955, all persons coming to Assam from the then territory of East Pakistan up to 1st January 1966 would be entitled to Indian citizenship without any restrictions. For those between 1st January 1966 and 25th March 1971, they would be identified and their names deleted from electoral rolls for a period of 10 years, and thereafter they would be entitled to full citizenship rights. Those coming after 25th March 1971, be it Hindus of Muslims, would not be entitled to remain in Assam and they have to be expelled or deported.
The issue of ‘D-Voter’ has its origin in a series of notifications issued by the Election Commission of India in 1997 and further in 1998. The objective of these notifications was to remove non-citizens, from their respective voter lists. However, in doing so, a new category of voters got formed. Persons of doubtful citizenships were marked as ‘D’ ‘Doubtful’, and were debarred from voting. Subsequently their cases have been referred to the Foreigner’s Tribunals for the determination of genuineness of their citizenship. The irony, however, is that Assam has since then witnessed seven general elections and no protests of any significance have been made from any section of society.
On deeper analysis it becomes clear that there is a serious case for the exclusion of Muslim infiltrators in Assam, and therefore their classification as D-Voter should go unchallenged. On the other hand, as far as Hindus are concerned, their names, if added in the D-Voter list, should be objected to vociferously.
The Supreme Court of India, in Sarbananda Sonowal’s judgement, termed the influx of illegal Muslim immigrants as external aggression and internal disturbance faced by the state of Assam. One look at the census figures of 2011 reaffirms the fact that there has been massive infiltration in these areas. On comparing the figures for districts of Assam bordering Bangladesh, namely Dhubri, Cachar, Karimganj, Golpara and Hailakandi, with the national average, the differences are self-evident. While the national average growth rate of population has been 17.64 per cent, these districts have all recorded over 20 per cent growth of population, with Dhubri posting as high as 24.40 per cent. These figures clearly show that there is still an alarming rise in population in the border districts of Assam, which means that the problem of infiltration is far from over in the state.
On the other hand, as far as the displaced Hindus are concerned, they are victims of religious persecution in Bangladesh. They cannot be termed as illegal migrants. Their cases thus cannot be referred to Foreigner’s Tribunals and thus cannot be deported. Being the victims of religious persecution in East Pakistan, and subsequently in Bangladesh, their presence in Assam is a forced one and for reasons not of their own making. Moreover, discriminatory laws in Bangladesh like the Vested Property Act 1974, which has resulted in large tracts of land of minorities in Bangladesh have been taken away, is also responsible for migration to India.
Presently, the challenge to the exercise of marking persons as D-Voters seems to be that the exercise has not been done in a proper manner and the identification of large numbers of Bengali Hindus as D-Voters is being done erroneously and with questionable intensions by the authorities targeting genuine Hindu citizens of Assam, who have come to India prior to the cut off date of 25th March 1971. The targeting of a large number of genuine citizens of Hindu community as a class seems to be motivated against the Hindu community and the same calls for organised resistance on a social and political level.
Giving displaced Hindus a status of refugee is not a hollow exercise but has far-reaching legal implications. Although there is no refugee law in India, and India is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention of 1951, ‘Refugee’ is defined under the UN Convention as a person who is outside the country of nationality due to fear of persecution on ground of religion, and is unable or unwilling to return. Thus the displaced Hindus are covered under this definition. The refugee issues arising in India are decided by the central government at the executive level. Most significantly, recognition as refugees does not mean that the displaced Hindus’ claim to citizenship would be applicable. Refugees can still claim citizenship by registration (section 5 r/w Rules 3-16) and citizenship by naturalisation (section 6 r/w R17-19).
Recognition status as refugee means that certain basic human rights such as primary education, right of residence, right to work, right to travel, guarantee of food and primary health, access to courts etc will become automatically accessible to these Hindus. But most importantly, the fundamental principles of non-refoulment according to which expulsion of refugee to a territory where he might be again subjected to persecution is forbidden.
This issue needs to be taken up on moral grounds before the NHRC focusing upon the violations of human rights of the displaced Hindus in Assam. These rights are guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ignoring this will only do a disservice to our rights enshrined in the Constitution.
By Bhupender Yadav