India’s neighbours haven’t taken kindly to the Citizenship Act

Paran Balakrishnan | Updated on December 18, 2019

Not just Pakistan, but Afghanistan and Bangladesh have also voiced India’s perceived targeting of one community

Just how long has the government been planning its moves on the taking in of minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan? There are strong indications it may have been a while.

For instance, in March 2018, the Reserve Bank of India allowed long-term visa-holders who belonged to minority communities from these countries to purchase one immovable property in India — of course, Muslims needn’t apply.

Then, in early 2019, the Ministry of External Affairs announced that minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan would only have to pay ₹100 if they overstayed their visas for up to 90 days. By contrast, Muslims from these countries would be forced to pay $300 for an overstay of up to 90 days.

The Bangladeshis, in particular, were incensed by this rule — which received wide publicity in November when cricketer Saif Hassan inadvertently overstayed his visa by two days after an India-Bangladesh series. He was forced to pay ₹21,000 before he could get on a plane back to his country. “Following this regulation, Bangladeshi Muslims are now paying a penalty which is at least 200 times higher compared to Hindus if they overstay in India,” commented leading Bangladeshi newspaper Dhaka Tribune. The newspaper reported that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised this issue when she was in Calcutta recently. The Bangladeshis were particularly irate that they were being lumped with Pakistani overstayers, who also have to pay $300.

Biased moves

Both these moves point to one fact: the idea that Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Christians from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan should look upon India as a homeland has been a central part of this government’s thinking for quite some time. And it’s been laying the ground for it by first allowing them to buy property and then overstay their visas at minimal cost. Hindus from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan who overstay more than 91 days will be charged ₹200, and for more than two years, just ₹500. For Muslims, overstaying by over 90 days will be charged $400 and for those staying more than two years, the cost is $500.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has worked on the same logic that drove earlier changes to the RBI rules and overstaying. For Hindus, India is their homeland, and for the other five religions it is a country that will offer them sanctuary.

But it looks now that India underestimated the annoyance that the CAA would arouse both in Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In fact, India has had three diplomatic setbacks in quick succession since the passage of the CAA. The first volley came from the Afghan ambassador in India who, unusually, went public to voice his protest and insist that his government has been “respecting the minorities, especially our great Sikh brothers and sisters.”

Then, came the sudden cancellation by Bangladesh of two scheduled ministerial visits. Then, there is Japanese Prime Minister Shinto Abe, who had been slated to visit Guwahati on December 15. Because riots had erupted in Guwahati, the government felt that Abe might agree to hold the annual talks in New Delhi. But Abe’s team opted to cancel instead, and now the two sides are looking at arranging dates for January.

Displeased leaders

The Afghans, too, have been displeased by the fact that the CAA portrays them as a country where minorities face discrimination and persecution. The Afghan Ambassador, Tahir Qadiry, expressed himself in no uncertain terms when he declared that there has been no persecution of minorities since the Taliban were thrown out of power. He also admitted that Afghanistan had become a frontline country that could be dangerous to live in. “Afghanistan has gone through four decades of war. All the people of Afghanistan have been the victims of this war, all ethnicities, irrespective of who they are,” he said in an interview with a leading Indian magazine.

He particularly singled out for notice Kabul’s treatment of the Sikh community, noting that seats had been reserved for them in the Afghan parliament and that there was even a representative of the Sikh community in the Presidential palace. “Everyone has suffered, but the government is trying to respect everyone equally,” he said.

Bangladesh is one country on the subcontinent that India has been on good terms with in recent years. Sheikh Hasina has overcome opposition in her own country and helped increase cooperation between Bangladesh and India. Indian companies are also investing there, and see ever-widening opportunities in the future. They haven’t been pleased by the strong language coming from government ministers in recent months, that has been directed largely at Bangladeshis.

Our government, for one, might shrug these off as ‘minor issues’ that can be papered over, but that would be unwise and shortsighted.

Published on December 18, 2019

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