Tahira Ahmad was hoping to celebrate this week the end of a 12-year wait to legally call India her home. A September 7 notification issued by the Narendra Modi government has shattered that dream.
The home ministry order, for the first time in decades, allows Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who are now in India, to stay in the country indefinitely without worrying about either passports or visas.
But the move, dubbed “humanitarian” by the government, leaves out communities like Pakistan’s Ahmadiyas, to which Tahira belongs. This is one of a series of omissions that experts warn could backfire both on India’s image as a welcoming nation and on the very groups it seeks to help.
The Indian Ahmadiya community, which has an estimated strength of 100,000, had in February written to Modi seeking shelter for members of the minority Islamic sect fleeing repeated attacks in Pakistan.
“We feel betrayed, discriminated against for no fault of ours,” said Maqbool, Tahira’s husband and an Indian national from Qadian, a town near Amritsar that hosts a large chunk of India’s Ahmadiya community. “What have we done wrong?”
The home ministry order overnight granted nearly 200,000 till-then “illegal” immigrants who had entered this country by December 31, 2014, the right to stay in India for the rest of their lives.
They are now exempt from key provisions of the 1946 Foreigners Act, which required them to leave when their visas expired, and the 1920 Passports (Entry into India) Act, which needed them to hold a valid passport at the point of entry into India.
Indian law allows foreign nationals here to apply for citizenship after staying in the country continuously for seven years. So, the notification also paves the way for the beneficiary refugees to become Indian citizens.
The move sparked celebratory rallies along the India-Bangladesh border in Bengal. For many Hindus and Buddhists who had fled religious persecution in Bangladesh, the order means an end to the constant fear of harassment, arrest and even deportation.
But the notification could prove double-edged diplomatically, as it amounts to India telling its neighbours that it is convinced they can’t protect their minorities, rather than pressuring them to do so, said Deb Mukherjee, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh.
“Imagine how we would feel if Pakistan were to do the same for minority communities in India,” Mukherjee said. “This isn’t a good move at all.”
Also, the order pointedly ensures that its benefits reach only select minority groups from the two neighbouring countries. It leaves out other communities from these and other regional nations that have been persecuted for religious, ethnic or political reasons and have sought shelter in India.
Over 150,000 Sri Lankan Tamils have taken refuge in southern India and 120,000 Tibetans are spread across pockets in India while they seek a resolution to their political battle with China.
The notification is also silent about the 10,000-odd Hindus and Sikhs who fled to India from Afghanistan during its three-decade-long series of wars.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, so it can legally pick and choose among asylum seekers and refugees and send back those it does not want. Article 32 of the convention bars countries from expelling refugees.
New Delhi is also a rare major capital that lacks a formal refugee policy. No Indian law mentions or defines the word “refugee”.
But historically, both before and after Independence, India has never discriminated among refugees, said Paula Banerjee, a researcher on forced migration at the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group and Calcutta University.
“We’re talking about some of the most vulnerable people around, and to try and pick between them is bad policy, and also bad for India’s image as a country that has welcomed people from across the world,” Banerjee said.
“What about the Ahmadiyas and Shias from Pakistan; what about Rohingyas from Myanmar, who are also targeted in their countries?”
Some differentiation between those wanting to migrate to India is necessary, argued Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh.
“Hindus and Buddhists in Bangladesh, and Hindus in Sindh (Pakistan), are systematically facing the worst persecution,” Chakravarty said. “And you can’t compare victims of religious persecution to migrants who have chosen another country for economic reasons.”
Also, the notification ends decades of uncertainty for the thousands detained and thrown into jail for illegally entering India or overstaying, said Shahriar Kabir, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and writer who has highlighted the persecution of minorities in his country.
“These people will heave a sigh of relief,” Kabir said.
Modi had in at least two public rallies ahead of last year’s general election promised to host persecuted “Hindus” from “any country” in the world, and the BJP in Bengal has claimed credit for the home ministry notification.
“This was a promise Narendra Modiji had made,” said Samik Bhattacharya, the sole MLA the BJP has in Bengal. “It’s a responsibility the Indian government had.”
Bengal and Assam, the two states that host most of the Bangladeshi immigrants, are scheduled to hold elections next summer.
The order may also strengthen stereotypes in Pakistan and Bangladesh for the minority groups it hopes to help.
Abhijit Roy, an atheist, was hacked to death by Islamist zealots in Bangladesh last February because he advocated secularism on his blog and on social media platforms like Facebook.
But his father Ajoy, a Dhaka resident, insisted that the battle against militant Islam in countries like Bangladesh must be fought by staying there, and the Modi government’s order could make that challenge tougher.
“Land sharks in Bangladesh, irrespective of their political affiliation, often tell Hindus to leave Bangladesh and go to India,” Roy said. “After this announcement by the Indian government, these forces will feel emboldened.”
For the Ahmad couple in Qadian, the battle is even more complicated.
Tahira, originally from Faisalabad in Pakistan’s Punjab, moved to India to live with Maqbool in 2003, four years after they had met. The couple married the same year.
In 2010, Tahira applied for citizenship in India. After her application was processed, the Ahmads were told that Tahira needed to renounce her Pakistani passport to get an Indian one.
“She did, in 2013,” Maqbool said. “We were optimistic that she would get Indian citizenship any time, in weeks, maybe months.”
Two years later, Tahira remains stateless.