The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by the Indian Parliament recently, has opened a window for over 16 million Hindus from Bangladesh and Pakistan — 13 million of them from the former alone — to move to India with their families and obtain citizenship here.
While the CAA stipulates a cutoff date of December 31, 2014, to be eligible for citizenship, certain political leaders have said that those non-Muslims who migrated to India after the cut-off date could also be eligible for citizenship. That is because the Act does not require any documentary evidence from migrants to prove their date of entry into India.
Washington DC-based Pew Research Centre estimates that the proportion of Hindus in Bangladesh’s population, about nine per cent at present, will decline to seven per cent by 2050. Meanwhile in Pakistan, where Hindus comprise two per cent of the population, would see their numbers broadly unchanged in 2050, even as the proportion of Muslims rises. By the same year, however, India will surpass Indonesia and become the home to the highest number of Muslims in the world. The proportion of Muslims in India’s population will increase from the present 14 per cent to 18 per cent, while that of Hindus will decline from 80 per cent to 77 per cent, estimates Pew.
According to official Indian government figures, 25,447 Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been given long-term visas since 2011 on the grounds of religious persecution. Home Minister Amit Shah told Parliament that there might be hundreds of thousands of more such Hindus residing in India — that will become clear only after the new law is implemented.
What incentives do these Hindus have for leaving their homeland and moving to India for a better life?
According to a 2014 report by London-based Minority Rights Group, Pakistan’s Hindus were targets of not just suspicion but also discrimination and persecution. The report highlighted the various forms of discrimination and persecution faced by Hindus and other religious minorities in Pakistan. It noted: “Hindus and Christians in cities often take on menial work, such as low-level sanitary jobs that Muslims are generally unwilling to do. This social stigmatisation reinforces their economic marginalisation, undermining their ability to access even basic livelihoods as a result. In some rural areas, the situation is compounded by feudal power structures. In Sindh, for instance, many Hindu women work in slave-like conditions as bonded labourers for local owners.”
In addition to debilitating socio-economic conditions, Hindus in the country faced a crisis of faith. The report quoted a 2014 survey by the All Pakistan Hindu Rights movement to show that only 20 of the 428 Hindu temples in Pakistan were in operation. More than 95 per cent of the Hindu temples were leased for commercial or residential purposes by the country’s Evacuee Trust Properties Board (ETPB), set up to look after the properties left behind by Hindus and Sikhs who migrated to India after partition in 1947.
In 2017, Pakistan’s Parliament had passed a Bill that recognised Hindu marriages for the first time in the country’s history. But a provision of the Bill states that Hindu marriages would be annulled if either spouse converts to another religion — a clause that sparked fears of forced conversions of Hindus. According to Pakistan Human Rights Commission’s latest annual report, there were 1,000 cases of conversions of Hindu and Christian women to Islam in Sindh in 2018.
The Sindh province has the largest concentration of Hindus in Pakistan. The report noted, “Uncertainty and insecurity continued to plague the Hindu community. Reports of forced conversion of Hindu women, mostly lower-caste minor girls, continued to surface. Hindu girls are kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to Muslim men. The state’s response to forced marriages has been mixed. If not accomplices, police are insensitive and indifferent at best in most cases.”
Hindus and other minorities also seem to be struggling economically. While five per cent of government jobs in Pakistan — mostly lower-level jobs — are reserved for minorities, only 2.8 per cent are for non-Muslims. The education system in Paksitan is also heavily tilted against children from minority communities.
A British Parliamentary delegation that visited Pakistan in 2017 noted: “The underlying theme as taught in secondary school classes of history, geography and Islamic studies is principally that Pakistan is a country made for Muslims alone, created as a reaction to Hindu hatred against Muslims. Hindus are always portrayed as enemies of Pakistan and also frequently labelled as crafty, politically astute and manipulative. In many instances, school textbooks, while misrepresenting historical facts, also advocate religious hatred. For example, it is often suggested that Hindus are against Islam and Pakistan, and that the break-up of Pakistan in December 1971 was the consequence of a Hindu conspiracy.”
While reprisal and persecution remain the primary survival threat for Hindus and other minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh’s Hindus have been leaving the country for a mix of economic and political reasons. The Hindu exodus since Bangladesh’s formation since 1971 was largely attributed to religious persecution. But as religious tensions have eased over the years and the country’s economy has liberalised, things seem to be changing. Bangladesh’s booming economy and India’s slowing economy could potentially reverse years of Hindu migration to India.
Since 2011, Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth hasn’t fallen below six per cent. While India’s GDP growth in 2019-20 has been pegged at 5.1 per cent by the Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh’s is expected to be 8.1 per cent. With the kind of economic growth being witnessed, an average Bangladeshi might be richer than his Indian counterpart next year.
A 2017 study by economists Khwaja Mamun and Salma Ahmed, sponsored by Australia’s Deakin University, had some startling revelations about the economic prospects of Hindus in an economically booming Bangladesh. The study noted: “Although Hindu minorities fare less in employment hierarchy in the Bangladesh economy than the majority Muslim population, they seem to do as well or even better in terms of educational attainment and training. Part of the explanation may be related to persecution of Hindus over time that made them feel insecure regarding non-human assets which can be easily expropriated (through the Vested Property Act) and that this discrimination has encouraged Hindus to favour more portable and inalienable investments like human capital. The relative success of Hindus in human capital acquisition (especially compared with Muslims) will allow them to assimilate in the labour market; hence, it will probably help in reducing wage gaps with Muslims.”
The study also noted that as Hindus became more educated, their employment rates increased faster than Muslims. Muslims in Bangladesh are now more concentrated in jobs that require lower educational qualification and skills. Even as the per-capita income of both Muslims and Hindus has increased, “the earning advantage was largely greater for Hindus”. But Hindus’ social conditions are not better than the majority community. Belgium-based International Union for Scientific Study of Population noted in a study that Hindus had lower life expectancy, higher mortality rates and lower fertility rates than Muslims.
Clearly, India might be a safe haven for persecuted Hindus from an economically unstable Pakistan, whose GDP growth was 5.2 per cent in 2018-19, and whose economy remains on life support through International Monetary Fund bailouts, Saudi largesse and Chinese investments.
But Hindus looking to migrate from Bangladesh might not find India as attractive a prospect as nations like Canada and Australia which are relatively favourable destinations for skilled and educated migrants. A part of the reason would be widespread racism in India which has often manifested itself in various forms like attacks on Africans, taunts against people from Northeast India and caste slurs against dark-skinned people. Indian politicians have over the years also played the ‘foreigner’ card to make a political point — the recent revocation of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card of author Aatish Taseer for not ‘disclosing he had a Pakistani father’ being a case in point.
Sikhs who migrated to Punjab from Pakistan in 1947 are still derogatively called ‘bhapas’ in Indian Punjab, quite like the Muslims who migrated to Pakistan are still referred to as ‘mujahir’ there. Add to this cocktail the deadly mix of caste discrimination, and any Hindu from Pakistan or Bangladesh might need more than just the Indian government’s citizenship nod to lead a respectable life in this country.