New Delhi: There are moments in time when outsized news stories shrink and narrow. Headlines get distilled, solidify into shape, and you can then see, as though for the first time, something real: a person. A person in pain.
Something like this happened to my friend this past Sunday as she was passing through Delhi’s New Friend’s Colony, where she lives, and literally ran into anti-CAA student protestors, with the police in hot pursuit. A woman in a burqa was frozen in her spot, shaking. “Humein bachao,” she said. For some time, for the residents of this posh neighbourhood, the headlines had hit home turning their air black with smoke and fear.
My own uneasiness with the Citizen (Amendment) Act, 2019 began a week before. Like many people, when I first heard that the Bill had been cleared in the Lok Sabha my instinctive reaction was feeble. Yes, it might appear discriminatory, I reasoned. But is it really such a bad idea? After all, where are the persecuted Hindus and Sikhs to find sanctuary if not in India?
But then I thought of my friend Armaan and my vision refocused. I saw a different person, who was in fact not so different at all. I became anxious.
Armaan, aged 25, came to India from Afghanistan over 4 years ago after his family started receiving threats from the Taliban. Registered as a refugee with both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), he is one of the many Afghans presently living in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi. It was where we first met at a gym; and now good friends, often share our ideas and meals together. I usually have chicken while he has rajma and spinach. Given these times this little detail is not trivial; nor is the fact that though Armaan was born to a Muslim family he, unlike me – a Hindu – is vegetarian and is deeply interested in learning about Hindu and Buddhist philosophy.
“How do you feel about CAB?”, I asked him that evening. “What is that?” he replied.
Like many Afghans, Armaan is more abreast with the news from his home country than he is with the goings-on here. I told him about the bill. That the law would say that a person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, and who came to India before December 31, 2014,0 can become a citizen. But Muslims can not.
He pondered over this for a moment. “It’s your country”, he then said tentatively. “And we don’t want to stay here forever. For us, India is like Turkey.” Armaan was implying that for some Afghans the country is a pit-stop en route to resettlement in a western country. If they are lucky.
But my mind was stuck on the other thing he said. What did he mean by It’s your country?
I wanted to say, “Sorry, India is a democracy. We have a secular constitution. We are a land with a rich and deep tradition of tolerance and diversity. We believe in Atithi Devo Bhava”. But somehow all these assertions rang hollow even in my head.
The case of the Afghan Hazaras
With high cheekbones and a fair complexion, Pari, who was born in 1998, looked more East Asian than South Asian. But she is Afghan.
“If I can be honest”, she said to me in fluent and passionate English, “when I learnt about this law I did not feel good. First of all, when we come here we get registered with the UNHCR. And we only come because of security problems at home. Back in Afghanistan, we Hazaras have a history of being targeted. And in the past few years, suicide attacks on us have increased a lot”.
I asked her what she thought of the justification that as Muslims are in a majority in Afghanistan, it is the non-Muslims who face religious persecution. “Yes, Sikhs and Hindus should come here, of course”, she agreed. “But what about us? We face a lot of discrimination also”.
Of the four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan – the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – the Hazaras, Pari said, are the smallest. While the other three groups belong predominantly to the Sunni sect of Islam, the Hazaras are all Shia. “So we are like a double minority”, she explained. “And because we look Chinese, people can see the difference. They know if you are Hazara, it means you’re Shia. When I was in school my teacher told me, ‘you’re not from Afghanistan. It is not your land.’ And now if India also tells us to go then where are we to go?”
I stayed quiet. “You know people from our country, we all look up to India. We see your movies. We see India as this big place where we can live how we want. And this is why we like to travel here. But now I am sad. If we can’t come here, then where should we go? Life is so hard for us refugees. We can’t get proper work, our families have to send money to support us, and now with this I’m scared of what will happen. One boy, he came here when he was 10. He is now 18. What should he do? He says India is his home. What will happen to him?”
Rohingya from Myanmar
On Sunday, December 15, as student protests were raging across South Delhi I made my way to Janakpuri. I had arranged to chat with four boys there. All were refugees. All were students.
It was a cold miserable evening and for a minute we sat mutely together on a bench at a roadside dhabha with our hands in our pockets. It soon occurred to me how nervous they all appeared. And how Indian. Were it not for their slightly foreign language, that they switched to between lines in Hindi and English while speaking to each other, I could not have ascertained where they were from. Their leader, aged 24, asked me in English, “and you’re from where?” From Delhi, I replied, a fact which seemed to impress him.
“I want to remain anonymous”, he said. “So I will give you my nickname.” I agreed.
“I can surely say we Rohingya people don’t want to become citizens of India”, he told me. “We are here because we have been badly persecuted in Myanmar. For decades. And we came here just to seek asylum. What we want from India is only that you shelter us for a few years so that we can stay here until there is peace in our home. As you know, the Myanmar Government has been accused of genocide and our leader is now defending the same army who once arrested her and kept her under house arrest for fifteen years. We call her a former Nobel peace prize winner”.
“Can you tell me about your situation in Myanmar?” I asked.
“I have been here for the last 6 years. I am far away from my family. When my father passed away I was here. I could not go back even to see him for the last time when he was buried”, he said.
The group leader spoke both coherently and confidently, but I felt there was an unmistakable vulnerability to his voice. “How do you feel about this new law?” I asked.
“Let me tell you, I am just a student. And I don’t want to get involved in your politics. So your citizenship law is not a concern because I can tell you we don’t want to be Indian citizens. But I am scared what will happen if the Government sends us back. For me, the concern is that the international community knows that the situation is not conducive to return to Myanmar and making us go back will be very bad for us”.
The leaders said his name was Kyaw-naing, which I did a terrible job of pronouncing but I was happy I tried as this gesture made the other boys laugh and open up. Kyaw-naing came to India in 2013 via Bangladesh, he said, while two of the others came in 2017 when the situation in Myanmar took a turn for the worse.
“We Rohingya people have our own history in the Rakhine state”, he said. “We have been there since the 7th century. Before the British colonials there was a time when the Rohingya people and the Rakhine people together ruled their Arakan kingdom. So it was after the British came that the Rakhine became a part of Myanmar. Before it was an independent kingdom”.
“How is your life here in India?” I asked him.
“Compared to Myanmar we are safe. We are not facing any situation like that over there. My grandfather was a headmaster of a school. My father was given a NRC, that is National Registration Card. But when it came to my turn, I was not even given a birth certificate. I was called a stateless person”. This particular response sent a chill down my spine. How would our NRC (The National Register of Citizens of India) be used if and when it got underway?
“And when I went back to school I faced discrimination by the Rakhine teachers. They are Buddhist they are from the Rakhine community”, he clarified. “In the 10th standard, I was not allowed to take the board exam. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to become a labourer or a farmer like the others. I was furious. I wanted to make my future. So I left my family and went to Bangladesh”.
“Why didn’t you stay in Bangladesh?” I said reflexively.
“In Bangladesh, our situation was very difficult. The government of Bangladesh did not register us or give us refugee status. I was there for 2 months. At that time, I was only 17. It was difficult for me to stay without any legal documents. So I was very happy to get a refugee status here in India with the UNHCR. But still, the government of India calls us illegal migrants. Despite the fact that we have refugee status and have been persecuted in Myanmar. I feel this is discrimination.
“The UNHCR doesn’t give refugee status to people who are not being persecuted. And the Rohingya people are the most persecuted minority in the world. So how can you call us illegal migrants? All I ask is that India give us shelter until there is peace in our country. India is peaceful and you have a history of giving shelter to persecuted people. So I don’t understand this law. Being a refugee is not easy. It is very difficult. And crossing an international border without any legal documents was a big, big risk for me”.
He paused for a moment and studied my face. “We have been raised in a discriminatory way. You understand this?” I nodded. “We have been kept away from education, so the majority of Rohingya people are poor. Not giving us a chance for education and to be able to get skills over here is also a kind of discrimination then. No?”
Before we parted ways Kyaw-naing repeated: “We have been crying to the international community that they make a conducive environment for us in Rakhine state. So we can go back and build our lives there. We can not feel good in another country like we feel in our own. We have our genuine feeling only in our own country. Here we only want shelter.”
On the drive back home, I told the Uber driver to avoid Ashram as the roads there were blocked due to protests. “What is this CAB? I don’t understand it”, he asked casually. “It is a new law”, I told him, a little worn out. “Non-Muslims from some neighbouring countries can become citizens and those who are Muslim can not”.
He honked his way past the jumble of cars in silence. He then received a phone call and put the voice on speaker. A child spoke. “When will you come home papa?” she said. “It will take time. But I have got your chocolates, don’t worry”, he replied smiling. He made some small talk with his wife and after turned to me after he hung up.
“Why can’t they have equal rules for everybody?” he said. His name was Ahmed, I later saw.
The case of the Afghan Sikhs
On the evening of Monday, December 16, I asked Armaan if he would join me on a little trip. I wanted to speak with Afghan Sikhs or Hindus who would benefit from the new citizenship law. He agreed.
I spoke to a Mr Singh, a resident of Tilak Nagar, who runs a shop in Lajpat Nagar. He is one of the many Afghan Sikhs living in Delhi. He told me that he came to India 7 years ago.
“What the Government has done is very good”, he said. “Since we have come, we considered India our own country and we have not faced any major problem. Yes, there were obstacles, like not having a proper ID for our kids’ school admissions, or to buy a bike. So I’m so happy all this will become easy for us now.
“In Afghanistan life was difficult. In school, people would mock us, call us names. They would call us Hindu. They would call us kachalu”—potato— “pointing at our turban. They would say, go, go to your country. So now we are here in our own country and now that this bill is passed I’m very happy.”
“Could you go to the Gurudwara freely there? Was there any problem?”
“We have ancient Gurudwaras there. There was no problem,” he said. “But we were harassed on the road. The atmosphere was not nice.”
Armaan and I had dinner at one of the many Afghan restaurants in Lajpat Nagar that evening. As usual I had mutton kebabs and he had ashak (Afghani vegetarian momos). When the food arrived we fell back to discussing all the little things that animate our friendship; which bring us close despite us coming from different worlds. When he provided more background to the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan, I listened, and when I spoke about the Hindu Arya Samaj movement, which he was curious to learn about, he listened.
At one point there was a lull in the conversation and he became pensive. “I think it’s sad,” he said.
“What is?” In the warm space I had briefly forgotten the grim reality of our city, my country, outside.
“What is happening,” he replied. “I saw those videos of people being beaten by the police on the streets. Just for protesting”.
He paused. “I think if more people stood up in my country, the situation would not have become so bad”.
India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. However, it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from neighbouring States and respects UNHCR’s mandate for other nationals, mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar. While the government of India deals differently with various refugee groups, in general, it respects the principle of non-refoulement for holders of UNHCR documentation.
With the passing of the Citizen Amendment Act, 2019, members of certain communities from certain countries will be eligible for Indian citizenship over members of other communities facing persecution. This, many refugees fear, might create an automatic hierarchy of refugee cases with some considered more worthy than others.
Siddharth Kapila is a lawyer-turned-writer presently working on a travel memoir on Hindu pilgrimage sites.