Citizenship bill glimmer of hope for Hindu, Sikh refugees from Afghanistan

NEW DELHI: After losing two of her sons in a civil war in Afghanistan, Jaswant Kaur had to flee the country 10 years ago with her family, but little did she know that her struggles for a life of dignity + would begin in her "natural homeland", India. 

Kaur, her grand children and daughters in law are among the thousands of Hindus and Sikhs who escaped persecution in Afghanistan to find safety in India, but are now left running pillar to post for citizenship. 

The process to get citizenship is long with a wait of about 12 years or more. Rife with red-tapism and complicated procedures, one has to run office to office to complete requirements. 

The challenge is bigger for Kaur, in her early sixties, as her family is an all women household. Her third son was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Jalalabad in which prominent members of the Hindu-Sikh community in Afghanistan were also killed. 

"Compare this to the situation in Europe and western countries where Afghan refugees get residency in five years," Manohar Singh, Delhi President of Khalsa Diwan Society, said. 

Kaur lives in India on a visa which is to be renewed after a couple of years. Recently, the government had introduced a long-term visa but made the procedure even more complicated. 

The procedure now requires refugees to get guarantees of two Indian citizens who will be responsible if an applicant is caught in a crime or violation of regulations, Singh said. 

However, for Kaur all may not be lost. She may have a glimmer of hope with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill that seeks to ease the citizenship process for people from minority communities in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who are coming to India in the wake of discrimination faced by them. 

Following the Jalababad attack, the wife of Jaswant Kaur's third son, Thirpal Kaur also joined her mother-in-law in West Delhi with her four children four months back. 

A Joint Parliamentary Committee will submit its report on Monday in which it is likely to recommend introduction of the bill. 

The bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, to grant Indian nationality to people belonging to minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India instead of 12, even if they don't possess any proper document. 

The Congress, TMC, CPM and a few other parties have been steadfastly opposing the bill claiming citizenship cannot be given on basis of religion. 

After the report is submitted in Lok Sabha on January 7, it is to be seen whether the bill could get through during the Winter Session of Parliament, which comes to an end on January 8, sources said. 

Various members from opposition parties are asserting that citizenship is a constitutional provision and cannot be based on religion, as India is secular. 

An opposition MP said if the bill in its present form comes into effect, then it will nullify the Assam Accord under which anyone entering the state illegally after March 1971 should be declared a foreigner and deported. 

A large section of people and organisations in the Northeast have opposed the bill, saying it will nullify provisions of the 1985 Assam Accord, which fixed March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of illegal immigrants irrespective of religion. 

Even Meghalaya and Mizoram governments have strongly opposed the bill and adopted resolutions against it. 

"We don't want any compensation, monetary relief, house, jobs. We want a dignified life so that we can earn livelihood, go abroad for business, get good education. This is not possible without having Indian passport," Singh said. 

Khalsa Diwan Society is an effort by Sikhs and Hindus who have come to India from Afghanistan to make this country their home. 

Singh came to India in 1979 after Afghan president Mohammed Daoud assassination. It was the first major exodus of Sikhs. 

The second wave of Hindus and Sikhs left Afghanistan in 1992 after withdrawal of the USSR and arrival of Mujahideens. 

"The Afghanistan Constitution allows freedom of religion but Hindus and Sikhs face public discrimination, intimidation, harassment and violence for following their religious practices even in the matters like last rites," an official said requesting anonymity. 

From a vibrant population of 2.20 lakh in Afghanistan, the number of Hindus and Sikhs have now come down to 5,000 now, according to estimates of India security agencies. 

"About 25,000 Sikhs and Hindus managed to escape the violence during 1992 civil war with the help of the then Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh but only estimated 35 per cent have been able to get citizenship," Singh told PTI in an interview. 

In the absence of citizenship, these people are in an open jail. Despite being well qualified, they are not able to find jobs because of Afghan passports, he said. 

Unlike in the US and several European countries where children born get local passports, Afghan refugees have to get Afghan passports for their children even if they are born in India, Singh said. 

Extremists have stopped minority communities from trading and employment unless they convert to Islam, made to pay religious tax. Looting is rampant, women can move only in burkas, he alleged. 

Children face verbal assaults and attacks in schools, thus many left education in between, he claimed. 

Singh said they come to India with virtually nothing.Their properties are not purchased by others knowing they have no option but to leave.



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