While the ordinance will cover refugees from three nations, it is primarily aimed at Hindu migrants from Bangladesh who have crossed over into Assam and West Bengal in large numbers. Assembly polls are due in both eastern states next year and the BJP hopes the move will brighten its electoral prospects.
The government is working on a policy paper on the modalities of granting natural citizenship to the refugees. The complicated and contentious part, according to sources involved in the process, is to work out who to include and on what basis to include them as citizens. A task force set up by the home ministry is also working on how to grant citizenship to the scores of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Chakma refugees.
Even though the government anticipates the legislation to stir a controversy and face opposition in Parliament, it may bring a bill in the winter session to send a message to Bangladeshi refugees living in Assam for years without proper documents that it intends to include them in the system.
The winter session is the only window for the government to bring up this issue as the verification process is long and tedious and elections are due by April-May next year.
The process of including Hindu Bengali refugees in Assam starts with verifications to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the state that begins soon. NRC is applicable only in Assam.
With the verification for NRC starting, “those who do not have any documents to show that they are residents are being subjected to harassment. Many Bengali Hindu migrants are affected by it and hence the urgency for their inclusion,” said a senior BJP leader.
“They are living as faceless, identity-less people as they do not have any identification proof, so we are asking the government to include them without asking for identity papers. They are minorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan and have been persecuted there… they ran away without any papers,” he added.
Right now, the attempt is to see that those who are unable to produce documents are exempted from the penal provisions of the Foreigner’s Act and the Passport Act, top sources said.
According to the Assam Accord between then PM Rajiv Gandhi the All Assam Students Union in March 23, 1985, refugees have to prove that they came to the state before March 1971. However, the ordinance being planned will include people who crossed over before 2004.