The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 has been a recent flashpoint in India’s sociopolitical landscape. There remains a lack of certainty on the exact number of affected persons, however, with different figures being thrown around. And although no Rules governing the Act’s implementation have been notified yet, the process of identifying “beneficiaries” seems to have begun in at least one state.

How many refugees stand to benefit?

To begin with, let’s rewind to July 2016 when the Citizenship Amendment Bill was first introduced in the sixteenth Lok Sabha. It was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee whose report was presented before the Lok Sabha in January 2019.

Paragraph 2.17 of the report clearly states that as per records with the Intelligence Bureau, a total of 31,313 persons belonging to religious minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan have been given Long Term Visas on the basis of their claims to religious persecution in their respective countries who want Indian citizenship: 25,447 Hindus, 5,807 Sikhs, 55 Christians, 2 Buddhists and 2 Parsis.

Paragraph 2.20 of the report quotes the Director of the IB as saying, with reference to beneficiaries, that “from the available data, I think, it will be a small number”.

This flies in the face of claims made by the RSS, according to which the CAA will benefit 1.5 crore people; by Union Home Minister Mr. Amit Shah, who stated in the Rajya Sabha in December 2019 that the CAA “will bring relief to lakhs of people”; and by Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who stated that 5.42 lakh people would benefit from the CAA in Assam alone.

Such claims are uninformed at best, and blatantly misleading at worst.

The IB’s estimate is also at odds with reports emanating from Uttar Pradesh over the past month where, bizarrely, the process of identifying refugees under the CAA has already begun, despite the lack of notification of any official Rules for its implementation.

UP Power Minister Shrikant Sharma claimed that the State Home Department has identified over 32,000 refugees in 21 districts of UP for the CAA, and that the figure would be updated once the exercise was carried out across the entire state.

Going further still, Pilibhit District Magistrate Vaibhav Srivastava claimed only days later that over 37,000 refugees eligible for citizenship under the CAA had been identified within just that district, after a “primary survey”, and the list sent to the state government and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

No proof of religious persecution?

While Rules for the CAA are currently being drafted by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, an unnamed home ministry official recently told the press that they would be unlikely to ask for proof of religious persecution, and will instead ask applicants for, among other things, proof of religion.

“For example, if someone has enrolled his/her children in a government school, he/she would have declared their religion. If someone has acquired Aadhaar before December 31, 2014 and has declared his/her religion as being from among the six mentioned in the Act, it would be acceptable… Any form of government document declaring religion will be accepted,” the unnamed official is quoted as having said.

This declaration comes despite the fact that on the question of non-Muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan who came to India due to religious persecution but did not declare so at the time of their arrival, the IB submitted, as per Paragraph 2.18 of the report, that such people would have to prove that they came to India due to religious persecution, and their claims for Indian citizenship would have to “be enquired into, including through R&AW before a decision is taken”.

The IB submission also admits that “it would be difficult for [such applicants] to make such a claim now”.

Deliberate confusion?

These conflicting claims bring a number of questions to the fore: Why is there such a wide disparity in the figures regarding the number of beneficiaries, not just between the IB and those quoted by different state functionaries, but also between those quoted by a UP Minister and the Pilibhit DM, in media statements made within days of each other?

Secondly, why is the UP government trying to identify beneficiaries under the CAA when the IB already possesses the records of 31,313 persons across the country who stand to benefit from the CAA?

It would make far more sense for the Union Government to coordinate with the IB to grant citizenship under the CAA to these 31,313 identified persons, so that there is no need for states to conduct their own individual exercises (that too without any official Rules in place, as in UP) for identifying beneficiaries, especially when the IB has admitted that the R&AW might have to be involved in assessing some claims under the CAA.

Finally, why are anonymous officials telling the media that the CAA Rules will not seek proof of religious persecution from applicants, when the IB has clearly expressed that those applicants not already on its records must prove that they came to India due to religious persecution?

Such inconsistencies paint a picture of a house not in order, and it is in the best interest of the Union Government to set the record straight on the same, especially when it is under so much scrutiny over the legislation.

Just how many refugees live in India?

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines refugees as persons who have been forced to flee their country of their origin and are unable or unwilling to return due to the fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, etc.

Incidentally, India is amongst the 43 UN member states that have not signed or ratified either the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 or the UN Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967, putting us in the same category as such nations as Bangladesh, Laos, Libya, Myanmar, North Korea, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Vietnam, and Western Sahara.

The word ‘refugee’ is not mentioned anywhere in the CAA, and in fact, in March 2016 the then-Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju admitted in the Lok Sabha that India has no national law on refugees.

As per the UNHCR, India is one of the largest refugee centres in the world, with over 2.4 lakh refugees registered with it as of November 2019. About half of these refugees are from Tibet, another 95,000 are from Sri Lanka, and slightly over 21,000 from Myanmar.

A smaller figure of close to 16,000 refugees are from Afghanistan, and there is no statistically significant figure for refugees from Bangladesh or Pakistan.

There will certainly be refugees in India not registered with the UNHCR, and many of those with UNHCR cards may not want Indian citizenship at all. Nevertheless, it is evident that the communities “targeted” by the CAA leave out the large majority of refugees present in India.

If the Parliament wishes to aid refugees in India, it must come up with a uniform, non-discriminatory, legal regime for the governance of all, rather than some, of the refugees in our country.

Vineet Bhalla is a Delhi-based lawyer.