There are cases that some migrants and refugees in India, particularly Afghan and Rohingya Muslims, are trying to legalize their stay by embracing Christianity.
At least 25 such cases have come to the fore, confirmed a government official on conditions of anonymity but refused to divulge details.
Under the country’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), migrants and refugees who had entered India by Dec. 31, 2014, and had suffered religious persecution or fear of religious persecution in their country of origin are eligible for citizenship.
The act was passed in December last year, prompting outrage and protests across India as activists claimed it was against the secular ethos of the Indian Constitution.
Persecuted minorities belonging to non-Muslim communities like Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan would be provided amnesty under CAA.
Pastor Adib Ahmed Maxwell, who runs the Afghan Church in Delhi, likewise claimed that after CAA there have been many Afghan Muslims wanting to convert to Christianity.
Jahanara Begum*, a 37-year-old Afghan woman, who migrated to India a decade ago, said many Muslims from Afghanistan are coming to India to take advantage of the new law.
“Conversion to Christianity may get them citizenship in India or it would be easier from here to get visas to United States and European countries,” she said.
Some Afghans were also interested in Christianity influenced by American soldiers who were posted in Kabul, she said.
Her friend Rubaiya Khatun* said: “My husband worked with some United States soldiers who introduced the Holy Bible to him. Slowly he and the family got converted. There we cannot follow our new religion as we fear Taliban, so we came to India.”
According to official data, there are 150,000-160,000 Afghan Muslims living in Delhi.
There are also 40,000 Rohingya Muslims living across India illegally who came from Myanmar’s Rakhine State via Bangladesh.
Sources say that some of them are now claiming their country of origin is Bangladesh while converting to Christianity.
Despite the Rohingya being one of the most persecuted ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Indian government sees them as economic migrants, not as refugees. India is neither a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (1951) or the 1967 Protocol that defends the rights of refugees.
However, Sabber Kyaw Min, founder-director of Rohingya Humans Rights Initiative and country coordinator for Free Rohingya Coalition, denies any Rohingya Muslims are converting to Christianity.
“If that was the case then we would have converted to Buddhism and stayed put in Myanmar,” he said.
Former Indian ambassador to Italy, K P Fabian said conversion to Christianity after coming to India might not help as being an original minority only qualifies for an application.
The government might not grant citizenship to such “opportunistic” individuals, he said.
Father Francis Arackal, a former professor of journalism at Amity University, said an applicant for citizenship under the CAA will have to provide proof of having suffered persecution in their country.
“[The CAA] is exclusionary and violates the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution. Faith cannot be made a condition of citizenship,” Father Arackal said.
“The real intention is to get Hindus back to India, adding some minorities to the list is just a camouflage or cover it up. They can’t say only Hindus,” he said.
They are aware that there are not many Christians, Sikhs, and others in the three countries, said the Dominican priest.
John Dayal, human rights activist, said that observers see only a small number of Hindus and Sikhs will come from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Christians are going to Australia and would not want to come to India where members of the community have been alleging persecution at the hands of Hindu hardliners, he said.
Father Arackal said if it is genuinely aimed at protecting minorities, the law should have included Muslim religious minorities who have faced persecution in their own countries like the Shias and Ahmadis in Pakistan and Rohingyas in Myanmar.
Dayal said the CAA is colored by Islamophobia and is narrowly focused, both in terms of geography, and in terms of demography.
“It targets only three of India’s many neighbors — Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan,” said Dayal, who is also a member of the National Integration Council of India and secretary-general of the All India Christian Council. “Afghanistan is not really a neighbor as no part of India’s international boundary touches Afghan territory,” he said.
“Pakistan and India are on hostile terms,” he said.
“The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] has alleged that Bengali Muslims are infiltrating into Assam and West Bengal in large numbers from Bangladesh,” Dayal said.
“The only ones to benefit will be the BJP which hopes the CAA will go well with its Hindu vote bank. The CAA will essentially sharpen the religious polarization, and provide zest for Hindu hardliners,” he added.
*Names have been altered to protect identities.