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Calculated hospitality
Refugees and the State. Practices of Asylum and Care in India Edited by Ranabir Samaddar

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

"Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic among others."
- French philosopher Jacques Derrida

Refugee asylum has been touted as an integral part of Indian culture and civilization, thriving on the equation of guest with god. Independent India's success in integrating myriad refugees into the mainstream life of the nation is remarkable. Besides offering shelter to those facing persecution in their own countries, India has enabled millions of refugees to contribute to the economic and social development of the host state. Yet there is a lingering paradox in India's hospitality and protection policies towards the forcibly displaced. This new edited volume reveals India's mixed record through exposition of various refugee caseloads by prominent intellectuals.

Editor Ranabir Samaddar focuses on the power of the Indian state to decide who to extend or deny hospitality, in the absence of commitment to uniform international standards of refugee protection. Several genuine refugees who knocked at India's door have been left out, refused or neglected. Successive Indian governments have adopted graded responses, dividing needy asylum subjects according to circumstantial priorities. It must be borne in mind though that "the word of care is multiple, heterogeneous and segmented". (pg 61) Local host populations, and not so much the monolithic institution of the state, decide issues of providing relief, shelter and hospitality to refugees. This is especially so in Indian democracy, where offering asylum is based on its electoral or politico-demographic consequences.

Paula Banerjee reconstructs the colonial Indian state's attitude to refugees in the first chapter. British administrative thinking in India rested on controlling movements of "bad foreigners" and keeping them away from subjects. Allowing access to certain groups and restricting it from others was standard practice in British India. Each group case was treated on an ad hoc basis to weed out the "undesirable" ones and assert state supremacy over shelter seekers. The post-colonial state "followed the same legal regime the British had built to keep out the unwanted". (pg 89)

Samir Das explores newly-free India's response to the refugee influx from East Pakistan. The central and West Bengal state governments defined and redefined categories of "migrants", "displaced" and "refugees" in ways that suited their convenience. For New Delhi, partition-related refugees were central to preserving the secular character of India's body politic. Calcutta (now Kolkata) aimed at nationalistic consolidation of Bengali-speaking people. Overall, an "elementary earnestness" was there to respond to the titanic inflow of humans. Health and education for the refugees were emphasized, since rehabilitation was part of India's development discourse. However, no separate efforts were made at defusing social tensions. Those refugees settled outside West Bengal entered into serious conflicts with local communities.

Ritu Menon's research on partition refugees in the Punjab credits the state for an "enlightened attitude", which was engendered by the feeling that these refugees were never "aliens", but part of the nation-building process. Classificatory distinctions were made here, too. Rural resettlement schemes transformed a low-yielding area into the granary of India. It was an "intelligent and practical conversion of a crisis into an opportunity for dynamic development". (pg 162) On the flip side, governments withheld or abrogated certain fundamental rights of the refugees. Simple errors were criminalized as the state enhanced its powers to regulate, police and penalize at will. Fears of outbreaks of "disorder" were ever present vis-a-vis refugees.

Subir Bhaumik's exposition on Burmese refugees brings to light India's inconsistent hospitality. During and after World War II, Indian settlers in Burma (now Myanmar) out-migrated. Ethnic pushout of non-Burmans by military regimes continued until the 1960s. These refugees were titled "returnees" by India and settled in Manipur state. The Tamil returnees often had disputes with the Kuki tribes in Moreh, mainly because the former prospered by converting the town into the most lucrative trading point on the India-Burma border. The post-1987 pro-democracy ingress was treated much differently. Rations were grossly inadequate and camp authorities restricted freedom of refugee movement. Manipur and Mizoram police have force repatriated Chin refugees to Burma, leaving them "sandwiched between Burmese and Indian security forces". (pg 207)

K C Saha reviews the Indian state's stand on the 10 million Bangladesh refugees in 1971. This was a classic case where India's "political policies and humanitarian policies had converged". (pg 242). Refugees who came to West Bengal faced no hostility from the host population. All civil servants and common people rallied behind the rescue act. In Assam, the state government was keen that refugees be segregated from the local population. Muslim leaders were unsympathetic and viewed the "Bangals" with distaste. Assamese people also resented refugee impingement on supply of essential commodities. India also lodged complaints that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was being biased and tried to help Pakistan by advising repatriation when the situation inside East Pakistan was far from normal.

Sabyasachi Chaudhury narrates India's reception of refugees from Bangladesh's Chittagong Hill Tracts (Chakmas and Hajongs), victims of aggressive Bengali Muslim encroachment. Despite being a long-term case that was formally granted naturalization, Chakmas have been illegally denied Indian citizenship and basic rights. Arson, expulsions and coercive evictions have occurred against the refugees in Arunachal Pradesh. Schools, health facilities and employment avenues have been shut out for the Chakmas, provoking the Supreme Court of India to condemn "ethnic cleansing". Politicians in Arunachal have gone to the extent of blackmailing New Delhi that if the Chakmas were not booted out of their state, they would be forced to seek closer ties with China. Chittagong refugees live as defenseless permanent sufferers.

Rajesh Kharat's essay on Tibetan refugees endeavors to understand the issue through the prism of foreign policy ramifications. From Jawaharlal Nehru's time, it was harped that offering a home to Tibetans was an act of pure humanitarian and cultural concern. Political activities have been prohibited for Tibetans, though China has not always agreed that India did enough. Since the escape of the Karmapa Lama into India in 2000, the government has restricted movement and grown stingier about new arrivals. Tibetans resettled in Karnataka on the premise that they would bring virgin land under cultivation have vindicated government faith. Tibetan carpets and other agro-based products earn significant foreign exchange for India. The Indo-Tibetan border police force utilizes refugees with experience of fighting the Chinese army for security of the Himalayan region.

V Suryanarayan's piece on Sri Lankan Tamil refugees documents India's generosity that had withstood the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. Not even one refugee was physically harmed in 1991 when India's former prime minister was killed. The UNHCR also gave the Indian government a clean chit that no covert pressures were used in the 1992 repatriation. However, many locals in Tamil Nadu now view Sri Lankan Tamils as "no longer refugees, but militants and terrorists". (pg 328) Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin comprise 30 percent of India's burden but are in a precarious legal limbo.

Asha Hans delves into the problem of specific protection problems faced by women and child refugees in India. Gender-specific violence, conscription and malnutrition of refugees abound, but the host country's coping mechanisms are inadequate. Layout of refugee camps is important to women's lives in refuge but Indian planners have hardly paid any attention. "Every-day experiences and struggles of refugee women are invisible to the gaze of the state". (pg 380)

Sarbani Sen delineates the reasons why India has never signed international refugee conventions or given the UNHCR formal status to operate. The UNHCR is allowed to provide only de facto protection through "refugee certificates", making it reliant on the tolerance and goodwill of the government. For Delhi, refugee matters are politically more convenient in the context of bilateral relations. International agreements are seen as constricting India's freedom of action and discretion.

B S Chimni's concluding article refutes the Indian state's arguments against a specific national legislation on refugee protection and calls for globalization of human rights obligations in government circles. Logically, India would only exercise enlightened self-interest and not concede any leverage by adopting a refugee law. To facilitate distinguishing between migrants and refugees, to explicitly mention security concerns and spell out duties for refugees, to avoid diplomatic embarrassments, to clarify conditions in which refugee status would cease, and to stake claim for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, India needs legislation on refugees.

This book is compulsory reading for humanitarian, human rights and development scholars and practitioners. On a generic level, it questions the veracity of the concept of "Mother India" whose bounteous lap has place for stragglers from every part of the planet. The very self-visualization of India is predicated on humane asylum policies.

Refugees and the State. Practices of Asylum and Care in India, 1947-2000 by Ranabir Samaddar(ed) , Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2003. ISBN: 0-7619-9729-6. Price US$54.95, 499 pages.

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Nov 1, 2003


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