When it comes to Bengali Hindu refugees in Assam, the rendra Modi government is speaking with a forked tongue. A few days back, Union sports and youth affairs minister Sarbanda Sonowal declared at a public meeting that the burden of such refugees will not be borne by Assam alone, but will be distributed among other states too. However, it took another Union minister to puncture Sonowal’s claim made for public consumption. Minister of State for exterl affairs Gen (retd) VK Singh in his characteristic ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ style, has now made it clear that Assam alone will have to shoulder the burden of Bengali Hindu refugees in the State. Singh’s simplistic logic goes like this — ‘Hindu refugees fleeing Bangladesh due to religious persecution into Assam, like to settle down here because it is the nearest place where they can be safe. This is why they don’t move further to faraway places like Delhi or Bengaluru. So it is not practical to talk about resettling such refugees in other states, because which other state will accept them?’ Dismissing the outcry in Assam against the Centre’s move as due to ‘misunderstanding’, Singh’s advice is basically that Assam must grin and bear its refugee problem, ‘as it has been doing since 1971’. The Union minister’s comment may trigger more outrage in the State in the coming days, but he has idvertently revealed how India on the whole deals with the problem of refugees. The country simply does not have a coherent policy for refugees; it is a topic on which the law of the land is completely silent.
India may swear by the age-old exhortation of its civilisation about atithi devo bhava — that guests are like God; it may have been born as a tion in 1947 amidst the bloodbath of Partition triggering one of the largest human displacements in history. But strangely, India has felt no need to sign the United tion’s 1951 Geneva convention on refugees and its 1967 protocol on the status of refugees. Not just India, the other countries in the South Asian region too are not sigtories of the Geneva convention. This convention grants refugees a set of rights, including access to basic education, healthcare, employment, free access to courts and necessary documentation such as a refugee identity and travel document. Added to this is the legal principle of ‘non-refoulement’ which forbids a country from expelling refugees. The cornerstone of these intertiol laws on refugees is Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which grants every person the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Thus the 140-odd sigtory states have a moral and ethical obligation to accept refugees. India’s refusal to sign the convention on refugees has been ascribed to its worries about interl security, relations with neighbouring countries, pressure on its infrastructure, and demographic changes in states bearing the brunt of refugees. It is not that India has been harsh against asylum seekers. In fact, the country has been lauded for its liberal and restrained attitude towards refugees, whose burden it has mostly borne on its own without relying on intertiol humanitarian aid. But the lack of a consistent policy and comprehensive laws to deal with refugees in India means that ad-hocism and arbitrariness rules the roost.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with an office in Delhi since 1995, India is home to refugees ranging from Buddhist Chakmas of Bangladesh, Rohingiyas from Myanmar, Bhutanese from Nepal, religious minorities from Pakistan and Afghanistan, apart from Sri Lankan Tamils and Tibetans. In 1959, Tibetan refugees were welcomed with the Dalai Lama setting base in Himachal Pradesh. The Tibetan government-in-exile now administers schools for its people and can avail of Indian government schemes like MGNREGA and IAY and educatiol scholarships. Sri Lankan Tamil refugees too have been well provided in camps set up in Tamil du. But other refugees have not fared so well, facing common problems like poor access to education and health services, difficulty in getting jobs without necessary papers, and exploitation by employers in unregulated sectors. The BJP government at the Centre through its notification is now seeking to institutiolise a policy for welcoming and regularising ‘persecuted’ Hindu and other minority refugees fleeing Bangladesh and Pakistan. But what about equally persecuted Rohingiyas from Myanmar, or Shias and Ahmediyas from Pakistan and Afghanistan? Will India in future be less willing to welcome refugees Muslim by faith? Will Hindu refugees be considered to have ‘tural rights’ to come to this land, while Muslim refugees may be looked upon as suspect ‘economic migrants’? The Central government in September last year set up a task force under the Home Ministry to look into the refugee question, particularly those relating to grant of long-term visas based on UNHCR documentation and eventual grant of citizenship. The sooner India adopts a clear and consistent policy on refugees in sync with enlightened intertiol practices, the better. This is because not just human conflict or tural disasters, but looming climate change and environmental crises may make refugees of all of us.