Author: Keshav Kumar, Banaras Hindu University, Faculty of Arts (Economics Hons.).
A common man once remarked that what can be more painful than being homeless! The man was a refugee. what he actually meant was that there is nothing more painful than being stateless. He said, “I don’t have citizenship of this country, I don’t have a house, I don’t have the right to vote, I don’t have access to basic amenities, health, rations, education for my children.” There are hundreds of thousands of refugees and everyone has some sort of the same story. When asked why they flee from home, they say that, here they are at least alive and free from the tortures which their own government and their own people subject them to. Life of a refugee is no less gruelling than that of prisoners. In fact, in many ways, it is worse than that of prisoners who have some basic rights to exercise at least. They are forced to leave and live away from their homes just to survive and to be free from cruelty and torture. Even imagining such a life can send shivers down the spine of any common man.
Who is a refugee as per laws and international definitions?
Well, UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) says refugees are people who have fled out of war, violence, conflict, or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in their country and is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political reason. Indian law says that a refugee is an illegal immigrant (with exception in case of Tibet and Sri Lankan immigrants who are legal immigrants from Government’s perspective) who entered India either without proper valid documentation or who initially had valid documents but has stayed beyond the permitted time.
What is ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ to India?
This means that our country considers ‘the whole world is a family’ and this is not a recent concept. We have followed it since ages, and can find its references in the Maha Upanishad and Rig Veda which dates back to 3000-3500 years ago. India is not a signatory member of Refugee Convention of 1951 or 1967 Protocol of UNHCR. Also, India doesn’t have a national policy on refugees. Yet, India has stood on its words of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ and is still a home to thousands of refugees. After the partition of erstwhile India in 1947 into India and Pakistan, the world witnessed one of the largest immigration crises. Millions of people got displaced from Pakistan and landed in refugee camps of Delhi, Punjab and Bengal among other places, uncertain of their fortune, who were later given citizenship as per laws.
Tibetans were considered legal refugees and were allowed to live in India in 1959 after the Tibetan uprising following Chinese crackdown. The 14th Dalai Lama, leader of Tibetan migration movement, came to India and was followed by around 80,000 Tibetan refugees. The Government provided them with land, housing, opened special educational institutions, and also some seats in higher studies are reserved for Tibetan immigrants even today. The Tibetan government in exile, still functions in India and the people of Tibetan origin cast votes and select their leader democratically. Currently, India hosts around 1 million Tibetan refugees who freely exercise their rights and live a happy life.
India hosted more than a million of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees when they immigrated following a civil war in Sri Lanka. Now, they live in different cities of the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka. Afghan refugees in India counts nearly to 10,000. They are primarily Hindu and Sikh immigrants. In 2015, Government provided citizenship to 4,300 Hindu and Sikhs refugees mostly from Afghanistan and some from Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, following religious prosecution settled in different states of India, primarily in North eastern states and West Bengal after illegally crossing borders. During the formation of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, many of the minority groups (estimated to be around 10 million) left Bangladesh, which counted in millions. Porous borders allow illegal immigrants even today. In 2004, the government reported around 12 million illegal migrants in India. Rohingya Muslim refugees in India, who are originally from Myanmar, also saw an upsurge, primarily in north-east states. India not only hosts people from neighboring countries but also hosts hundred thousands of refugees from non-neighbouring countries via UNHCR. The UNHCR works with the government, civil societies and NGOs to felicitate and help refugee and asylum-seekers in accessing public health, education and legal aid services.
All these refugees are testimony to India’s commitment to the words of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
But why do we need to deport many of them who are illegal immigrants and stop further infiltrations? Or can we provide citizenship and do something more for them?
Three main concerns arise in this context which are namely Economic, Cultural and Security concerns. As far as providing support to refugee and asylum seekers is considered, we have always shown a good gesture and stood as an example of humanity for many. But from an economic perspective we are still a developing nation where the average income of the people is considerably very low as compared to advanced and developed nations which places a limit on our spending. Refugees in large numbers results in drain of our resources and wealth. For example during 1971 Exodus, hundreds of refugee camps were set up across the states of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya which saw millions of refugees who arrived from Bangladesh and put an overload on resources available. Camps in Tripura alone kept over 9 lakh refugees against the indigenous population of 15 lakhs. This crisis got worse after an outbreak of cholera and infectious disease in the camps. The government had to spend a considerable amount on medication and hospital facilities including doctors and additional paramedical staff. The Indian government expected a refund of the major part of the expense incurred from facilitating the sick refugees from an international community but got nothing in return.
Also, we have very limited job opportunities against the increasing population. If the workforce increases further, that is, refugees join in, it will become more difficult for indigenous people to get jobs which will result in a lower standard of living.
Next is the cultural concern. Many of the north eastern states (like Tripura, Nagaland, Assam) fear that they will lose their indigenous culture with the inflow of refugees in such large numbers.
The third reason of concern is security. Our external intelligence agency have time and again repeated and warned of possible threats from these refugees as they may be possible terrorists or any such people who comes with motives of disturbing the internal security of India. Recently when the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, R&AW had issued warnings related to the security concern. Safety, Integrity and security of our nation is a major concern alongside other factors which disallows us to have refugees.
Despite all these facts of concern, we Indians have stood up for the concept ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’. It speaks of the testimony and the love which we have for this entire world and humanity. India already has a variety of cultures and languages, and its own economic and security problems, yet we accepted the people from outside our borders and gave them shelter to live in; making our country more heterogeneous. But sugar can be added to a full brim glass of milk to make it sweet only till the milk doesn’t overflow. Once the milk starts overflowing we need to stop adding sugar. Similar is the case with immigration in India. We now have our own challenges and probably can’t afford to put more pressure on the limited resources which we have. Therefore, it is high time that we take a major step to stop any further infiltrations which will help us develop and improve the living standard of the people of our nation.