REFUGEES FACE BACKLASH —IN INDIA

Assam

by Nava Thakuria, World War 4 Report

Northeast India's Assam state is still simmering with the latest wave of protests that erupted after the Indian government's initiative to protect the status of religious minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan who have taken shelter within India's borders. Most of Assam's civil society groups are presently on the streets expressing resentment over the Centre's move.

However, a forum of like-minded individuals has also come forward to support the asylum-seekers. The forum is calling for a concrete refugee policy by New Delhi—something the government has avoided for many years.

But the issue breaks down in surprising ways. Supporters of the refugees often appeal to the pan-Hindu identity politics espoused by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Those protesting the new policy include Assam's indigenous peoples, both suspicious of Hindu nationalism and fearful of being overwhelmed in their own territory.

In a recent notification, the Union government in New Delhi declared that on humanitarian considerations it had decided to "exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities" who entered India before December 31, 2014 from immigration laws, allowing them to remain in the country without proper documents.

The September 7 notification issued by Modi's government also noted reports of "a large number of Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities in those countries, such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists...compelled to seek shelter in India due to religious persecution or fear of religious persecution." They have entered India either without any valid documents, or with documents that have since expired.

Though the directive covered all religious minority communities in Bangladesh and Pakistan, its impression in Assam was that the Bhartiya Janata Party’s government had actually favored Hindu nationals from both the neighboring countries. Protesters emphasized that there are already a large number of undocumented migrants in Assam, mostly Muslims from Bangladesh.

Instant and sharp reactions came from All Assam Students Union (AASU), which led a movement in '80s demanding the deportation of millions of undoccuemnted Bangladeshi nationals from the state. The AASU leaders maintained their demand that all undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion, must be deported from Assam.

According to the Assam Accord, which was signed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the Assam agitators in 1985, undocumented migrants who had entered Assam after March 1971 (when the independence war in Bangladesh began), should be deported. Hence, according to AASU, the Centre's notification was an insult to the hard-won Accord.

Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), a political party formed by the senior AASU leaders, maintains the same position. Party leaders claim that pouring more migrants from Bangladesh in Assam would threaten the identity of indigenous communities in the state.

Similar voices were also raised by the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) political party, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity peasant organization, and a number of ethnic organizations of the state. Even left-wing formations such as the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (CPI-ML) have criticized the Centre's directive as an election ploy.

A day-long bandh (complete shutdown) was observed on September 12 across Assam in protest of the Centre's notification. Called by the AJYCP and endorsed by a number of ethnic students' bodies like the All Bodo Students Union, Karbi Students Union and Matak Students organization, the bandh was effective throughout the Brahmaputra valley of Assam.

However, some organizations based in the Barak valley opposed the bandh and supported New Delhi's initiative. The Nikhil Bharat Bengali Udbastu Samanway Samittee—or All India Bengali Refugees Coordination Committee—even came out with the demand for permanent citizenship for minority Bangladeshi nationals (read: Hindu) in India.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi also favored granting refugee status to those Bangladeshi minority migrants entering India because of religious persecution at home. Gogoi even claimed that his cabinet had already adopted a resolution over the matter. The Congress Party veteran emphasized, however, that Assam would not be able to take the burden of all those migrants.

Assam Gov. Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya, of the BJP, took a strong position, saying that all Hindus are entitled to Indian citizenship by birthright. The non-Muslim migrants from Muslim-majority nations come to India under compulsion, and hence they should be given full Indian citizenship with voting rights, he asserted.

Meanwhile, a senior Assamese journalist has requested that Modi not "burden" the economically struggling state, urging him to clarify how the Hindu migrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh would be settled in the country. In a letter addressed to the Prime Minister's Office on September 16, journalist DN Chakrabarty argued that since 1947 Assam has already taken in over 70 lakh (7 million) Muslim migrants from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), and another 30 lakh Bengali Hindus.

Chakrabarty wrote out that "the problem of Hindu migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh cannot be solved in isolation, but practical measures should be taken to permanently resolve the long-standing problem of minority persecution not only in the Indian subcontinent but also in the entire southeast Asia."

Asserting that the fear of loss of identity has gripped the Assamese community for the last six decades, Chakrabarty urged the Union government "not to inundate Assam with a fresh crop of refugees even on humanitarian grounds. While the Assamese people have full sympathy with the persecuted minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh, they are not in a position to shoulder any extra burden of refugees from Bangladesh or elsewhere."

Chakrabarty also advocated for a special session of the Parliament to discuss a permanent solution to the sensitive issue. He also called for a special conference of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to address the problems of persecution of minorities and movements across regional borders.

India today officially supports nearly half a million asylum-seekers from Tibet, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan and few other countries. According to the World Refugee Survey (conducted by US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants), the estimated number of refugees who are taking shelter in India is over 4,56,000.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has an office in New Delhi, recognizes nearly 185,000 refugees in India. It is generally accepted that the actual number of refugee or asylum-seekers in the country is much higher. Even though the UNHCR has been allowed to operate in the country since 1995, India is yet to sign the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. Moreover, New Delhi has not ratified its 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees. In fact, most of the Asian nations are not signatories to the Refugee Convention. 

The Sentinel, a popular English newspaper of northeast India, editorialized for a clear and consistent policy on refugees in sync with enlightened international practices. India simply does not have a coherent policy for refugees, the editorial said; it is a topic on which the law of the land is completely silent.

Stated the editorial: "India has felt no need to sign the United Nation'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 signatories 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."

India's refusal to sign the convention on refugees has been ascribed to worries about internal security, relations with neighboring countries, pressure on its infrastructure, and demographic changes in states bearing the brunt of refugees. The editorial addied that India has not been harsh on 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 international humanitarian aid. But the lack of a consistent policy and comprehensive laws to deal with refugees in India means that adhocism and arbitrariness rules the roost."

The demand for a coherent national policy was taken up by a forum of like-minded citizens based in Guwahati, Assam's capital. The Patriotic People's Front Assam (PPFA), in a statement issued on September 16, also advocated for official refugee status for religious minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan. The statement pointed out that offering refugee status does not mean granting citizenship to asylum-seekers, and urged the people of Assam not to get taken in by the misdirected debate of "citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus" in the state.

The PPFA also claimed that the displaced non-Muslim from the Indian subcontinent (increasingly refered to as "Bharatbarsha" by advocates of a pan-Hindu identity) can never be identified as foreigners in India as they were compelled to adopt their Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizenship without their consent. Those residents were not responsible for the division of India in 1947.

The PPFA statement recalled the declaration of India's first Premier Jawaharlal Nehru assuring families settling in either West Pakistan (today's Pakistan) or East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh) that they can live happily there, but they may opt to mig