India: No more refuge for the persecuted

Delhi Dec 19, 2019, 02.26 PM(IST) Written By: Shastri Ramachandaran

Image for representation. Photograph:( AFP )

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India avowedly wants to be a refuge for persecuted Hindus in the region and professedly for that purpose has enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

India has no refugee policy. It is not a signatory to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines a refugee. Now, India avowedly wants to be a refuge for persecuted Hindus in the region and professedly for that purpose has enacted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

At the same time, the world’s largest democracy is silent on the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya, the region’s worst persecuted minority. It fell to The Gambia to take up in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) the killing of thousands of Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in August 2017. UN investigations suggest that at least 10,000 Rohingya may have been killed in the military crackdown, which saw more than 700,000 Rohingya flee Buddhist-majority Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Yet CAA provides for citizenship – on the basis of religion - to persecuted Buddhists along with Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. In other words, the refugee seeking migrant must be a non-Muslim from a Muslim-majority nation, which Myanmar is not. Neither is Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is home to the largest proportion of Hindu population – 12.6 per cent – outside India. In recent decades, it is in Sri Lanka that the largest number of Hindus (Tamils) – about 2.55 million – has suffered discrimination, denial of their rights and persecution under the majoritarian Sinhalese. It is in Sri Lanka that the highest number of Hindus (Tamils) was killed during the civil war from 1983 to 2009, which claimed nearly1.9 lakh lives including of non-Tamils; and, it is from Sri Lanka that, after 1971, the largest number of Hindu refugees came to India. Tamil Nadu still has a sizable number of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees.

However, the Indian government, though explicitly committed to providing refuge to persecuted Hindus in the region, couldn’t care less about Sri Lankan Hindus. To justify their exclusion on the ground that their persecution was linguistic – and not religious – will not wash because they are Hindus as much as they are Tamils. And, as much as the Hindu, the Muslim is also a persecuted minority under the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka.

The BJP government has no explanation for this exclusion of minorities (including Hindus) in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. It may well be because the Hindi-Hindutva party has no vote bank in Tamil Nadu; and its polarising Hindu-Muslim politics has been rewarded mainly in the cow belt and is making headway in Bengal. In the eastern state, the success of its divisive agenda depends on targeting Bangladesh and “Bangladeshis” in India.

This shift to religion as a basis for citizenship and exclusion of Muslims gives a new, intimidating ring to India’s policy of “neighbours first”. The CAA upturns the very idea of citizenship by rooting it in religion. The CAA, to be followed by the NRC (National Register of Citizens), is about finding people to exclude, not include. The government can give citizenship to anyone and does not need a new law for that. It is to exclude a particular community that the new law has been passed.

Such an extension of divisiveness at home to South Asia as a whole is fraught with serious consequences including long-term damage to India’s reputation, its image as a leading power, its culture of diversity and its credentials as a democracy. Even East Asia’s authoritarian regimes with restricted democracy have taken particular care to maintain their non-discriminatory ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious diversity. 

The CAA is an instrument for tyrannising a minority, especially the poor and persecuted in India and South Asia. In adopting such a law, the government has betrayed India’s long history of providing refuge to the persecuted and displaced from neighbouring countries.

Sixty years ago, thousands of Tibetan Buddhists and the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. During the 1971 war, India was a refuge for lakhs of people from East Pakistan, who returned after the birth of Bangladesh. The India that stood up to the West, including for “liberation of Bangladesh”, and supported struggles against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid was a much poorer country, neither wanted at the world’s high tables nor wooed by the hegemons of the time

Regardless of the party in office – Congress, Janata, National Front-Left Front – and the ideological tilt of leaders, be it Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Rajiv Gandhi or VP Singh, India supported the cause of the oppressed and uprooted elsewhere; and, stood up for peace, freedom and democracy.

In grace with history, India not only backed peoples’ struggles abroad but was also a safe haven to those who sought refuge and resisted tyrannies in their home countries. Besides the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans, there were others, too, over the decades - refugees and democracy activists from Iran, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma and several African countries, including South Africa.

Traditionally, Europe was home to those fleeing persecution. At a time when London and Paris, for example, were the choice of most political exiles, a young BP Koirala came to Calcutta and led Nepal’s struggle for democracy from Indian soil. History is replete with instances of the powerful pull India’s diversity and democracy exerted on the mind of freedom-loving peoples who resisted dictators, discrimination and oppression.

Doubtless, that India is changing, perhaps disappearing. But now, the very idea of that India and its values are being religiously destroyed by the state itself.

(Views expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)