UPROOTED AND LOST ON STRANGE SOIL Indiaâ€™s lack of a proper refugee policy makes it easier for some political parties to express their exclusivist tendencies, writes Vijay Prashad At Dandakaranya in Odisha The Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Narendra Modi, while campaigning in Serampore, West Bengal, said, â€œYou can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.â€ What Modi suggests is that undocumented Bangladeshi migrants would be deported by a BJP government without ado. Modiâ€™s statement echoes a long tradition in the BJP â€” with the Bangladeshi refugee story as part of the bedrock of the BJPâ€™s rise in north India. In the early 1990s, fiercely anti-Bangladesh statements from the sangh parivar pushed an obscure administrative problem to the centre of political life. As a lead-up to the 1993 Delhi elections, the BJP national executive attacked the â€œinfiltrationâ€ of immigrants from Bangladesh, accusing the Congress of taking no action â€œbecause it views them as a vote bankâ€. The BJP in Delhi launched a â€œdeclaration of warâ€ against Bangladeshis as the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra called for Bangladeshis to â€œvacate the city on their own or be thrown outâ€. The BJP continued to blow this trumpet till the end of the decade, and then, in government, toned down its rhetoric (much to the displeasure of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal). Modiâ€™s statement returns us to the days of Operation Pushback and Operation Flush Out â€” policies that derive as much from xenophobic political pressure as from Indiaâ€™s lack of a refugee policy fully in line with international law. India is neither a signatory of the United Nationsâ€™s 1951 refugee convention nor of its 1967 protocol. The reasons why India did not join these was correct at those times â€” the 1951 convention defined â€œrefugeesâ€ as Europeans who had to be re-settled and suggested that â€œrefugeesâ€ were those who fled the â€œnon-Free worldâ€ for the â€œFree worldâ€. In December 1950, at the UNâ€™s third committee, Vijaylakshmi Pandit objected to the Euro-centrism of the definition of refugee, â€œSuffering knows no racial or political boundaries; it is the same for all. As international tension increases, vast masses of humanity might be uprooted and displaced.â€ She was right. The refugee crisis across the world is now severe for reasons of war and economic distress. Three years later, the foreign secretary, R.K. Nehru, told the UNHCR representative that the UN agency helped refugees from â€œthe so-called non-free world into the free world. We do not recognize such a division of the worldâ€. In spite of its reluctance to join these conventions, India has obligations under international law. India has signed onto the 1967 UN Declaration on Territorial Asylum and the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. Even though it is not a member of the 1951 refugee convention that frames the work of the UNHCR, India is on its executive committee, which supervises the agencyâ€™s material assistance programme. Along the grain of such a human rights policy, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that refugees could not be forcibly repatriated because of the protections to life and personal liberty in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (National Human Rights Commission vs. State of Arunachal Pradesh). Indiaâ€™s current refugee policy is governed by the Foreigners Act (1946) that does not even use the term â€œrefugeeâ€. Without a firm policy, Indian governments over the years have toyed with the different refugee populations for political ends â€” Indiaâ€™s treatment of Tibetans conforms to its relationship with China, for instance. The failure to have a sensible set of norms opened the door to the 1990s Operation Pushback, which used the Bangladeshi refugees as a tool for communal politics. It is what has allowed Modi to make his threatening statements against Bangladeshi migrants. One of the bedrock principles of the international regime on refugees and asylum is that it be universal â€” all people who seek refuge should be treated equally. No tests of religion or ethnicity â€” or even politics â€” should be applied. The UN declaration is sensitive to the limits that states might place. For instance, the UN Declaration on Human Rights says that the right for refugee status â€œmay not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from nonpolitical crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.â€ Criminals, therefore, can be denied the right to sanctuary (although even here extradition procedures protect those who flee from malicious accusations). The BJPâ€™s 2014 manifesto baldly states that â€œIndia shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge hereâ€. Such a statement mimics the policy of only one other country, Israel â€” which sees itself as a sanctuary for Jews who are given an automatic right to enter the country and earn citizenship (to conduct Aliyah). In February, Modi said, â€œWe have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them.â€ But India â€” by its standing in various international protocols â€” has a responsibility to all asylum seekers and migrants, and must treat them equally. To do anything less than that would move India to join the wave of anti-immigration that has taken hold in Europe and North America, and has been structured into state policy in Israel. Right before it makes this ill-considered statement in its 2014 manifesto, the BJP praises its â€œNRIs, PIOs and professionals settled abroadâ€ who are a â€œvast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globallyâ€. But this population is able to live elsewhere because of the until now relatively liberal immigration policies of their countries of residence. It is telling that the BJP only points its finger at the professionals, saying nothing of the Indian workers across the world whose remittances support their families and Indian foreign exchange balances. Attacks on Bangladeshi slum-dwellers and disregard for Indian migrant workers indicate the class bias of the BJP. It is short-sighted as policy to create policies that discriminate within India, when Indians outside India rely upon non-discrimination for their own lives. Not long after the shameful Operation Pushback, the former chief justice of India, P. N. Bhagwati, chaired a panel to create a model law for India on refugee rights. Bhagwati â€” who had also served as regional adviser for Asia and the Pacific for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights â€” suggested that â€œan appropriate legal structure or frameworkâ€ would give Indian states â€œa measure of certaintyâ€ in their policy-making and it would give â€œgreater protection for the refugeesâ€. Bhagwatiâ€™s model law defined refugees as people outside their country of origin who could not return there because of â€œa well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, sex, ethnic identity, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.â€ This was a very broad and important standard, which would greatly improve Indian refugee policy. It would also protect refugees â€” often the most vulnerable population â€” from political games that are often played at their expense, most recently by Modi. Bhagwatiâ€™s report â€” like so many other well-meaning commissions â€” has made little impact. It turned into a draft law â€” the refugees and asylum seekers (protection) bill â€” but was unable to leave the home ministry for Parliament because of pressure from the Indian security establishment and various political calculations. Why the United Progressive Alliance did not push for a rational refugee policy is a question that the home minister should answer. The impact of no policy, of course, means that refugees remain tinder for the incendiary rhetoric of Modi and his BJP. Uprooted and lost on strange soil *************************************************************************************** Let us analyse the issues. Mahatma Gandhi has promised the people of undivided India that Partition would be over his dead body. But he did not live up to his word or promise. The resultant was the Partition which he accepted with all grace and aplomb to the cheers of his Congress comrades. If one analyses the Partition dispassionately, then one realises that a homeland for Muslims was carved out into what is known as Pakistan, which in those days, meant West and East Pakistan. That means Muslims who did not want to hang around in India, had a 'homeland' to migrate to. India being a secular nation was the home of all. Yet, unlike the Muslims who had now a homeland, Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis had none. If persecuted in India, then the Muslims still could go to Pakistan and be welcomed. The same analogy did not hold good for Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis to go anywhere, since they had no recognised in concept any land which they could migrate to as their 'homeland'. Christians had a wide choice to select their 'home' if they felt that they were persecuted. Thus, it was natural for Hindus, Sikhs and Parsis to move where they felt comfortable, they have a sizeable number where persecution would not be axiomatic. Thus, they moved to India, where they could have the comfort of relative majority. Therefore, is the The BJPâ€™s 2014 manifesto that states ''India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge hereâ€ wholly misplaced? The writer seems to suggest that it is. Therefore, when the Bengali and Bihari Muslims have a homeland in Bangladesh which is a Muslim country, there coming into India is not understood since they cannot state being persecuted in a land where they are the majority. Hence, the anti Bangaldeshi sentiment cannot be taken to be wrong, especially when India itself is struggling to find a place in the sun and give an equitable existence to those already in India, irrespective of caste, community, creed or religion. Thus, how is Operation Pushback and Operation Flush Out xenophobic as the writer wants to indicate? One of the bedrock principles of the international regime on refugees and asylum is that it be universal â€” all people who seek refuge should be treated equally. No tests of religion or ethnicity â€” or even politics â€” should be applied. That is right. But what is a 'refugee'? That is the question. The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees has adopted the following definition of a refugee (in Article 1.A.2): Do the Bangaldeshis who come to India illegally, qualify to be termed as 'refugees' vide the UN interpretation? So, what prompts the writer to state 'it makes this ill-considered statement in its 2014 manifesto' True the BJP praises its â€œNRIs, PIOs and professionals settled abroadâ€ who are a â€œvast reservoir to articulate the national interests and affairs globallyâ€. Indeed, one must praise all who contribute productively to the nation they go to and also send remittance back home, for they are not illegal immigrants, but legal ones, who have willingly been accepted in the nation where they have gone, some to work and some to reside permanently. The writer fails to see the above difference between the NRI, PIOs and the illegal Bangaldeshi immigrants, who are not even refugees in the terms of the UN. It is unfortunate that people like this writer twist issues and then present them as very intellectually alive, seeping through every pore with humanity, when in actuality it is totally misplaced and misrepresented aimed at driving an agenda or to let out venom and frustration. One must be careful of such Pollyannas and Bleeding Hearts who aim to confuse the people.