Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

India's refugee saga, from 1947 to 2017

In the seven decades since it became an independent country, India has seenand largely welcomedwaves of migrants fleeing conflict in neigbhouring nations

Whenever one hears the word ‘refugee’, there are many terms and phrases that spring to mind—‘human rights’, ‘mass exodus’, ‘violence’, ‘national security’, etc. 

A refugee is defined as “a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it". 

This definition is given by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a crucial treaty in international refugee law. The treaty entered into force approximately half a century ago on 4 October 1967 and 146 countries are parties to the protocol. 

India in its 70 years as an independent nation-state has seen its fair share of refugee problems. And of course, it started with Partition itself.

The refugee of Partition

Though people who crossed over the newly formed boundaries between India and Pakistan—by choice or forcibly—didn’t lose their nationalities, they were still forced to live the lives of a refugee. Refugee camps across north India served as homes for those who had borne the brunt of Partition. 

Since these refugees were automatically the citizens of newly independent India, the question of a threat to national security due to their presence was out of the question. But at this juncture, when the fledgling state was just trying to stand on its feet and struggling to provide these refugees with basic amenities like food, clothing and shelter, the 1948 war with Pakistan broke out. 

The national capital of Delhi in particular saw a huge influx of refugees. The numbers were such that an entire city—Faridabad—had to be built to rehabilitate refugees who were living in appalling conditions in various camps. The scale of the problem was an unprecedented challenge for the young government, and it was only through the efforts of many—including, notably, the social reformer and freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay—that the rehabilitation of the Partition refugees could be carried out.

Photo: HT
Photo: HT

The next major movement of refugees towards India happened almost a decade after Partition, in 1959, when the Dalai Lama, along with more than 100,000 followers, fled Tibet and came to India seeking political asylum. Granting asylum to them on humanitarian grounds proved costly to India, earning the ire of the Chinese government. 

As a result, Sino-Indian relations took a major hit. Border issues between the two countries, and Chinese encroachment on Indian territory, began to crop up with greater frequency in the wake of New Delhi's decision to provide a haven to these fleeing Tibetans. 

The 1962 war with China, in particular, proved very costly to India. There were many reasons that led to the war, but the granting of political asylum to Tibetans was certainly one of the triggers. 

The Tibetan refugees settled across northern and north-eastern Indian states, and the seat of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual as well as the political leader of the Tibetan community, was established in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh.The Tibetan government in exile operates from there to this day. 

It is intriguing that even though India is neither a signatory to the 1951 Refugees’ Convention nor the 1967 protocol, which has 140 signatories, the country has still served as a home to the largest refugee population in South Asia. The Tibetan refugees continue to live harmoniously, largely, with other local Indian groups and as a community they are perceived as ‘peaceful’.

The Bangladeshi refugee

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The next major refugee crisis happened during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971, when millions of refugees migrated from the country to India, fleeing the conflict between the Pakistani army and Bangladeshi forces. This led to a sudden spike in population in states bordering Bangladesh, and it became increasingly difficult for the government of India to ensure food security. According to some estimates, more than 10 million Bangladeshi refugees escaped in 1971 and took shelter in India. 

Even today, the issue of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is used by political parties to garner votes in every election cycle. Unlike the Tibetan refugees, they are seen as a security threat. 

Furthermore, the constant tussle between the local communities and Bangladeshi refugees today often sparks violence, resulting all too often in deaths. The conflict is fiercest in a number of north-eastern states, such as Assam, Tripura and Manipur. The local communities and tribal groups have alleged that refugees from Bangladesh and the continuous flow of illegal immigrants have led to a change in the social demography of that area, thereby making the locals a minority in their own homeland. This was one of the primary reasons behind the Kokrajhar riots in Assam in 2012, which saw the deaths of more than 80 people.

The Sri Lankan Tamil refugees

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Another sizeable group of refugees in India comprises Sri Lankan Tamils who abandoned the island nation in the wake of active discriminatory policies by successive Sri Lankan governments, events like the Black July Riots of 1983, and the bloody Sri Lankan civil war. 

Mostlythese refugees, who number over a million, settled in the state of Tamil Nadu as it is nearest to Sri Lanka and since it was easier for them, as Tamils, to adjust to life there. “More than 1.34 lakh Sri Lankan Tamils crossed the Palk Strait to India between 1983 and 1987 during the first in flow. In three more phases, many more refugees entered India. The war-torn Sri Lankans sought refuge in southern India with more than 60,000 refugees currently staying in 109 camps in Tamil Nadu alone," according to a report in India Today. 

A large number of Sri Lankan Tamils still live in what began as makeshift refugee camps decades earlier, despite the end of the civil war nearly nine years ago. India's involvement in the Sri Lankan conflict most famously resulted in the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, and the refugees remain a sensitive issue, which has time and again strained India’s—and Tamil Nadu's—relations with Sri Lanka.

The Afghan refugees 

Photo: HT
Photo: HT

While not one of the larger refugee groups in the country, a number of Afghans also took shelter in India after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Small groups of Afghan refugees kept coming to India in subsequent years. These refugees are mostly concentrated in and around Delhi, and have largely established spaces for themselves. 

Also, according to the website of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many of the Hindu and Sikh Afghans who came to India after fleeing fighting in their home country in the early 1990s have been granted citizenship over the past decade. Both the World Bank and UNHCR reports suggest that currently India has more than 200,000 Afghan refugees living in its territory.

The Rohingya refugees

Photo: HT
Photo: HT

The debate over refugees gained national prominence yet again last year after 40,000 Rohingya Muslims escaped Myanmar to take shelter in India. The office of the UNHCR has issued identity cards to about 16,500 Rohingya in India, which it says helps “prevent harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation" of refugees. 

However, India has categorized the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and a security threat, siding with the Burmese government. The Indian government has stated that the principle of non-refoulement, or of not forcing refugees to return to their country of origin, does not apply to India principally as it is not a signatory to the 1951 refugees convention. 

The Indian government has, in fact, appealed to Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees. However, a report in The Indian Express notes, “India’s claim to send the Rohingyas back to Myanmar rests on the notion that the refugees are of Burmese stock. However, the issue at hand is that the Burmese do not consider the Rohingyas as their citizens and consider them to be immigrants who were brought in from Bangladesh during the British colonial rule. Further, Bangladesh, which remains the favourite destination for the Rohingyas facing atrocities in Myanmar, is of the opinion that they are natives of the Burmese state and should be protected there."

The Chakma and Hejong refugees

Many from the Chakma and Hajong communities—who once lived in the Chittagong hill tracts, most of which are located in Bangladesh—have been living as refugees in India for more than five decades, mostly in the North-East and West Bengal. According to the 2011 census, 47,471 Chakmas live in Arunachal Pradesh alone. 

In 2015, the Supreme Court of India had directed the central government to give citizenship to both Chakma and Hajong refugees. In September last year, the government of India decided to provide citizenship to these groups, despite opposition from many groups in Arunachal Pradesh, where these refugees are concentrated.

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To conclude, over the years India has received wave after wave refugees from many of its neighbours. And the government's statements during the Rohingya crisis notwithstanding, India has generally followed the principle of non-refoulement, refusing to send refugees back to a place where they face a threat to their life. For a country of India’s resources, this is an achievement of no small magnitude.

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