At a meeting in Chennai that I recently attended, an official of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, herself a Swiss national, remarked that ‘the Indian Government has a very humane atttitude towards refugees’. She was not merely showing courtesy towards her hosts. For, as another speaker at the symposium pointed out, in its sixty-year-career the Republic of India has given refugee to some twenty-five million people fleeing persecution in their own homelands.
Listening to these presentations, I made a list of major refugee movements into India after January 26th, 1950. This doubtless incomplete listing goes as follows:In the early 1950s, more than a million Hindus fled East Pakistan, seeking shelter chiefly in the state of West Bengal;
In the late 1950s, Tibetan Buddhists began crossing over into the Indian part of the Himalaya. Most settled near Dharamsala and Mussoorie, but several thousand made their home as far south as Karnataka;
In the early 1960s, following major Hindu-Muslim riots in East Pakistan, there was a fresh flow of refugees into eastern India;
From the mid 1960s, a steady trickle of Garo and Chakma tribals began coming into north-east India from East Pakistan;
In the early 1970s, Hindus and Muslims, numbering some nine million in all, came across the border, being placed in temporary shelters across West Bengal, and parts of Tripura and Assam as well;
In the early 1980s, very many Sri Lankan Tamils crossed the Palk Strait into Tamil Nadu;
From the late 1980s, many Burmese nationals began seeking asylum in India.
What is striking about these successive waves is that the migrants were all fleeing majoritarian or authoritarian policies in their own countries. The Bengali Hindus were the victims of an Islamic Pakistan; the Tibetan Buddhists of a cruel Communist regime; the Sri Lankan Tamils of Sinhala chauvinism; the Burmese of a military dictatorship. The refugees of 1971 were fleeing both the Punjabi chauvinism of the Pakistani elite and the brutality of the Pakistani army. For all these people, the Republic of India felt somehow safer than the country of which they were citizens. (In addition to these victims of persecution, India has also provided a home to large numbers of Hindus from Nepal and Muslims from Bangladesh who have come as economic migrants.)
During the Partition riots of 1946-7, millions of Muslims refugees left India for Pakistan, even as millions of Hindus and Sikhs came into it. However, after the establishment of our Republic in 1950, the movement has been strictly one way. While India has welcomed in refugees from Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka. there are no Indian refugees in those countries.
As that UN official pointed out, our tradition of hospitality to victims of discrimination brings credit to India and Indians. A poor, divided and still imperfectly united country has provided refuge and dignity to tens of millions of aliens. This has been the handiwork of both state and citizen; for, while public policies have welcomed refugees in, the aam admi has provided space and succour to them. Overall, our record in this regard compares very favourably to that of the richer and older nations of Europe and North America.
Indians should be more aware, and perhaps more proud, of this tradition than they currently are. But the self-congratulation should not be excessive. For, even as we have welcomed in some twenty-five million refugees since 1950, in the same period we—that is to say, the people and Government of India—have displaced roughly the same number of our own fellow citizens from their lands and villages.
There have been two major groups of ‘internal refugees’ in independent India; the victims of development projects, and the victims of social strife. Since 1950, perhaps as many as twenty million Indians have been ousted from their homes by new hydro-electric projects, mines, factories, roads, colleges and universities, and townships. Those displaced have come disproportionately from the class of small peasants, whereas the schemes they have had to make way for have benefited the urban middle and upper classes, as well as farmers with large landholdings.
In the early years of independence, there was little protest at this displacement. Tribals and peasants who surrendered their lands to development schemes were persuaded that this was in the larger ‘national interest’. From the 1970s, however, social activists began to mobilize against forced displacement, on the legimitate grounds that those ousted by dams and factories were paid inadequate compensation, and were not provided any stake in these projects. Large dams were often the target; as with the protests against the Koel-Karo, Tehri, and Narmada dams, which were all important precursors to the more recent struggles against forcible land acquisition in Singur, Nandigram, and Niyamgiri. There is one important difference, however; whereas the earlier protests were aimed at public sector companies, these new movements of resistance have as their twin targets the state and the private corporations that its land acquisition policies seek to benefit.
Since 1950, some five million Indians have also been rendered homeless by sectarian or civil violence. After the bloodshed of Partition, Hindu-Muslim animosity was somewhat stilled by the shock and popular revulsion at the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. However, there were episodic riots in the 1960s and 1970s, and then—as a direct consequence of the Sangh Parivar’s Ayodhya movement—a more-or-less continuous stream of rioting between 1989 and 1993. The destruction of the Babri Masjid led to another lull, this broken a decade later, when Gujarat witnessed a horrific pogrom against Muslims.
For the most part, the main offenders in religious riots have been radical or extremist Hindus; the main sufferers, poor and vulnerable Muslims. There have been two major exceptions; the pogrom against the Sikhs in Delhi and some other northern cities in 1984, and the forced expulsion of Pandits from the Kashmir Valley by Islamic fundamentalists in 1989-90.
Other Indians have been displaced as a consequence of conflicts between the state and those who seek to challenge or overthrow it. The Naga and Mizo insurgencies, and the response of the Indian Army to them, led to very many innocent villagers being killed or rendered homeless. More recently, the Maoist insurrection, and the state’s response to it, has also caused hundreds of thousands of Indians to abandon their homes to save their lives.
Relgiious violence and armed insurrection may have arisen independently of state action, but the policies—and practices—of the Government of India have often contributed to their escalation. Because the homeless are abandoned by the state but provided succour by religious groups, there is a polarization of sectarian sentiment. Because the perpetrators of riots are never punished, there are always provocateurs available to start new (and more deadly) conflagrations.
There is an old line about India that some people are never tired of repeating—that of what can be truthfully said about this country the opposite is also true. A more evocative version of this aphorism, attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru, runs as follows: ‘India is home to all that is truly noble as well as truly disgusting in the human experience.’ So it is with our refugee policy; honourable and admirable when it comes to treating victims of persecution from other lands, shameful and shocking with regard to the refugees created by economic and political developments within India.