India had been a refuge for people fleeing repression since early times. Jews and Zoroastrians were welcomed with open arms even before India became a nation-state. Since independence, that trend had continued till the Narendra Modi government decided otherwise and brought religion into the equation.
Activists like Suhas Chakma of the Rights and Risk Analysis Group (RRAG) have long campaigned for India to enact a refugee law. India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Nor does India have a well-defined national policy on refugees. However, India had always been compassionate and allowed refugees fleeing civil war, religious persecution or ethnic cleansing to come into the country.
This is why Chakma and other activists want India to have a policy framework in place. Without that the government of the day deals with refugees at a political and administrative level. Without a system in place refugees will be treated as foreigners and can be thrown out at the whim or political convenience of the government of the day.
The Narendra Modi government, unlike all previous Indian governments including that of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has through the Citizenship Amendment Act, made religion a factor in granting citizenship to minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. While Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Christians facing repression in any of the three countries will get Indian citizenship, Muslims are exempt. This goes against the Indian Constitution, which does not make religion a criterion for obtaining citizenship. The fact that Shias and Ahmadiyya minorities face persecution in both Afghanistan and Pakistan was conveniently overlooked.
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The Modi government is selective in welcoming those facing persecution at home. People from Afghanistan wishing to escape the Taliban last August were given e-visa for a six-month period. That was all, they had to move out after that as chances of the extension were dim. There was however compassion in the treatment of Sikhs and Hindus facing a similar threat from the Taliban or the ISIS(K). This is despite India’s repeated assertion of historical and traditional ties with the people of Afghanistan. When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, thousands of Najibullah supporters rushed to India as refugees. There are today around 21,000 Afghans living in India, of them around 11,000 are registered as asylum seekers.
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Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state had been targeted by the Buddhist majority for several decades. They are not acknowledged as citizens by the ruling military junta. Rohingya are spread across the neighbouring countries including Thailand, India and in camps in Bangladesh. While in the past Rohingya could slip into India and feel safe, the welcome has now faded.
In July 2018, the home ministry claimed that there were 40,000 Rohingyas in various parts of India. The ministry dubbed Rohingyas as illegal immigrants and regarded them as a security threat claiming they had links with Pakistan. But no evidence was offered to prove either their terrorist activities or their connections with Pakistani entities. However immediate action was ordered. State governments were asked to identify and deport these illegal immigrants. Indian security forces at the Bangladesh border were told not to allow Rohingya families to enter India.
Contrast this with what happened earlier. After the army crackdown in Myanmar in 1988, when Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, members of the National League for Democracy took shelter in India. In fact, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s defence minister George Fernandes allowed pro-democracy members of the NLD youth wing to operate from a portion of his official residence. They brought out Mizzima, a resistance newspaper from Delhi.
Despite not signing the refugee convention, independent India was generous in welcoming those fleeing repression. The first major refugee influx was from Tibet. In 1959, when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, fled his home in Lhasa, he was given asylum by the government and welcomed to the country with his followers by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Dalai Lama and his followers settled in Dharamshala from where a Tibetan government in exile took root. Since then, streams of people facing persecution in the neighbourhood have been given shelter in India.
The Buddhist Chakmas from former East Pakistan made a beeline to India by crossing into eastern and northeastern states. Minority Hindus from the eastern wing of Pakistan continued to stream in whenever there were riots till the massive exodus ahead of the liberation movement of 1971. India hosted 10 million refugees from East Pakistan for ten months before and during the liberation war.
The ethnic war in Sri Lanka saw thousands of Tamils leave their homes in the northern and eastern provinces of the island and flock to Tamil Nadu and other southern states.