The worldwide images of Afghan women last month lifting and throwing their infants across the barbed wires in the hands of US/UK troops guarding the Hamid Karzai international airport beamed across in the wake of the dreaded Taliban’s relentless push to subjugate the country will haunt the human race for times to come. It epitomizes the quote above in each its word and comma to its fullest. HH Dalai lama, the 14th spiritual head of Tibet and Mohammed Nazibullah the deposed and slain ex-president of Afghanistan have had both a similarity. But yet so different by the circumstances surrounding them.
Both heads of state of our neighboring countries were driven to the “state of statelessness” where the former was granted political asylum and later denied often at the altar of geo-political expediency confronting India at that time. Welcome to a very sensitive subject on which India has always shied away to confront under the veneer of being a no signatory of the UN chartered refugee convention. Over the past several weeks as Afghanistan hurtled fast and furious towards its doom accentuated by the ubiquitous Taliban advance, Indian national channels of TV/AIR in Delhi have been choc-a-bloc with news of Afghan nationals camping around the UNHCR office with a plethora of demands, upper most being grant of a ‘Refugee status” to them.
As the influx of refugees from Afghanistan continues into neighboring countries, India is witness to several Afghan minorities seeking help here. There are already 13 to 18 thousand Afghan refugees staying in India, with the family of slain ex-president Mohammed Nazibullah being the most prominent who fled to India in 1992 at the fall of Kabul to the dreaded Talibans. In addition to the above the major migration upheavals to rock India have been the influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar /Bangladesh under pressure of ethnic cleansing. Historically India has been home to refugees from a host of countries.
The refugee issue plays upon the psyche of the host country, its economy and security from a multitude of directions. However taking care of refugees is the core component of human rights paradigm. In fact to put it more objectively the refugee problems of any kind is a direct offshoot of a country’s foreign policy as well as internal equilibrium of its nationalistic fiber having gone astray due to myriad reasons , and is beyond the scope of this write up. The present article in fact tries to co-linearize the vital aspects of India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its refugee policy with special emphasis on the later so as to iron out any glitches arising out of incongruity of the two policies. The three main instruments of foreign policy and its conductance are diplomacy, foreign aid and military force at the command of a nation. For a major part of our national narrative the so called foreign policy was the brain child of Nehru and his trusted lieutenant VK Krishna Menon and rested on an edifice firmed in by “Buddhist Panchsheel” values also known as 5 principles of peaceful coexistence i.e. mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity & soverignity, mutual noninterference, equality, and mutual benefit .
Focusing on the so called ‘Refugee policy” of the country which is now hogging the lime light and in the center stage in view of the ‘Afghan tangle”, it is pertinent to mention here that India lacks a coherent and consistent “Refugee policy” in spite of carrying the dubious tag of world’s refugee center. The ‘Foreigners act” of 1946 fails to address these peculiar problems faced by the refugees as a class. It also gives unbridled powers to the central government to deport any foreign citizen. Further the CAA/Citizen amendment act of 2019 strikingly excludes Muslims from its ambit and seeks to provide citizenship rights only to Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs etc persecuted in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Moreover India is not a signatory to 1951 Refugee convention and its 1967 protocol the key legal document pertaining to refugee protection. In spite of not being a party to the above laws our country has the stellar record and moral responsibility of assimilating foreign people and culture. Further the constitution of India too lays stress on respecting life and liberty of humans. As per one of the Supreme court’s directives in NHRS VS State of Arunachal Pradesh it decreed quote…“whileall rights are available to its citizens, persons including foreign nationals are entitled to the right of equality and right of life. Unquote”.
India’s argument for not signing the 1951 Refugee convention has been resting on the premise that it pertains to only violation of political rights and not economic rights. Well if that be the argument then a person under the above definition of the refugee convention could be considered if he/she is denied the political rights, but not if deprived of economic rights. If the violation of economic rights were to be included in the definition then it would pose lot of problems for India too. Both India’s stated foreign policy and refugee policy are at logger heads with each other in the present context. How can India provide protection, legal or otherwise to foreign nationals on its land and yet claim as non-interference in the affairs of a neighbouring country (china/Tibet/Bangladesh/Afganistan) etc? Most of the tenets of Panchsheel was blown to smithereens by china in 1962 when it attacked India laying false alibis on the door steps of our foreign policy like grant of political asylum to HH Dalai Lama, encroachment of Aksai chin area and also derecognizing the Man Mohan line being a vestige of British hegemony and imperialism. India had suffered in 1971 too during the Bangladesh war of liberation when millions of Bengali refugees had trooped in the NE of our country under the brutal “scorch earth policy” unleashed by Pakistani Generals like Tikka Khan.
Failure of international commitment cum foreign aid to such a human catastrophe further exacerbated the country’s fledgling economy leading to tenuous financial position at its tether’s end. There are many challenges associated with India’s refugee problems which need to be ironed out and linearized with that of our foreign policy to present a clear cut and cogent policy commitments to the world at large. India has always tried to bunch together refugee problems with immigrants. Both are diametrically different in its inception and resolution. While immigrant problems may be triggered for better prospects to a neighbouring country, the former may not be so. But both are covered under the ‘Foreigner act of 1946” which leads to adhocism. Kirren Rijju then junior minister in MOH, in 2016 said in the Loksabha that India was known the world over as the international capital of illegal migrants/refugees and had about 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh only.
By contrast Canada, Australia, US etc continue to support major international refugee assistance operations in a very fair manner. Mexico equally has been able to cut off red tapismin these assistance programmes and has been able to garner accolades world over. Same is the case with Brazil being a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and 1967 protocol. India’s double speak in case of Rohingyas /Bangladeshis is quite self-evidently visible and baffling too when juxtaposed with that of Tibetan refugees who came to India along with HH Dalai Lama in 1959. The icing on the cake is that India has introduced new category of e-visas for the Afghan refugees who seek asylum for entry into the country for a period of 06 months. But it is anybody’s guess what will happen to them after 06 months.
Is it not call of the day to perch down from the lofty Nehruvian days of dreamy foreign policy tenets of non –alignment and be a player of real politik by being the signatory of 1951 refugee convention or else close all natural borders to refugees /immigrants seeking solace in the peace provided by India? Hence all the more need to immediately linearize the broad parameters as afforded by the two policies of foreign and refugee so that the country is not caught in the web of its own making.
(The writer is a retired army officer and can be approached on his email…firstname.lastname@example.org)