“Is India Being A Good Neighbor”: A Moral Question Or A Political One?

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By Krishangi Srivastava

India has always been a good neighbor, or so most of us as Indians have felt. We do house the Dalai Lama in exile, don’t we? We are believers of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, we open our homes and our hearts to everyone. Spiritually we might believe in this with all the purity of our souls. However, in today’s world, there are many practical aspects that we as Indians should be aware of and educated about.

Refugee groups in India include people from countries like Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Palestine. Point to be noted here: this is not a complete list. And not all of these are our immediate neighbors.

So, we have established that India has always kept its doors open to people looking for a haven. But, we also need to remember the fact that India is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugee or its 1967 Protocol. This act aims to protect the social and economic rights assigned to refugees by international laws and agreements. There’s no domestic legislation in India passed to protect refugees. While India offers de facto protection to refugees, the absence of any legal framework for refugee protection makes the status of a refugee in India a precarious one. This status is usually based on the goodwill and tolerance of the government in power.

The World Refugee Survey prepared by the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), noted that nearly 411,000 refugees were residing in India as of December 2008. While the world has always speculated on India’s refusal to sign international laws regarding refugees, the world has always agreed that “India has not discriminated against the refugees based on their country of origin, race, and religion.” (This data is from Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 30, №2, published 2011). Well, now this needs to be corrected: India has not discriminated, until 2019.

For the first time in history, India has passed a legislature directly concerning refugees. And India has applied “religion” as a condition.

In December 2019, the Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been met with widespread criticism resulting in huge protests across India and the world. A quick recap of what this amendment states: Citizenship will be granted to refugees who have entered the country before 31st December 2014 from the countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, providing they belong to Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Parsi and Buddhist religions.

For the first time in history, India has passed a legislature directly concerning refugees. And India has applied “religion” as a condition.

The reasons provided have been: these communities face religious persecution in their countries. Muslims have been left out because these are Islamic countries, and Muslims do not face religious persecution in Islamic countries. The Indo-Pakistan partition has also been cited, saying it is important we give shelter to these communities, as they were originally a part of India.

Here some logical counter-arguments are: Afghanistan was not a part of the Indo-Pakistan partition of 1947. If special consideration is given to Afghanistan, why not other countries? Muslims in Islamic countries also face sectarian persecution. As ‘sect’ is defined as a sub-group of a religion, sectarian persecution is also religious persecution. Also, many communities have escaped religious persecution from non-Islamic countries like Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Why are these communities not included?

Here, I would like to draw your attention to some of the most important communities that have been left out (more communities have not been studied in detail):

Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Tamils are the largest refugee group in India. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country, and violence against Sri Lankan Tamils has forced them to migrate to India through the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and the influx has continued. The refugees from Sri Lanka are mostly Hindus or Christians and have been persecuted on religious grounds by ‘Buddhists’—commonly believed to be the most peaceful religion in the world.

Myanmar

Rohingyas are the most persecuted religious minority in the entire world. This community is the most terribly persecuted minority in the entire world. Though Myanmar has no official religion, it is a Buddhist majority country, and the conflict with the Rohingyas is also with the Buddhist community. Myanmar refuses to acknowledge Rohingyas as citizens; persecution has forced them to flee into Bangladesh and consequently into India. Again, the conflict is with Buddhists, clear religious persecution by a community commonly perceived to be peaceful.

Tibet

Tibetans were allowed to form a government in exile in Dharamsala India. Dalai Lama and his followers were granted refugee status in 1959. This group has faced religious persecution at the hands of the Chinese (communist party of China believes in atheism) and has received love and welcome in India. Settlements were granted to the refugee community by the Indian government, and the refugees set up Tibetan schools and community services in the settlements and formed a government-in-exile in Dharamsala. India, in 2017, decided to give citizenship to Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987 as per the citizenship laws. Those born after 1987 must have an Indian parent. This still leaves out many refugees.

Bangladesh

Economic conditions have been a major reason for migration from Bangladesh. While till 1971, the exodus of Bangladeshi people into India was due to religious persecution, over the next few decades, migration became a necessary survival strategy as a result of prevailing conditions of poverty (read: the shortage of food, land, and employment) and environmental pressures (read: flooding) in Bangladesh. They have been attracted to India by a perception of income and wage differentials between Bangladesh and India.

Now analyzing the latest Citizenship Amendment Act in light of the above facts, the following questions arise:

  1. How is the state going to segregate the Bangladeshi migrants who have migrated to India for economic reasons from the ones who have migrated due to religious persecution? The Home Minister has emphasized that the refugees need to have entered India before 2014, and they need not have any documents. Hence, migrants who have come here for economic benefits will reap the benefits of Indian citizenship without any proof that they were religiously persecuted.
  2. Is religious persecution only valid if it is happening in Islamic countries? Buddhist majority countries have resulted in two majorly affected refugee groups in India, but why is their plight not considered to be on the same level as the others?
  3. If this decision has anything at all to do with the partition, then why is Afghanistan included? If the rhetoric here is that Afghanistan was once a part of ancient India, wasn’t Sri Lanka or Burma part of ancient India too? If Afghanistan is included because of the Taliban and Islamic persecution, isn’t Buddhist persecution in Sri Lanka and Myanmar on the same religious lines, but just different religion.

I am unable to find any logical answers to the above questions.

In December 2019, the Indian government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act, which has been met with widespread criticism resulting in huge protests across India and the world.

My personal opinion is that the government has been dedicated to building a pro-Hindu narrative in the country for quite some time now. We have seen the same narrative being repeated in this current situation. We have heard from our Home Minister that India is the only Hindu majority country in the world, and it is our moral responsibility to shelter Hindus. Are Tamil refugees some sub-standard Hindus that are not deserving of this benevolence?

We have heard that the three countries are Islamic. Hence their Muslim population will be mostly safe, while their minority religions are in danger. But what about the Buddhist majority countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar who are persecuting religious minorities like Hindus, Christians, and Muslims? Are these minorities not deserving of Indian benevolence because they are not persecuted by Muslims?

Here I would like to draw your attention to one important fact: the word ‘persecution’ does not appear in the Citizenship Amendment Act at all. The Prime Minister and the Home Minister have time and again reiterated that the reason for this amendment is to provide citizenship to the refugees who have faced religious persecution in the three countries: Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, all three are, coincidentally or otherwise, Islamic nations.

Is this just another way to build a narrative of Islamic persecution? The political implications of granting citizenship, giving these ‘refugees’ rights in India and effectively creating a ‘vote bank’ is the last question that arises in this situation. We have time and again heard arguments about India’s moral responsibility to these refugees. The dictionary definition of morality is “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong”.

Morality is universal, not selective. We cannot select ‘wrongs’ based on our perception of ‘wrongs’ based on what will benefit us and call that “morality”. If anything, selectively applying morality might be the most immoral behavior of all.

Krishangi Srivastava comes from a communications and marketing background and feels compelled to write because the political is personal. As a normal, middle-class, educated citizen, she raises some simple questions about the current political climate of India.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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