Identity Politics and India's Refugee Policy

Identity Politics and India's Refugee Policy

by Swathi Gokulan

This past August marked a year since the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar – an act that sparked global outrage. To make matters worse, not much has improved for this stateless population. As Bangladesh and Myanmar stagger over a premature and faulty  deal for the return of the Rohingya, their neighbor to the west has mostly sat out of the crisis. India, the most stable democracy in the region, has done little more than threaten to deport Rohingya refugees from its soil and extend support to the repatriation agreement between Dhaka and Naypyidaw.

A look at India’s refugee response over the years shows why India is unlikely to budge on the Rohingya issue. An increase in sentiments of religious nationalism over the years makes it unsurprising that an otherwise constitutionally secular state would allow religion to determine the fate of refugees who knock on its borders for asylum.

The violent partition of the Indian subcontinent following British colonial rule led to one of the largest mass migration movements in history.  In many ways, the cross-border movement and displacement of people along religious lines shaped the formation of states and national identities in South Asia. As Pakistan became a homeland for Muslims in the region and displaced Bengali Hindus arriving in India, the onus fell on India to grant refuge to Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Bangladesh. 

More than 70 years later, this post-colonial legacy continues to shape India’s refugee policies.  Like many of its counterparts in South Asia, India is party neither to the UN's 1951 Convention on Refugees nor its 1967 Protocol for several reasons. First, citing its non-alignment policy, India perceives the Convention to be Eurocentric and steeped in Cold War politics. Second, it claims that the Convention places undue burden on developing nations to handle refugee influxes when they struggle to meet the needs of their own citizens. Third, it sees acceding to the Convention as compromising its sovereignty and national security concerns.

A combination of porous borders, hostile neighbors and external militancy means that the Indian state would want complete autonomy in regulating the entry of foreigners. India’s position in a volatile region—a Hindu majority nation surrounded by mostly Muslim-majority nations— also makes it very cautious about refugee flows disturbing its demographic makeup. Keeping these factors in mind, India has avoided putting in place an official refugee policy.

However, this stance is complicated by the fact that every conflict in the region has sent several waves of refugees to India. After the Partition refugees of 1947 came the Tibetans fleeing Chinese persecution in the 1950s. The liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 sent thousands over the border. Ethnic Tamils flocked to the southern parts of India at different points in the Sri Lankan civil war. Protracted conflict in Afghanistan has sent several waves of Afghan refugees to Indian cities. In addition to the Rohingya from Myanmar, refugee groups have also come from parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Indisputably, relations with these refugees’ country of origin play a huge role in India’s policy response. However, it cannot be denied that the question of which refugee groups gain government patronage is painted with a communal hue. Despite India's constitutional status as a secular country, the legal vacuum in refugee protection allows India to act selectively. Successive governments have turned to vote-bank politics to muster electoral support from different refugee groups.

Rising Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done little to put out these communal flames. In its 2014 election manifesto, Modi’s political party explicitly called on persecuted Hindus to seek refuge in India. In this vein, a citizenship law was amended in 2016 to naturalize all undocumented migrants from neighboring countries belonging to minority communities—specifically excluding Muslim migrants. In addition to being discriminatory, this law completely ignores the fact that Muslim minorities face persecution in these countries like the Shias, Ahmadis, and Sufis in Pakistan. The same can be said about the Hazaras and other minority groups caught in Afghanistan's ongoing conflict.

Non-Muslim refugees, including the Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils, were assisted directly by the Indian Government. They were granted full legal protection, and access to land and other services. The Tibetan refugees even have a government-in-exile based in India. Meanwhile, those groups neglected by the government live in segregated settlements in cities and are vulnerable to abuse. Often, it is up to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deal with other groups like the Afghans, Burmese, Palestinians, and Rohingyas by conducting refugee status determination and issuing identity cards to groups that approach them, despite the fact that the Government of India does not recognize them as refugees.

The lack of an official asylum policy in India has led the government to pursue an ad hoc approach to different refugee populations. With no distinction between a foreigner and a refugee, India’s refugee response revolves around politics rather than protection. Identity politics is nothing new in India and has been a mainstay across successive administrations.  With upcoming national elections in 2019, the Modi government’s efforts to legitimize the state as Hindu can have grave consequences for its refugee policies and its perception by the international community.

The Rohingya are among many communities fleeing repressive governments. It is abominable that the most persecuted communities in the world find themselves unwelcome amidst the Hindu nationalist aspirations of the Indian state.  India, with its relatively stable and democratic disposition in the region, must take the lead on formulating an inclusive policy for refugees.  At a time when it aspires for a permanent seat the UN Security Council, it is imperative for India to have a refugee policy that protects, rather than divides, those in need.

Image: Displaced Rohingya Muslims

Courtesy of Mahmoud Hosseini / Tasnim News Agency (from Wikimedia Commons)


Swathi Gokulan is a recent graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. As a researcher, she is interested in forced migration and minority rights. She has worked as journalist in India for Reuters and, where she covered international politics, urban development and culture.

She holds a BA in Journalism from Sophia College for Women, Mumbai and a diploma in human rights law from the National Law School of India University, Bangalore.

The Role of Decentralization in Tunisia's Transition to Democracy

The Role of Decentralization in Tunisia's Transition to Democracy

Paying it Forward: The Future of Microfinance with Dr. Amjad Saqib

Paying it Forward: The Future of Microfinance with Dr. Amjad Saqib