August 24, 2015

India: An Uncertain Home (G Seetharaman)

Aug 23 2015 : The Economic Times (Mumbai)
An Uncertain Home

As the Narendra Modi government makes noises about welcoming Hindus, Sikhs and other minorities persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, the families of those waiting to make that journey do not have enough reasons to be too upbeat yet 
For a country that is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol, which govern refu gee protection and rights, India has been, at least on paper, quite welcom ing of refugees, as attested by the huge numbers of Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees (see Refugees in India). But be ing hospitable to refugees also calls for recognition of their rights and a clearly defined path to citizenship or repatria tion, as the case may be. The Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government is reportedly planning to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to fast-track granting citizenship to refugees, mostly Hindus but also Sikhs, Christians and other minorities, who have fled Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, thanks to reli gious persecution. But it is easier said than done, given the resistance from locals where refugees live and legal challenges like the Assam Accord, according to which only those foreigners who migrated to Assam till March 24, 1971 will be considered Indian citizens, thereby leaving the fate of thousands of migrants from Bangladesh and Nepal in jeopardy. Even so, the government's views and actions on the issue have attracted much attention.
In this context, ET Magazine met two Hindu families in Jodhpur who came from Pakistan, and a Sikh family who fled Afghanistan. While members of only one of the three families have become Indian citizens, all of them have loved ones in Pakistan and Afghanistan who are keen to join them in India.
“They don't have the Money“

Jasbir Kaur has little hope of her family in Afghanistan joining her in India
One has to really strain one's ears to be able to hear Jasbir Kaur unless the conversation happens in a sound-proofed room. And she is not quick to respond even if the questions are perfunctory, and just before you start repeating the question, wondering if she did not hear you the first time, pat comes the answer. She is all smiles till we get past the pleasantries to the issue at hand.
Kaur, who does not know how old she is but does not look older than 30, came to Delhi from Lashkar Gah in southern Afghanistan six years ago with her future father-inlaw and got married to Harpal Singh, a private cab driver who had arrived from Af ghanistan a few years earlier. Her father-in-law then went back to Afghanistan and has not been able to come to India since. Everyone in her family -parents, five sisters and their families, and her brother -is in Lashkar Gah. Does she have any hope that they will be able to move to India like she did? “I don't think so. They don't have the money,“ she says as she struggles to not let her emotions get the better of her.
Kaur, who has a daughter, is one of 7,425 Hindu and Sikh refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan in India. Her separation from her family notwithstanding, she is glad she has more free dom than she did in Afghanistan. “I couldn't go to school there,“ she adds before she starts her tailoring classes at the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society's office in Tilak Nagar in west Delhi.
Khalsa Diwan is an organisation formed to help Sikh refugees from Afghanistan.
Hardit Singh, joint secretary of Khalsa Di wan, says the Afghan Sikhs in Delhi have mostly looked after themselves without any help from non-governmental organisations or the govern ment, except some assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the local Sikh community. “About 300 families who came from Afghanistan still get their monthly rations from our gurudwara and we sponsor the education of 780 children,“ adds Singh, who came in 1992 along with thousands of other Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan, a result of the civil war between the Mujahideen and the government. Singh says most Hindus and Sikhs in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, who have been rendered homeless are now living in gurudwaras.
Singh applied for citizenship and got his certificate in 2008, while his wife who applied with him got it only in 2015. “While there is hope in this government, the process has to be hastened. Those who left Afghanistan for European countries have got citizenship while many in India haven't, though this is our home.“
“No Hindu who has Come from Pak Wants to go Back“

Gomandlal Bheel, who fled from across the border, has got Indian citizenship but little else
Less than 10 kilometres from the imposing beauty of the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, is the desolation of Bheel Basti, home to about 250 families, most of them belonging to the Bheel tribe and some from the Meghwal community, who have fled Pakistan. A month ago, the city's municipal corporation reduced the homes here to rubble, as they were built illegally on the corporation's land. Heavy rains in the past have only added to the misery of the inhabitants.
Gomandlal Bheel considers himself lucky; his home was spared in the demolition drive. But there is not much else he can look forward to. “No Hindu who has come from Pakistan wants to go back, but the government's actions make us want to go back.Some people think they might as well go back.“
Thirty-eight-year-old Bheel came to Jodhpur in 1997 on a visit visa from Rahim Yar Khan in the Punjab province of Pakistan with his father, mother, wife, brother and five cousins. His sister Marvi and uncle Harijiram are still there. “We came here because Hindus were under attack in Pakistan after the Babri Masjid demolition here (in 1992) and many temples were destroyed.“
He says the visa process for those wishing to come to India has become more cumbersome, as a result of which thousands of refugees in India may never get to see their relatives in Pakistan.
Bheel, who works as a farm labourer, was one of the 13,500 Pakistani refugees given citizenship in Ra jasthan in 2005. “My uncle Jogaramji was 21 days short of the minimum period of stay in India to be eligible for citizenship then and he still hasn't got it.“ Bheel says he has not benefited from any of the government's schemes for scheduled tribes.“The government should give us land to cultivate and build houses. We have given up everything in Pakistan and adopted India as our home.“
Most non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan come to India on a visit visa, which requires a local guarantor, or a pilgrim visa and, before their visa expires, they tell the local Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) they do not want to come back as they fear being persecuted because of their religion. They are then issued longterm visas, and on completion of seven years in India, they can apply for citizenship.
While there are no official figures for the number of refugees from Pakistan, Hindu Singh Sodha, president of Seemant Lok Sanghatan, who himself came to India from Pakistan in 1971, estimates that 1,25,000 people, mostly Hindus, have come to Rajasthan alone, the largest destination for Pakistani refugees; and about 50,000 across the country, including 12,000-13,000 in Rajasthan, are awaiting citizenship.
“As Long as we Breathe, we will be Hopeful“

Brothers Jeevanram and Kushalaram Bheel are counting on the government to help their family relocate from Pakistan
Jeevanram Bheel, along with his wife and four kids, arrived by train in Bhagat Ki Kothi near Jodhpur on March 30, 2013, from Sanghar in the Sindh province of Pakistan, and stayed the night at his brother Kushalaram's home. The following morning he headed for Haridwar in Uttarakhand, which is where his pilgrim visa was issued for. He went straight to the FRRO and produced his residence permit issued at the border and gave in writing his desire to live in Jodhpur with his mother and four brothers, to never go back.
“Our grandfather went to Pakistan because of a drought here, but this is our home. My daughter can never get a job in Pakistan when she grows up, but she can here,“ says Jeevanram who works as a construction labourer and stays at a makeshift settlement outside the city. Both Jeevanram's and Kush alaram's in-laws are in Pakistan, as are their three sisters, all of whom are eager to move to India. “It cost me `2 lakh to get my family here. My sisters and in-laws do not have that kind of money. They are saving up,“ notes Jeevanram.
Kushalaram, sitting at his kirana store, says nights are tortuous when he cannot stop thinking of his loved ones who have been left behind. When asked if he believes this government at the Centre will do more to help their cause than its predecessors, he says, “We can only hope. We know it is going to take time, but as long as we breathe, we will be hopeful.“
The brothers are not sure how long they can continue to stay where they are and what will happen to their children's education if they do not become citizens of India.
Seemant Lok Sanghtan's Hindu Singh Sodha says the government does not allow refugees to live in Jaisalmer or Barmer even if these are their ancestral towns, as they are close to the Pakistan border. He adds that while the government's intention to welcome Hindu refugees fleeing India's neighbouring countries are welcome, there should be a comprehensive legal framework to recognize refugees, which could be a new chapter in India's response to those seeking refuge on its shores.
ET magazine VIEW

While the government's plans to grant citizenship to Hindus fleeing religious persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are welcome, it should ensure that its refugee protection policy should be predicated, first and foremost, on humanitarian grounds. That means the government should accord Sikh, Christian and Buddhist refugees -and even Muslims, as is the case with Myanmar's Rohingyas, and those vilified for their political views ­ the same privileges it grants Hindu refugees. India is not completely alien to this, given its support to thousands of Tibetan refugees. For India's treatment of refugees to earn the global cachet it needs in a world order where it is becoming an increasingly crucial player, it should begin by doing what it has not for decades: become a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UN and the 1967 Protocol.
India's Ambiguous Refugee Policy
India is not a signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol, which expanded the scope of the Convention by removing geographical and time limits for refugees. As a result, India has adopted an ad hoc approach to refugees from different countries. There have been demands for India to recognise the Refugee Convention and Protocol, and also set up a comprehensive legal framework to deal with refugees.The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia, among other countries, by providing them a refugee card and helping with their voluntary repatriation. Those with a refugee card enjoy the UNHCR's protection from deportation and also access to aid, and may apply for a long-term visa (LTV).The Indian government directly handles refugees from its immediate neighbours like Pakistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
The Modi Govt Hasn't Walked the Talk Yet
The Narendra Modi government has begun talking about granting citizenship to minorities who have fled Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh because of religious persecution and is even reportedly planning to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955.However, contrary to initial reports that the government gave citizenship to 4,300 Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Afghanistan, an RTI application filed by Seemant Lok Sanghatan found that only 570 nationals of these countries were issued citizenship certificates from January 2014 to March 2015.