India is Asia's dharamshala - why not learn to love it?

India has become south Asia's default option for people fleeing persecution and/or economic conditions. Isn't it time we had an sensible policy to deal with this influx?

R Jagannathan April 13, 2013 19:15:50 IST
India is Asia's dharamshala - why not learn to love it?

The benevolence of politicians and bureaucrats is sometimes no benevolence at all. For some time now, there has been a trickle of Hindus from Pakistan coming to India on short-term visas, but their real purpose has never been in doubt: to flee discrimination and violence against Hindus in Pakistan.

Earlier this week, the home ministry granted a one-month visa extension to 480 Pakistani Hindus who have been seeking permanent resident status here.  An Indian Express report quoted a ministry official thus: "They will not be deported. Since it takes time to take any decision on their appeals, we have extended their visas for a month."

India is Asias dharamshala  why not learn to love it

Pakistani Hindus protest the demolishment of a Hindu temple in Karachi on 2 December 2012. AFP

Sorry, sir, this is no longer about 480 people. For the last 65 years, India has been facing an influx of people fleeing either religious persecution or ethnic strife or economic conditions in all our neighbouring countries. But we have simply refused to evolve a policy to address all these issues. We want to do everything on a case-by-case basis, or, better still, ignore the problem till it gets resolved illegally: by people acquiring Indian residency by stealth.

Given the numbers of illegal migrants - perhaps running into millions now - we have probably become the world's biggest dharamshala, but that is something to be proud of. It validates the idea of inclusive India. What we cannot be proud of is that we have allowed this to happen by accident and exception, rather than by a clear-sighted policy.

Our inward immigration policy is a mess. We have separate policies (or default approaches) for Tibetans, for Nepalese, for Sri Lankan Tamils, for Bangladeshis, for Pakistani Hindus and for the rest. Then there are Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar and Afghans (a motley group comprising Sikhs, Hindus and even Muslims) and what not – and we don’t have a clue what to do with them (read here).

For a country that was artificially partitioned in 1947, it should have been obvious that people will migrate here and there. As a secular alternative to all our less-than-secular neighbours, we have always known that immigration will be more inward and less outward. As a democratic oasis in a largely undemocratic or autocratic south Asian region, we should have had policies to accept refugees fleeing persecution.

As a rapidly globalising country, we have known since 1991 that Indian companies need to recruit foreign professionals to work here just as we expect foreign governments to allow Indians to work in their countries.

But what we have now is a patchwork and illogical system that has been adapted to exigencies of specific situations at specific times.

The Tibetans were allowed in in Nehru’s time. But do we have a policy in case it finally becomes clear that they will never get an autonomous state inside China and can’t return? What if they have to stay here permanently? Will they be given full Indian citizenship?

The Nepalese, under the 1950 India-Nepal Friendship Treaty, are allowed almost free access inside India – almost like Indian citizens. This is the most liberal policy we have with our neighbours, and has remained on the statute book even though our political relationship with Nepal has gone from good to uncertain after the Communists entered government and ended the Hindu monarchy.

When it comes to Bangladesh, we have three policies – or non-policies: one for Assam, another for some north-eastern states, and yet another for the rest.

Under the Assam Accord of 1985, anyone who came to Assam before 1 January 1966 will be allowed to stay and become Indian citizens. Those who came between this date and 24 March 1971 were to be detected but not deported. They would be deleted from electoral rolls, but could get back after 10 years. The rest were to be detected and deported.

The accord has more or less been a dead letter, since politicians in need of immigrant votes refused to implement it. As for the remaining north-eastern states, migration is either fully illegal and politically accepted, or we have restrictions that apply even to Indian citizens.

In Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, Indians need inner line permits to visit those states even as tourists. The Bangladeshis who enter India traipse around tribal Meghalaya, but have found an easy perch in Tripura. Together with pre-1947 migration, they have relegated the locals to minority status. As for Kashmir, Indians can tour the state but can’t buy property or settle there. Even if they marry Kashmiris, they can’t acquire property there.

As for potential workers and immigrants from the rest of the world, we have the most restrictive policy on board, where the intention is to debar foreigners from working here – unless they earn more than $25,000 per annum. This rules out any kind of work visa for foreigners in India beyond highly qualified technical personnel or short-term consultants – so forget about allowing for easy migration.

As a liberal, democratic country, India has an obligation to run a truly liberal and open immigration policy that does not discriminate. This is a country that took in persecuted people from ancient times to the modern era (Zoroastrians, Jews, Tibetans). We have even accepted invaders as our own.

This should be the broad backdrop against which we should frame a unified immigration and work permit policy. The policy should include the following:

First, we must have a clear policy for taking in refugees from persecution. It does not matter which religion or ethnic group the person belongs to. It is ironic that political parties are willing to plead the case of Bangladeshi Muslims, who can only be chasing economic opportunities here, but not Hindu refugees from Pakistan. At a later stage, we should be willing to take in even Muslim refugees from Pakistan – for who knows what will happen if the Taliban takes over Pakistan? Obviously, this policy needs safeguards, but if there is a will, we can put one in place.

Second, we must have a system of regularising long-term migrants who are settled here. The Assam accord specifically provided for that, but we didn’t implement it. We neither put in place an impenetrable fence to keep future immigrants out nor a system of formally recognising the Bangladeshis’ need to find work here – through a system of work permits or guest workers with no citizenship rights.

Third, India needs to work out a free-movement agreement (especially for tourism and work) with all its neighbours barring Pakistan. Setting a high salary limit of $25,000 for work permits may be all right for westerners, but not for our neighbours in South Asia. The threshold needs to be much lower.

Fourth, residency permits and citizenship norms need to be easier. Currently, it takes 12 years for a foreigner to get citizenship by naturalisation, and seven years if they are married to an Indian citizen. One wonders why this waiting period needs to be so long. Seven years is too long a wait for a marriage to be seen as legitimate enough to warrant grant of citizenship to the foreign spouse.

Isn’t it high time we opened our front doors to the world instead of winking at their entry through the back door?

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