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Essays on population and space in India

Christophe Z. Guilmoto
Alain Vaguet

Part V. Women and minorities

12. Geopolitics of Refugee Flows in India

Gilles Boquérat

Texte intégral

  • 1 The right to seek asylum is governed by the United Nations convention relating to the status of ref (...)
  • 2 Knowing the exact number of refugees is a difficult task since not all of them are officially regis (...)
  • 3 The Tibetans, the Sri Lankans and the Chakmas are for all practical purposes recognized as refugees (...)
  • 4 A draft model national law on refugees was adopted at the fourth regional consultation on refugee a (...)

1Population movements in the Indian subcontinent have always existed and have even left an indelible mark on the history of the region. In the first fifty years of its existence, independent India has on several occasions received on its soil displaced populations, whether it be a matter of people of Indian origin who have become undesirable in the host country, or indeed foreign communities who have been victims of repressive discriminatory treatment or who have fled a situation endangering the lives of their members.1 The influx of refugees has seldom discontinued and has even taken the form of mass exodus when millions of individuals poured in India during the months following independence, or at the time of the Bangladesh war of liberation. There are over 200,000 refugees in India in mid-1999.2 These displacements of population were facilitated by the existence of long and relatively porous borders with several countries, of sociocultural similarities facilitating the adaptation to a new environment, and more generally India’s tradition of extending hospitpitality and refuge to those fleeing persecutory elements in their countries of origin. Yet since India, as well as other South Asian countries, is not a party to the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol the attribution of refugee status is discretionary and can consequently fluctuate with evolving political priorities. In the absence of any specific constitutional or legislative measures with respect to individual asylum determination, the refugees are prone to be treated like any other foreigner and are subjected to the respective laws and regulations governing the entry, stay and departure of foreigners.3 To define a proper legal framework, informal consultations on refugee and migratory movements in South Asia were established in 1994, associating eminent persons from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The objective is to encourage their respective governments to consider the adoption of a model national law establishing a procedure for granting of refugee status to asylum seekers.4

The processions of partition

2The evocation of refugees flows in India inevitably leads back to the Partition of the former British India in mid-August of 1947, and thus to the division of the provinces of the Punjab, Bengal and Assam which was expressed by a vast and tragic exchange of communities on a religious basis. Although this migratory phenomenon began prior to independence—one year earlier in Bengal, and from March 1947 in the Punjab—, it was above all afterwards that it assumed enormous proportions. Those who migrated across the newly created border from Pakistan into India were considered as “internal refugees” and acquired all the rights and duties of nationals.

Figure 12.1 : Map of locations of Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal

Figure 12.1 : Map of locations of Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal

Source: Bureau du Tibet, Paris. The number in brackets rufer to places where there are several Tubetan settlements.

  • 5 Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, (1948, p. 11).
  • 6 The Planning Commission, (1961, pp. 725-726).

3The 1951 Census assessed the number of non-Muslims who left Pakistan to seek refuge in India at nearly 7.5 million. In the other direction, 6 to 7 million Muslims chose to settle in the new state of Pakistan. Some 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs left West Pakistan in the months following Independence, while elsewhere more than 2.5 million Hindus migrated from East Pakistan to the neighbouring Indian provinces of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. If, in the latter case, the migration of Hindu populations from East Pakistan to India was comparatively spread out over time, as it continued in the course of the 1950s and 1960s, from the end of December 1947, the number of non-Muslim refugees from western Punjab, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Sindh, reached nearly 4.4 million persons. There were approximately 1.25 million refugees accommodated in hundred sixty camps in India, of whom more than 720,000 in eighty-five camps were located in eastern Punjab (of which 300,000 at Kurukshetra), 150,000 in Delhi, and the remainder in other camps located throughout the country.5 The question of their rehabilitation arose with even more acuteness as the area of lands they had left behind was greater than that of the holdings evacuated by the Muslims. While a large number of cultivators were granted land to exploit, notably in the Punjab, where nearly 500,000 farmers who arrived from West Pakistan benefited from a vast movement of redistribution and rationalization of property ownership, it was still necessary to accommodate nearly 2.5 million refugees in urban areas, whether in dwellings abandoned by Muslims, or in the framework of an extensive government housing programme.6

  • 7 According to the 1961 Census, Hindus accouted for 18.5 per cent of the population of East Pakistan, (...)

4The rehabilitation of refugees from West Pakistan, which was to a large extent completed by the mid-1950s, was facilitated by the enormity and the swiftness of the transfer of populations from one to the other of the two Punjabs, which called for a rapid treatment of the problem by the Indian government, notably to decongest the camps. In 1951, one third of the population of the Indian Punjab was made up of refugees. These conditions did not obtain in the case of the division of the provinces of Bengal and Assam. While nearly all of non-Muslim communities in West Pakistan had chosen to settle in India, matters differed in East Pakistan where, in the early sixties, the non-Muslim population, essentially Hindus, still constituted 19.6 per cent of the total population (as opposed to hardly 3 per cent in West Pakistan). Thus, there was still a substantial potential for emigration in the Hindu community, a potential which was partly realized, considering that the latter in the early nineties constituted 10.5 per cent of the total population of Bangladesh.7

5The first Hindus to leave East Pakistan belonged to the middle and upper classes, and they were for the most part in a position to resettle in West Bengal without any government support. When, at the beginning of 1950, renewed inter-communal friction saw more than one million Hindus from East Bengal go into exile, the Indian government strove to diplomatically avert any new exchange of populations. On 8 April 1950, an agreement was signed by Nehru and the Pakistani Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, which was intended to ensure the security and equality of rights of minorities in their respective countries. Although the mass exodus at the beginning of the year had slackened off, and some Hindus even made the return journey, the agreement was not of such a nature as to lastingly restore the confidence of the Hindu minority in East Bengal, particularly when it became clear that the first constitution of Pakistan, finally adopted in 1956, would officially make the state an Islamic republic. Those who henceforward left East Pakistan belonged rather to disadvantaged milieu, further impoverished by the exodus, and thus a continually growing number took refuge in the camps.

6Their rehabilitation was complicated by the fact that the Muslims who fled to East Pakistan were clearly less numerous than the Hindu refugees seeking to establish themselves in East Bengal, and consequently there was little agricultural land available for distribution. As a consequence, a good number of refugees often found no other solution than to merge into the Calcutta population. Refugees from East Pakistan alone constituted, according to the 1951 Census, 26.9 per cent of that city’s population, which represents approximately 686,000 persons (Chatterjee, 1990). The ambitious Dandakaranya project, inaugurated in the course of the second Five Year Plan (1956-1961), with the purpose of increasing agricultural resources by exploiting a tribal zone straddling Madhya Pradesh and Orissa in order to accommodate refugee families still staying in the camps in West Bengal, was a failure. The number of persons who fled East Pakistan between Partition and March 1971, at which time the wound of Partition again opened with the war of liberation in Bangladesh, is estimated at nearly 5.4 million individuals, 70 per cent of whom chose to reside in West Bengal, while the others for the most part settled in other Indian frontier provinces (Assam, Tripura, Mizoram or Meghalaya). Hindu migrants eventually came to constitute a large majority of the population of Tripura. Contrary to the Hindu refugees from West Pakistan who settled in the four corners of the country, those from East Bengal, then from Bangladesh, preferred to remain nearer their native country, even though an eventual return appeared increasingly problematical. In 1965, the Pakistani government adopted the “Enemy Property Act” authorizing the state to take possession of properties owned by Indians, a law pertaining mainly to Hindus who had left East Pakistan since Partition. This measure was again taken up in its major intent by the new Bangladeshi state under the name of the “Vested Property Act”, giving way to frauds and abuses and reinforcing the feeling of insecurity of the minority community.

  • 8 The Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 led also 44,000 Sindhis from Pakistan to enter Gujarat and Rajasthan.

7The Bangladesh war of liberation provoked until its conclusion in December 1971 an unprecedented population exodus. Within a period of nine months, roughly 10 million refugees crossed the border between India and East Pakistan, for whom the cost of accommodation was borne in no small measure by the Indian government.8 The columns of refugees also represented an excellent breeding ground to sustain the anti-Pakistani guerilla warfare—the Mukti Bahini—, which received arms and military training from India, without taking into account the fact that the massive presence of refugees on national territory offered a moral alibi for Indian intervention in the struggle for independence. The first to be subjected to the bloody repression of the Pakistani forces, and thus the most numerous to follow the course of exile, had been Hindus, some of whom preferred to remain in India after Bangladesh had attained independence notwithstanding the officially professed secularism of the new state.

  • 9 Government of West Bengal, Refugee Rehabilitation Committee’s Report, Calcutta, pp. 1 and 50. Quote (...)
  • 10 The figure put forward by the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council. Blangadesh Manobad (...)

8Hindus from Bangladesh continued to go into exile, in particular after the militaries seized power and, beginning in 1977, attempted to establish their legitimacy by promoting the Islamic identity of the country, with ultimately culminated in the adoption, in 1988, of the eighth amendment to the constitution making Islam the state religion. In 1981, the West Bengal government’s refugee rehabilitation committee estimated that no less than 80 lakhs, if not more, i.e. about one-sixth of the present population of the state consists of displaced persons from East Bengal, now called Bangladesh”, and that more than 70 per cent among them lived below the poverty line.9 It has been estimated that approximately 5 million Hindus immigrated to India in the course of the first twenty years of the existence of Bangladesh.10 Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in December 1992, sectarian violence and large scale destruction of property and places of worship forced many Hindus to seek sanctuary in India. There were roughly 12 million Hindus in East Pakistan in 1947, a number nearly comparable to today, while in the meantime the total population has increased by more than 2.5 times.

The reverse flow arising of decolonization

  • 11 Minute from Professor B. R. Pearn, Research Department, Foreign Office, July 10, 1953. FO371106862.

9The effects, in terms of displacement of populations, of the withdrawal of Great Britain from its Asian colonies extended to the Indian community in Burma. Indian emigration had begun with the progressive annexation of Burma by the British, starting in 1826 and completed sixty years later. At the turn of the century, there were already more than 560,000 British subjects of Indian origin in Burma. In 1941, four years after Burma had ceased to be a part of British India, and on the eve of the Japanese invasion, the country counted 1.1 million Indian residents. In the minds of the Burmese nationalist leaders, reflecting also the view of the local population, the Indian community was largely associated with the colonizer. A sentiment expressed by Aung San when, addressing the Indian community, in December 1946. he observed that in the past, the latter had not identified itself with national aspirations, quite on the contrary since they were even often on the side of the British imperialists (Aung San, 1968). In the meantime, Japanese occupation had compelled some 500,000 Indians to flee Burma in sometimes dramatic conditions. In the spring of 1947, only one fourth of them had chosen to return to Burma (Pakem, 1992). Yet, there were still about 700,000 Indians in Burma and they counted for more than half the population of Rangoon when Independence came in January 1948. The Burmese government took a number of measures, such as national preference in public office or restrictions on remittances abroad, the effect of which was to complicate the existence of the Indian population, leading to departures. A situation worsened by the communist insurrection, which led thousands of Indians living in rural areas to flee to Rangoon to seek repatriation. Furthermore, the 1948 citizenship law eliminated the possibility of having a dual citizenship. An Indian settled in Burma who refused to acquire Burmese nationality had, in the eyes of the local authorities, a status similar to that of any other foreign national. Nehru’s attitude, moreover, had been to encourage Indians who were long-standing expatriates to take the nationality of the country of their domicile and assimilate the interests of that country. The problem was that local authorities often showed little desire to grant Burmese nationality to applicants of Indian origin. Laws directed at the nationalization of lands resulted in the dispossession of a number of Indians whose their land was acquired by the Burmese government against ridiculous payment. Apart from some small Indian cultivators, this decision concerned mainly members of the Chettiar community who, in the course of time, had become landowners by way of their usurious activity. In fact, in Lower Burma, at the end of the 1930s, Indian moneylenders of the Chettiar caste had come into possession of nearly 3,000,000 acres of land ; so that of the land which had been lost to the cultivators, about half was owned by Indians. Chettiars also had an interest in much of the land, which was nominally still owned by cultivators but was in fact mortgaged. “The Chettiars were less extortionate than the Burmese moneylenders ; but the fact that they were aliens added greatly to the widespread sense of grievance which the agrarian situation produced.”11

  • 12 L.J.D. Wakely, British Embassy in Rangoon to M. Stewart, 10 January 1966. FO 371 186950.

10The military coup, which brought General Ne Win to power, in March 1962, led to a reinforcement of economic nationalism within the framework of “the Burmese way to socialism.” Nationalization extended to the domestic trade in food, textiles and others good of daily necessities and to the banking and brokerage services, which did not fail to have repercussions on the Indian community. Indian banks were nationalized and it became even more difficult for small savers to transfer remittances to India. Deprived of means of subsistence—compensations for Indian assets were low or non-existent—, an increasing number of Indians made their way back, being able to take not more than a nominal amount of money with them. During his visit to India in February 1965, General Ne Win gave an assurance that “resident foreigners who could play a useful role in the new social order in Burma would be given facilities to live and work there as citizens should they desire.”12 Few Indian nationals took this remark at face value and invoking continuous discrimination against them from the Burmese authorities, approximately 250,000 returned to the country of their ancestors between 1963 and 1976. The Indian government chartered ships to repatriate them and, on the diplomatic level, requested the authoritarian regime in Rangoon to facilitate the granting of Burmese nationality to persons of Indian origin without much success. Those who remained behind, mostly stateless, were left to scrap a living in adverse circumstances.

  • 13 Lintner (1994). See also : The Pioneer, 7 August 1995.

11In 1988, India, which supported the aspirations of the Burmese people for the restoration of democracy, witnessed in the state of Mizoram the arrival of refugees fleeing the military reprisal, which followed the September coup. In like manner, some candidates elected during the legislative elections of May 1990 who were challenged by the junta in power in Rangoon, sought refuge in India. Many more were those who had to cross the Indo-Myanmarese border as a result of the pacification campaign against ethnic minorities conducted by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).13 They have not been officially recognized as refugees by New Delhi, whose attitude towards the military rulers in Rangoon has since been driven more by security concerns indicating a sense of alarm over China’s overtures to Rangoon. The other reason for toning down its criticism and engage into a functional cooperation was the need to tackle persistent problems (ethnic insurgencies, drug-trafficking, etc.) due to the porous border that India shares with Myanmar.

  • 14 Intervention in the Lok Sabha, 2 September 1957, Jawaharlal Nehru 1983 (1961).
  • 15 Suryanarayan (1991). Sec also, Suryanarayan (1986).

12Another Indian community which came up against the reluctance of the country’s new power-holders to accommodate populations which had been established under the patronage of the British colonial authorities were the “Indian Tamils”. They had migrated in the course of the 19th century and during the first half of the 20th century to work on the plantations located in Ceylon’s central highlands and in the midlands. Sri Lanka counted more than 800,000 Indians Tamils at Independence in February 1948, representing around 10 per cent of the total population of the island. Colombo, with the adoption of the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949, strove to limit their number by questioning the extent of their integration into local society. The Indian government, for its part, considered this community to be Ceylonese and could not regard as satisfactory any resolution of the problem which would not only make it more difficult for Indians to acquire Ceylon citizenship but would also enable the Ceylon Government to discriminate against citizens of Indian origin. This was expressed by Nehru in the following terms : “There are the other people who have been in countries like Ceylon for 30, 40, 50 or 60 years, whatever the period may be—, whom we do not consider our nationals. They have settled down in these countries and many of them have been born there. As far as we are concerned, strictly, legally and constitutionally, it is none of our problem. There are not our nationals. But we do not take up that particular attitude, although it is the correct attitude. For, we are interested in their welfare and we are interested in finding a solution because there is a history behind this.”14 Their fate was the subject of negotiations between the Indian and Ceylonese authorities. By virtue of an agreement signed in 1954, some 130,000 Indian Tamils were to be repatriated to India in the course of the following decade, while roughly 135,000 were to receive, during the same time period, Ceylonese nationality. In October 1964, one was still far from reaching that target and the Prime Ministers of the two countries, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ms Sirimavo Bandaranaike, met to determine the fate of 975,000 Indian Tamils who had become stateless persons. India accepted to accommodate and naturalize 525,000 persons over a period of fifteen years, while Colombo committed itself to absorb 300,000—with their natural increase in both cases—, leaving the citizenship of 150,000 individuals still unsettled. According to a new agreement between Indira Gandhi and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in January 1974, the two countries decided to each naturalize 75,000 stateless persons and to accelerate the implementation of the 1964 agreement, which had been made difficult not only by procedural questions, but also by the fact that human reason sometimes defies arithmetical rigor, for there were no more than 506,000 Indian Tamils, out of a quota of 600,000, to request repatriation, to whom was added a natural increase of approximately 170,000 persons. The deadline of 1981 for the implementation of the new repatriation agreement had been significantly exceeded when the government in Colombo took the decision, in the autumn of 1988, to naturalize 94,000 Indian Tamils who were not applicants for return, in addition to the 375,000 persons as earlier foreseen. At the conclusion of what was “the largest organized labour migration in the 20th century,” the great majority of those to be repatriated settled in Tamil Nadu, where the insufficiency of the accompanying government measures led to much disillusionment, some of them had not other choice than to become bonded labourers.15

Foreign communities in Indian exile

13The case of the Chakma refugees from Bangladesh illustrates the temptation for an ethnically and religiously dominant community, faced with an increased scarcity of resources as a consequence of a demographic explosion, to appropriate the coercive powers of state in order to establish itself on the lands of a minority not availing of the same access to power. The Chakmas, who are Buddhists, constituted the main ethnic group in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), a hilly region comprising roughly 10 per cent of the total area of Bangladesh and situated to the east of the port of Chittagong and bordering on the Indian states of Tripura and Mizoram. This region had benefited from extensive political autonomy during the period of British colonial administration. In 1947, although only 3 per cent of the population was Muslim, the CHT were incorporated into East Pakistan against the wishes of the Chakmas, who would have preferred to belong to the Indian Union. The resentment of the tibal population increased with the encroachment upon their administrative autonomy and the adoption of development projects which above all had the effect of strengthening the supervision and presence, both civil and military, of the Bengalis, notably in the form of a voluntarist policy of implantation of people from the alluvial plains. The first Chakmas to choose to immigrate to India did so less in the name of grievances of a political nature, than as victims of the construction of a hydroelectric complex on the Karnaphuli river. The filling of the Kaptai dam, in 1963, submerged approximately forty per cent of the cultivable lands of the district and affected 18,000 tribal peasant families. The inability of the government of East Pakistan to offer comparable lands to all the affected families led some 40,000 tribals to seek refuge in India, where the administration of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA, today Arunachal Pradesh) organized a resettlement programme for Chakmas and Hajongs in five different places.

14The relations between the tribal population of the CHT and the government of East Pakistan, then with the Bangladeshi government, continued to deteriorate, as a corollary to the growth of the Bengali population, which increased from nine per cent of the total population of the CHT in 1951, to almost fifty per cent in the mid-nineties. The demands of the Chakmas, politically articulated from 1972 by the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity (PCJSS), were centred around the return to the broad political and administrative autonomy from which the CHT had benefited prior to Partition in 1947, and the eviction of Bengalis settled on tribal lands. In 1975, the resentment of the Chakmas also assumed the form of an armed rebellion with the creation of the Shanti Bahini, the members of which received support from Indian intelligence agencies. A major refugee movement took place in 1981 following reprisal attacks by the Bangladesh military. The matter was then bilaterally resolved at a flag meeting between the Indian and Bangladeshi commanders of border security forces and the refugees were turned back. Again in 1984, Chakmas who went to Mizoram were sent back following another flag meeting (Abrar, 1999).

15It is only in 1986 that the Indian authorities desisted from deporting the refugees when more than 50,000 Chakmas from the three hill districts of Bandarban, Rangamati and Khagrachari, fearing reprisals on tribal villages carried out by the Bangladeshi armed forces, found refuge in six camps located in the southern part of the Indian state of Tripura. Between late 1992 and 1996, thirteen formal meetings were held between the government in Dhaka and the PCJSS, with a view to achieving a lasting political settlement of the dispute. India did its utmost to convince the refugees to return to their homes, expecting in return that Bangladesh would expel the separatist rebels from north-east India sheltered on its territory. For instance New Delhi and Dhaka decided to start a repatriation process in June 1993 which was postponed due to the refugees refusal to budge and the pressure of human rights organizations. Some initial repatriations began on 15 February 1994 following the announcement of a sixteen-point rehabilitation package and, in the following six months, about 8,000 persons returned to the CHT. The repatriation initiatives came to a halt due to the political situation prevailing in the last two years of the Khaleda Zia government and, as a result of the opposition of Chakma leaders, who deemed the return of refugees to be premature as long as Dhaka had not given sufficient assurances regarding their security and the restitution of their property.

16The coming to power of the Awami League led to a distinct improvement in Indo-Bangladeshi relations favouring the settlement of outstanding issues. An initial agreement was reached between the Bangladeshi government and the Chakma leaders in March 1997 foreseeing the repatriation of a first batch of 7,000 refugees after much progress on the demands put forward had been made and some financial assistance had been offered to refugee families for the purpose of their resettlement. By the middle of 1998 almost all of the hill refugees returned back home following a peace accord between the government of Bangladesh and the PCJSS on December 2, 1997. This accord may not be the final word since it was termed a “sell out”, for opposite reasons, by the mainstream opposition political parties as well by a section of the tribal community.

  • 16 These figures are taken from the annual report of the UNHCR for 1969. Quoted by Grunfeld (1987), p. (...)

17Historically, the first foreign community to have found asylum in India, in view of what was deemed a deliberately hostile policy in its regard, and unconnected with Partition, was Tibetan. The greater part of the refugees to leave Tibet did so between 1959 and 1963, following the Chinese communist suppression of the uprising on 10 March 1959, which led to the exile in India of the Dalai Lama and several thousand of his compatriots. In the course of a perilous journey, they entered for the most part Bhutan, Sikkim and above all the NEFA. Refugee camps came into existence along the entire perimeter of the Himalayan chain, from eastern Arunachal Pradesh to Ladakh. In 1967, when the migratory flow had nearly ceased, the number of Tibetan refugees in India, in Sikkim and in Bhutan, was of the order of 55,000 persons (and approximately 7,000 in Nepal).16 Most of the thirty-five Tibetan camps in India were established between 1960 and 1965.

18The Dalai Lama, after passing through Mussoorie (Uttar Pradesh), established on 30 April 1960 in Dharamsala (Himachal Pradesh) his “government-in-exile”, which India, holding Tibet to be a de jure Chinese province, has always refused to officially recognize. After having been accommodated in two transit camps—the first in Buxa Duar near the border between Bhutan and the Indian state of West Bengal, where members of the clergy met again, and the second in Missamari, near Tezpur in Assam—, some refugees were utilized in the construction of roads in the foothills of the Himalayas, while others were employed in handicraft centres producing above all carpets and woollen garments. A few were engaged in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, charged with participating in the surveillance of India’s northern border. Notwithstanding difficulties in acclimatization, others, finally, were directed to agricultural camps located in the plains. There are today five such camps in Karnataka and one each in Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. The government of Mysore State (today Karnatak) was the first to respond favourably to the invitation extended by Nehru to receive Tibetan refugees. The first to arrive settled in early 1960, in Bylakuppe in a camp intended to accommodate 3,000 refugees. When the problem regarding the demarcation of the Sino-Indian border arose, which was to result in an armed conflict in the autumn of 1962, the accommodation of a part of the Tibetan refugees in south India had the advantage of distancing them from the frontier regions of the Tibetan plateau, which did not prevent Beijing from accusing India of employing rebel Tibetan refugees on its territory to conduct subversive activities against China.

  • 17 See for instance the statement made by the Chinese representative. Wang Jun-sheng before the UN Eco (...)

19In 1971, China even declared at the United Nations that India could be tempted to use the presence of Tibetan refugees to justify an intervention in Tibet, in the same manner as India had used the presence of refugees from East Pakistan as a pretext for military intervention there. This suspicion was unfounded insofar as India would soon undertake a normalization of its relations with China, facilitated by the fact that New Delhi renounced assistance offered by the UNHCR to Tibetan refugees who, according to Beijing, had in fact been forced into exile under pressure from the Indian government.17

20While the Indian government was careful that the Tibetan refugees did not engage in political activities on Indian soil, it did not seek to encourage the assimilation of this population and interfered very little in the functioning of the colonies. It thus responded to the wish of the Tibetan authorities in exile, for whom it is important that the Tibetan community, supposed one day to be called upon to return to Tibet, preserve its cultural identity and way of life, even should that mean living in social autarky. In 1995, there were about 108,000 Tibetan refugees in India, representing more than three-quarters of all exiled Tibetans.

21During the 1980s, the question of the repatriation of Indian Tamils gave precedence to the radical turn taken in the ethnic conflict opposing Sri Lankan Tamils, settled for several centuries in the north and the east of the island, to the government in Colombo. This evolution was in particular expressed by the arrival on the coasts of Tamil Nadu of several waves of refugees, the number of whom corresponded to the vicissitudes of the “war of Eelam. The anti-Tamil pogroms of July 1983, which were at the origin of this radicalization, led 30,000 persons or so to cross the Palk Strait between July and December 1983. It was then above all a matter of Tamils from the highlands or residing in Colombo who were the first to be affected by the rioting. The latter, however, still had sufficient resources or places where they could be accommodated, so as to not have to live in camps. Things would soon take a different turn when the skirmishes between the militant Tamils and the government forces in the northern part of the island increased in intensity, provoking a growing exodus of Tamils, for the greater part from zones affected by combat. The poorest of them found refuge in camps in Tamil Nadu. Between July 1983 and 29 July 1987, the date of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord intended to guarantee the rights of the Tamil minority—and which foresaw the sending of an Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) charged with creating conditions favourable to its implementation—, 134,000 refugees were officially received in India. As a result of the accord, nearly 42,000 Tamils refugees returned to Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990.

  • 18 In the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, several Sri Lankan refugees were detained by (...)

22Following the rather inglorious withdrawal of the last soldiers of the IPKF, in March 1990, the second “war of Eelam” began in June, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) once again took up arms against the Sri Lankan army. This triggered off a new exodus of Tamils, which, in 1992, brought to 230,000 the number of applicants for asylum. Separate camps strongly guarded sheltered refugees suspected to have links with militant organizations. While the reception of refugees was initially considered as a matter of community solidarity by the local political class, the assassination carried out in Chennai by the LTTE, in June 1990, of the leader of another Tamil militant group, the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Padmanabha, followed by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991, greatly contributed to a questioning of the risks ensuing of the presence of a large number of refugees in Tamil Nadu.18 The fact that the refugee camps could be used by Tamil militant organizations as recruitment places and as rear bases serving as sources of provisions and medicine became an embarrassment. The necessity to provision an armed struggle could also lead the refugees to involve themselves in the trafficking of, for example, drugs and weapons.

23From that time, the repatriation of these refugees became a priority. An agreement to this effect was reached between New Delhi and Colombo in early 1992. Between 20 January and 15 May 1992, more than 23,000 refugees returned to Sri Lanka before the process was interrupted in the face of accusations of forced repatriation. Finally, in order to remove all ambiguity, the Indian government, despite its preference for dealing with refugee issues within its territorial limits unilaterally, allowed the UNHCR, in July 1992, to ensure that those returning did so of their free consent.

  • 19 The Hindu, 21 September 1999.

24Repatriations are dependent on the climate of insecurity prevailing on the island as a result of military operations and the difficulties in supplying essential products, in particular after the resumption of hostilities in April 1995, subsequent to the breaking off of peace talks with the Sri Lankan government by the LTTE a few months earlier. For all that, the reconquest of the Jaffna peninsula by government troops in December 1995 did not give rise to a renewed large-scale flow to neighbouring Tamil Nadu. New Delhi, fearing the infiltration of militants from the LTTE, reinforced its patrols in its territorial waters and found some comfort in the re-opening of the UNHCR relief centres in Sri Lanka, the ability of which to compensate for the immediate causes of departure had been evidenced by offering security and means of subsistence. Nevertheless, after the conflict shifted from the Jaffna peninsula to the Vanni region in mid-1996, the deteriorating security situation in the latter led to new refugee flight apart from large internal population displacement. As of June 1998, more than 13,000 refugees had arrived in southern India (UNHCR 1998). Continued hostilities in Sri Lanka have not permitted the repatriation of an estimated 73,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in the 115 camps located in various districts of Tamil Nadu, to whom must be added about 28,000 unregistered refugees.19

25To this list of political refugees must be added few thousands Bhutanese of Nepalese origin fleeing persecution by the dominant ethnic group—the Buddhist Dropkas—who found asylum in northern West Bengal, Sikkim and in Assam, where other communities of the same origin reside. There are also among the ranks of refugees in India some 16,000 Afghans, the first of whom arrived in India after the emergence of a communist regime in Kabul, followed more recently by those who run away from the decaying political situation in Afghanistan after the Soviet-backed government fell. Some Iranians, Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis have also been seeking protection from persecution, ethnic conflict and war and have been recognized as mandate refugees by the UNHCR.

  • 20 The Hindu, 5 January 1999.

26Finally, mention must be made of the internally displaced populations. Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits have fled the Valley, apprehensive as to their security subsequent to the revival of separatist activism directed against the Centre by militant Muslim groups. Hindu families who returned to the valley often found that their dwellings had been destroyed and their lands encroached upon. Assam, a land of immigration, gave birth to several “sons of the soil” movements and the first to be targeted were Muslims who had come from the south, at times forced to shelter themselves from acts of violence by taking refuge in camps. This could prove to be an illusory protection, as was shown in the summer of 1994, when Bodo militants from the Bodo Security Force, a separatist movement of the main tribe in the Brahmaputra valley, attacked the security camps. In neighbouring Tripura, attacks directed against members of the Bengali community from East Pakistan, and then from Bangladesh, increased during the winter of 1996- 1997, obliging them to take refuge, sometimes in vain, in temporary camps. Responsible for these actions were activists from local tribes who violently reacted to an evolution of the ethnic composition of the state which has relegated them to a minority status, numbering scarcely one third of the population of Tripura. Politically under-represented, they see themselves being gradually dispossessed of their ancestral lands. Ethnic clashes in the North-East are a common recurrence and, for that reason, also is displacement of populations. For instance, 40,000 Reangs living in Mizoram, who have unsuccessfully been demanding an autonomous district council, had to take refuge in camps in Kanchanpur sub-division in north Tripura. The government in Agartala has urged New Delhi to ensure repatriation of those refugees as the Mizoram government was reluctant to take them back.20

Use of refugees

27The reasons that have led the government of India to accommodate refugees have not always been purely humanitarian in nature. The reception of refugees on several occasions went hand in hand with the pursuit of political objectives. Mention was earlier made of India’s use of the massive presence of refugees from East Bengal on its territory as justification for direct intervention in the Bangladesh war of liberation. Where there was a collusion of interests of displaced populations and of the Indian government, the latter offered active support to armed groups representing the aspirations of those populations. This was not only true as regards the Mukti Bahini, in 1971, but also the Shanti Bahini or the LTTE, before the latter organization turned its arms back on the IPKF. Should the collusion of interests of the political objectives of the Indian government and the aims of a refugee population cease to exist, the latter, whose integrity depends on the leniency of New Delhi, often becomes an obstacle in the rapprochement with the nation responsible for persecution, thus justifying the return to the native country. As concerns the Tibetan exiles, while New Delhi has been very wary of provoking China by militarily supporting a guerrilla movement composed of refugees, the presence on Indian soil of the exile Tibetan government, taking into account the ensuing nuisance value vis-à-vis the communist regime, can be a diplomatic asset in the Sino-Indian bilateral negotiations.

  • 21 This is even truer of economic migration. A document by the Border Security Forces (BSF) estimated (...)
  • 22 Stobdan (1991), pp. 696-697.

28If the refugee flows can play a role in international relations, they can also become issues in internal politics.21 Faced with the massive inflow of refugees from East Bengal during the year 1971, one of the Indian government’s fears was to see the situation get bogged down and the hopes of returning vanish, which would not have failed to exacerbate even more the already existing tensions in the north-east India between autochthonous populations and people coming from East Pakistan. The Tibetan community came to represent an economic weight, notably through the aid of international non-governmental organizations, which irritated the local political elite, as for example in Himalayan regions which had in the past chauvinism.22 Chakma refugees who been confronted with Tibetan cultural had been settled for three decades in Arunachal Pradesh were exposed to the hostility both of the local authorities and of a student organization, the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union. Since 1980, the Chakmas saw themselves denied access to employment in the local public administration. Other measures were taken in an attempt to economically stifle them by retracting their ration cards, in 1991, and forbidding them, in 1993, to engage in commercial activities. The state assembly even went so far as to vote the deportation of the Chakma refugees from the state and to demand their repatriation in Bangladesh. Acts of intimidation drove some of them to seek refuge, without success, in Assam. This situation obliged the Supreme Court, in January 1996, to pass judgement confirming the right of the Chakmas settled in India prior to 25 March 1971 to obtain Indian nationality, while their children born on Indian soil acquired it automatically, and ordered the government in Itanagar to register requests for naturalization.

29Apart from local opposition to the refugees who had been able to make a way for themselves, the official Indian position evolved over the course of time in a restrictive sense. Soon after independence, the accommodation of Hindu and Sikh populations coming from the two flanks of Pakistan was less disputed to the extent that the exodus seemed to condemn the excesses to which a religious state inevitably led, in distinction to the Indian secular model, with its concern for the equal rights of persons of all religions. In the late 1950s, the Tibetan refugees personified the perfidy of communist China, of which the Indians also felt themselves to be victims in the matter of the demarcation of borders, which led to war in 1962. On the other hand, it was almost grudgingly that India received members of the Indian community from Burma and Sri Lanka, having preferred that they continue to live in dignity in the country of their domicile. As of the beginning of the 1970s, refugees were considered more as a potential destabilizing factor, whether in sharpening ethnic tensions, competing with local populations for access to essential products or to public infrastructures, or indeed by representing a menace hanging over the maintenance of the law and order. Since then, government strategy, once the inter-linked strategic objectives were met, was above all to strive for the return of the refugees to their native country. The tendency is henceforth to seek to deal diplomatically with the other countries concerning issues which could lead to the exodus to India of a part of their populations.


1 The right to seek asylum is governed by the United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees of July 1951 and by the 1967 Protocol which extended in time and space the area of application of that convention. Any person who is outside the country of his/her nationality as a result of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, can lay claim to the status of refugee. The notion of refugee can also be extended to persons who are compelled to leave their country of origin because their lives or security would be endangered for reasons such as armed conflicts or civil strife.

2 Knowing the exact number of refugees is a difficult task since not all of them are officially registered. The Government of India has usually been reluctant to allow interference from international organizations regarding asylum seekers. Yet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) runs an office in New Delhi, but has not access to some of the refugees on Indian territory. As of 30 June 1999, there were more than 100,000 Tibetan refugees and 64,000 Sri Lankan refugees in India. Besides, the UNHCR is exercising its mandate over 16,513 refugees, mainly in the New Delhi area. It breaks down into 15,349 Afghan, 641 Burmese, 186 Iranian, 176 Somali, 95 Sudanese, and 66 others (Source : UNHCR, New Delhi). Thousands of Burmese who took shelter during the last ten years in north-east India are not officially accounted for. To these figures must be added a few thousand Bhutanese of Nepalese origin who, fleeing the sectarian policy directed against them by the Bhutan monarchist régime. preferred to settle in West Bengal and in the neighbouring Indian states, rather than take the way of the refugee camps located in eastern Nepal.

3 The Tibetans, the Sri Lankans and the Chakmas are for all practical purposes recognized as refugees by New Delhi and assisted by them as such. Afghans and refugees of other nationalities are considered by the Government to be temporarily in India and subsequently, they have not been officially recognized as refugees. Their presence is however tolerated. The UNHCR recognizes them under its mandate and assists those in need.

4 A draft model national law on refugees was adopted at the fourth regional consultation on refugee and migratory movements in South Asia held in Dhaka in November 1997. At the next annual meeting of the regional consultations, held in Kathmandu in November 1998, it was decided to refine the model law in accordance with legislative, judicial and other country specific requirements in order to formally present it to the respective governments of the region. In this regard, a SAARCLAW/UNHCR workshop took place in New Delhi in April 1999 to discuss refinements to the model law specific to India. As a reflection of today’s conflicts linked to inter-ethnic violence, ethnic identity has been added in the refugee definition as given in the 1951 UN convention.

5 Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, (1948, p. 11).

6 The Planning Commission, (1961, pp. 725-726).

7 According to the 1961 Census, Hindus accouted for 18.5 per cent of the population of East Pakistan, Buddhists for 0.7 per cent, Christians for 0.3 per cent and others for 0.1 per cent Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (1994, p 103).

8 The Indo-Pak conflict of 1971 led also 44,000 Sindhis from Pakistan to enter Gujarat and Rajasthan.

9 Government of West Bengal, Refugee Rehabilitation Committee’s Report, Calcutta, pp. 1 and 50. Quoted by Kudaisya Gyanesh (1995), pp. 86 and 93.

10 The figure put forward by the Bangladesh Hindu-Buddhist-Christian Unity Council. Blangadesh Manobadhikar Samonnoy Parishad, Bangladesh State of Human Rights— 1992, Dhaka, 1993, p. 96.

11 Minute from Professor B. R. Pearn, Research Department, Foreign Office, July 10, 1953. FO371106862.

12 L.J.D. Wakely, British Embassy in Rangoon to M. Stewart, 10 January 1966. FO 371 186950.

13 Lintner (1994). See also : The Pioneer, 7 August 1995.

14 Intervention in the Lok Sabha, 2 September 1957, Jawaharlal Nehru 1983 (1961).

15 Suryanarayan (1991). Sec also, Suryanarayan (1986).

16 These figures are taken from the annual report of the UNHCR for 1969. Quoted by Grunfeld (1987), p. 187. Concerning the settling of Tibetan refugees in India, see for instance the autobiography of the Dalai Lama (1991), pp. 158-212.

17 See for instance the statement made by the Chinese representative. Wang Jun-sheng before the UN Economic and Social Coucil, 27 july 1972, in Jain (ed.). (1981). pp. 424-425.

18 In the aftermath of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, several Sri Lankan refugees were detained by local authorities for violation of camps curfew, under section 3 of the 1946 Foreigners Act. The courts directed that these refugees be moved to the special camps that had been set up to accommodate those refugees that were of higher security risk. Until January 1995, there were 1,629 Sri Lankan refugees in seven special camps in Tamil Nadu. After requests from human rights organizations, 808 refugees were moved back to normal camps (Talwar 1996).

19 The Hindu, 21 September 1999.

20 The Hindu, 5 January 1999.

21 This is even truer of economic migration. A document by the Border Security Forces (BSF) estimated in 1995, the number of Bangladeshis illegally settled in India at between 8 and 10 million (The Times of India, 19 December 1996). The number of Nepalese working in India probably exceeds five million persons. However, in the latter case, it is a matter of a legal immigration, falling within the framework of the 1950 Indo-Nepalese peace and friendship treaty which included the free movement of individuals and the right to work in India (or, for Indians, in Nepal). Because of these massive influxes, the distinction between political refugees and economic migrants has become blurred in the public perception.

22 Stobdan (1991), pp. 696-697.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 12.1 : Map of locations of Tibetan settlements in India and Nepal
Crédits Source: Bureau du Tibet, Paris. The number in brackets rufer to places where there are several Tubetan settlements.
Fichier image/jpeg, 139k

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2000

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