Even if the dish is small,
Give away one cup, or half,
To whoever asks.
Happiness isn’t in short supply.
– Shailesh Bohare ‘Sanjariya’ in
Bantane se mithata hai sukh
It is not easy to understand the travails of people without an address. Those who have to leave their homes under duress seldom carry anything more than memories. Uprooted from the location of pain, pleasure and struggles, reminiscences begin to fade. Some cling to sepia images in the family album for emotional sustenance. A few remember the opening line of a folk song that they are no longer able to complete. Over time, most become resigned to a life divorced from the past. They are the orphans of history – sometimes survivors of ethnic cleansing, but mostly unwanted children of the nationalism project in evolving societies.
World Refugee Day, marked annually on 20 June, is a grim reminder of the fact that a large number of people still have to flee their homes, for reasons of physical safety or outright survival. There are many things that transform happy householders into fugitives in search of shelter, but the most vicious of them all is the obsession of the majority with ‘cleansing’ their community of all ethnic, religious and linguistic ‘impurities’.
Political boundaries almost everywhere are arbitrary, lines drawn in blood and defended with fanatic zeal. International borders in Southasia are even more irrational. Bengal, Mithila, Punjab, Sindh, Tamil Nadu and Tibet are divided by the same language, where mutually understandable tongues become tools of mobilising the same people against each other in the name of nationalism. Their cultures cut across lines drawn by colonialists for their own convenience.
Southasia belongs to all Southasians, and there need not be any refugee within the region. However, the passion for the nation in the Subcontinent is still unabated. Unsure of their own identities, Southasian states treat some of their own children as aliens. Decades have passed, but the lot of ‘nowhere people’ has not changed.
The most conspicuous group of exiles in this region are Tibetans, who had to leave their land, take their prayer wheels and cross the Himalaya to save their religion and culture from annihilation. Due to over half a century of ceaseless struggle for freedom, the Dalai Lama has become an icon of democracy and peace. Celebrities such as Hollywood actor Richard Gere and British actor Juliet Stevenson have made the Free Tibet movement fashionable. But what really affects the lives of ordinary Tibetans – as well as those fleeing from the repressive Han Chinese administrators – are the attitudes of people in the host countries.
India has become indifferent to the plight of Tibetans, even though New Delhi continues to tolerate the Dalai Lama being headquartered in Dharamsala. With the Chinese dragon breathing down its neck, the Nepali establishment finds the Tibetan refugees to be a diplomatic embarrassment. Their protest rallies are ruthlessly suppressed; new arrivals from across the border are pushed back, sometimes even handed over surreptitiously to Chinese authorities, with little or no regard for the consequences they are likely to face.
Though somewhat less known internationally than the Tibetans, the lot of the Lhotshampa, languishing in camps administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in eastern Nepal, is hardly better. Forced out of their homes in the early 1990s, these hapless Nepali-speaking Bhutanese waited in vain to return home for two decades. But the Druk regime steadfastly refused to take them back. New Delhi washed its hand of the whole affair, insisting that it constituted a bilateral issue between Thimphu and Kathmandu – all the while ignoring the small detail that it was the Indian police that had pushed the new refugees across the Mechi River into Nepal in the first place after the displaced ended up in North West Bengal. The third-country settlement deal, which has been activated for a few years now, appears to be designed to ease UNHCR out of the camps. But nobody knows what will happen to those who remain, wanting and waiting to go back to their ancestral homes in Bhutan. The right of return is not to be compromised just because some Western countries agree to take in the refugees.
Tibetans and Lhotshampa refugees, about 100,000 each, are actually somewhat fortunate when compared to the fate of the 200,000 to 400,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh. The title of an emergency report by Physicians for Human Rights, released in March, is telling: ‘Stateless and starving, persecuted Rohingya flee Burma and starve in Bangladesh’. Little is known about their living conditions in the rest of Southasia. Indeed, even the Dhaka press pays scant attention to the allegation of humanitarian agencies that Rohingya are treated like prisoners rather than refugees by the Bangladeshi authorities.
Unfortunate as they are, refugees that have crossed international borders at least attract the interest of humanitarian agencies. UNHCR puts up camps, INGOs provide emergency assistance, and refugees have something to look forward to – repatriation, resettlement or rehabilitation, depending on the relationship between the source and host countries, and the goodwill of the international community. Internally displaced persons (IDPs), meanwhile, seldom get that much attention either from their own government or from international agencies.
The Urdu-speaking Biharis once had the status of international refugees in Bangladesh, a legacy of the War of Liberation of 1971, when this community had largely sided with Pakistan. Later, Islamabad refused to accept many of these Biharis who wanted to resettle in Pakistan, and Dhaka refused to recognise them on its own. With no other choice, they became refugees in their own land. In May 2008, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh restored the citizenship rights of these stateless people (also known as ‘stranded Pakistanis’), who have lived in camps now for nearly four decades. But these new Bangladeshis are yet to be assured of their future in a country that has barely accepted their identity.
The Muslims of the Kashmir Valley are not yet convinced that they should identify as nationals of the Indian Union, even six decades after the execution of the Instrument of Accession by Maharaja Hari Singh. Some want Kashmir to become an independent country. A few would rather be part of Muslim Pakistan. A large number of ordinary Kashmiris are perhaps satisfied with the limited self-determination rights bankrolled by the munificence of New Delhi. But almost all seem to be oblivious to the displacement of the Kashmiri Pandits. Unofficial estimates suggest that no more than one percent of the original population of Pandits are left in the Kashmir Valley; the rest have migrated to various parts of North India. They may be thriving wherever they are, but dislocation plays havoc with a living culture.
Every riot in the Indian Union creates fresh waves of refugees from the bottom rung of society. Most seek temporary shelter with distant relatives and religious charities until they can begin anew in different place, sometimes with fresh aliases. The poor and illiterate have no birth certificate, no registration card, no passport and no income-tax Personal Identification Number to bandy about (the ration card can be bought, but not without greasing a few palms). Historically, it was true that there were relatively few IDPs in India, other than those displaced by mega-development schemes. The religious cleansing of Muslims from Gujarat has changed the script. Now, the ones who want to stay back have to accept secondary status, and remain refugees forever in their own homes.
Then there are victims of insurgency and civil war, who are too frightened to return home even long after hostilities have ceased. Today, many Afghans remain in Pakistan. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Eelam dream lies shattered, but Tamils taking refuge in India are still unsure of their future. With their properties still under Maoist possession, many supporters of other political parties in Nepal are not yet confident enough to move back to their homes in the hinterland. Over the course of early May, the Assam-Meghalaya border saw clashes which displaced thousands of Nepali speakers working in the coal mines. These are all nowhere people. Since the problem is political, the solution cannot be found other than in the political. Until the political process is activated and the core issues are resolved, host countries and societies must share their cup of happiness with the less fortunate.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times weekly.
CK Lal is a writer and columnist based in Kathmandu.