Editorials - 10-04-2021

It needs to clinically address the issue of refugee protection and introduce appropriate legal and institutional measures

The heart-wrenching scenes of Myanmarese citizens, including little children — fleeing from a junta bent on killing its way into power in Myanmar — being turned away at the Indian border in the Northeast has once again revived the domestic debate about refugee protection in India. The current plight of the Myanmarese has been preceded by that of another group of Myanmarese, the Rohingya. And not too long ago, the debate was dominated by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and its impact on those seeking refuge in India, even though new refugees would not be benefited by the law since the cut-off year of the CAA is 2014. In any case, refugee flows to India are unlikely to end any time soon given the geopolitical, economic, ethnic and religious contexts of the region. There is, therefore, an urgent need today to clinically address the issue of refugee protection in India and put in place appropriate legal and institutional measures.

Refugees versus immigrants

India has emphatically argued over time, particularly in the recent past, that illegal immigration from the neighbouring countries to India must come to an end. There is little doubt that illegal immigration is a threat to the socio-political fabric of any country, including India, with potential security implications. And yet, in this growing debate about the sources and implications of illegal immigration into the country, the issue of refugees tends to get subsumed under it or at best relegated to the backburner, neither of which do justice to the helpless people fleeing from persecution at home. While the reality is that much of the debate in the country is about the illegal immigrants, not refugees, the two categories tend to get bunched together. And because we have jumbled up the two issues over time, our policies and remedies to deal with these issues suffer from a lack of clarity as well as policy utility.

Ambiguity in the framework

The main reason why our policies towards illegal immigrants and refugees is confused is because as per Indian law, both categories of people are viewed as one and the same and are covered under the Foreigners Act, 1946 (https://bit.ly/320UBiI) which offers a simple definition of a foreigner — “foreigner” means “a person who is not a citizen of India”. Needless to say that there are fundamental differences between illegal immigrants and refugees, but India is legally ill-equipped to deal with them separately due to a lack of legal provisions. Recall that India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention (https://bit.ly/2Qej4hF) and its 1967 Protocol (https://bit.ly/3d3nlNZ), the key legal documents pertaining to refugee protection.

The absence of such a legal framework also leads to policy ambiguity whereby India’s refugee policy is guided primarily by ad hocism which, of course, often has its own ‘political utility’. Ad hoc measures enable the government in office to pick and choose ‘what kind’ of refugees it wants to admit for whatever political or geopolitical reasons, and what kind of refugees it wants to avoid giving shelter, for similar reasons. At the same time, the absence of a legal framework increases the possibility of the domestic politicisation of refugee protection and complicates its geopolitical faultlines.

The absence of a clearly laid down refugee protection law also opens the door for geopolitical considerations while deciding to admit refugees or not. Consider the most recent case of Myanmarese refugees fleeing to India for protection from the junta at home. New Delhi’s concern is that if it takes a decision that irks the Generals in Naypyitaw, Beijing would get closer to the junta and use the opportunity to hurt India’s interests in Myanmar. This fear, at least partly, is what has prompted India’s decision not to admit the refugees. However, hypothetically speaking, if New Delhi had a domestic legislation regarding refugees, despite not being a signatory to the relevant international conventions, it could have tempered the expectations of the junta to return the fleeing Myanmarese.

Legal, moral complexities

India, for the most part, has had a stellar record on the issue of refugee protection, a moral tradition that has come under great stress of late. New Delhi has been one of the largest recipients of refugees in the world in spite of not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Whether or not India should be a party to these international legal instruments has been a matter of some debate in the country. A proper interpretation of the text of the 1951 Convention and the less-than-perfect western practice of refugee protection could lead one to conclude that a country like India, given its track record of refugee protection as well as a vulnerable geopolitical and socio-economic situation, need not unreservedly accede to the convention and the protocol in the way they currently stand.

For one, as is often discussed in India, the definition of refugees in the 1951 convention only pertains to the violation of civil and political rights, but not economic rights, of individuals, for instance. Put differently, a person, under the definition of the convention, could be considered if he/she is deprived of political rights, but not if he/she is deprived of economic rights. If the violation of economic rights were to be included in the definition of a refugee, it would clearly pose a major burden on the developed world. On the other hand, however, this argument, if used in the South Asian context, could be a problematic proposition for India too. And yet, this lop-sidedness is something New Delhi has traditionally highlighted, and justifiably so, as a reason for its non-accession to the treaty. The West’s lopsided obsession with civil and political rights at the cost of economic rights is a convenient excuse with little moral backing.

Second, as scholar B.S. Chimni has argued, “India should not accede to the 1951 convention at a time when the North is violating it in both letter and spirit… India should argue that their accession is conditional on the Western States rolling back the non-entrée (no entry) regime they have established over the past two decades. The non-entrée regime is constituted by a range of legal and administrative measures that include visa restrictions, carrier sanctions, interdictions, third safe-country rule, restrictive interpretations of the definition of ‘refugee’, withdrawal of social welfare benefits to asylum seekers, and widespread practices of detention.” In other words, India must use its exemplary, though less than perfect, history of refugee protection to begin a global conversation on the issue.

Let us return to the Indian context. So if we have a refugee problem, as we do, and the accession to the refugee convention, in the manner it exists today, is neither desirable nor pragmatic, what other options do we have to respond to the refugee situation we are faced with and which is increasingly getting mixed up with the raging political debate on illegal immigration into the country?

New domestic law needed

The answer perhaps lies in a new domestic law aimed at refugees. The CAA, however, is not the answer to this problem primarily because of its deeply discriminatory nature: it is morally untenable to have a discriminatory law to address the concerns of refugees who are fleeing their home country due to such discrimination in the first place. More fundamentally, perhaps, the CAA is an act in refugee avoidance, not refugee protection.

What is perhaps equally important is that such a domestic refugee law should allow for temporary shelter and work permit for refugees. This is crucial because in the absence of proper legal measures, refugee documentation, and work permit, refugees may end up becoming illegal immigrants using illicit means. Put differently, the absence of a refugee law incentivises illegal immigration into the country. New Delhi must also make a distinction between temporary migrant workers, illegal immigrants and refugees and deal with each of them differently through proper legal and institutional mechanisms. Our traditional practice of managing these issues with ambiguity and political expediency has become deeply counterproductive: It neither protects the refugees nor helps stop illegal immigration into the country.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the founder of the New Delhi-based ‘Council for Strategic and Defense Research’

Had V. Anaimuthu not stepped in, Periyar’s ideas, scattered and unavailable for systematic study, may have been lost

Periyar E.V. Ramasamy was a great thinker and propagandist. To disseminate his ideas he established a series of publishing firms such as the Kudi Arasu Pathippagam, Pagutharivu Noorpathippu Kazhagam (modelled on the Rationalist Press Association of London) and the Periyar Self-Respect Propaganda Institution. Printed on flimsy paper with worn-out types, the price of the publications was kept low. In the near-daily meetings that he addressed, Periyar would urge the audience to buy these books. Often, his wife Maniammai herself would hawk them. The downside of this democratising zeal was that his ideas were scattered in booklets and pamphlets and unavailable for systematic study until V. Anaimuthu (1925-2021), who passed away on April 6, stepped in.

Two years before Periyar’s death, Anaimuthu (picture) undertook the challenging task of compiling his writings. What Periyar wrote and spoke over a 50-year period lay dispersed as ephemeral publications. No library assembled the back volumes of hisKudi Arasu,Revoltand other journals.

With no file copies of his own, Periyar himself had to issue notices asking for them from his committed party cadres.

A project and its hurdles

In January 1972, Anaimuthu issued the first notice about his plans to publish the collected writings of Periyar. A few months later, another advertisement sought to raise Rs. 1.5 lakh. Even as the project was under way, more than a year later, funds remained an issue. After acquiring copyright permission, Anaimuthu marshalled the voluminous source material. Periyar was greatly enthused by the project, and there were poignant moments especially when his emotional obituary to his wife Nagammal was read out to him. Months before his death he saw some printed formes, but not the final publication.

Originally planned as two volumes,PeriyarEe.Ve.Ra. Chinthanaikal(Thoughts of Periyar E.V.R.) eventually appeared in three crown quarto-sized volumes. Thematically classified and chronologically arranged, it came with a good index. Running into over 2,000 pages, bound in black rexine, and embossed in gold letters, the volumes included photographs and facsimiles. Printed at the Kabeer Printing Works and published by the Chinthanaiyalar Kazhagam of Trichy (Thinkers’ Forum),Periyar Ee.Ve.Ra. Chinthanaikalremains a landmark in the pre-Desktop publishing (DTP) era of Tamil publishing.

On July 1, 1974, six months after Periyar’s death, the volumes were formally launched. Anaimuthu’s travails did not end there. At Rs. 200 per set, the price was steep. The print run was a substantial 2,500 copies. Less than 200 subscriptions had been raised and the uptake by the government’s directorate of public libraries was a disappointing 300 sets. Binding being expensive, unbound printed formes lay at Anaimuthu’s house, and there was a real danger of termite attacks. It was some years later, during the Periyar centenary year, that 1,500 sets were acquired by public libraries.

As it often happens, what at one point did not have takers, later became a collector’s item. As an oft-cited primary reference for subsequent scholarship on the Dravidian movement, there was new demand and second-hand copies were sold at a premium.

Other contributions

It was another 35 years before a greatly expanded second edition — 20 demy octavo volumes of about 10,000 pages — appeared. While Anaimuthu bravely confessed to earlier sins of omission and commission, the second edition was not as well organised, as has been pointed out by the scholar Pazha. Athiyaman.

Like the first, the new edition too was launched by M. Karunanidhi even as a possible copyright issue hung over it like a sword of Damocles..

PublishingPeriyar Ee.Ve. Ra. Chinthanaikalalone would have made any life worthwhile. But Anaimuthu had further claims to fame. In 1997, he unearthed and published Periyar’s diary of his European and Soviet tour (1931-32). A detailed chronology of Periyar’s life followed. Since 1975, he gleaned documents for a detailed biography of Periyar. The incomplete manuscript, said to run into hundreds of pages, apparently covers only the early part of his life.

Another major contribution was Anaimuthu’s discovery of Thathuvavivesini (1882-1888) and the Thinker (1882-1885). Published by the Hindu Freethought Union, these pioneering rationalist weeklies ran ‘a crusade against superstition, poverty and prostitution’. His search for the radical thinker Athipakkam Venkatachala Nayakkar (1800-1897) had led Anaimuthu to unearth these unknown vehicles of radical thought. Author of the iconoclastic Hindu Mathachara Abasa Darshini (1882), Venkatachala Nayakkar was also the voice of peasant distress under the Ryotwari system.

In a rare act of intellectual generosity Anaimuthu permitted the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi and the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai to microfilm these volumes for wider scholarly use.

Sadly, a dodgy academic tried to steal Anaimuthu’s thunder by trying to upstage him in the publication of these volumes.

Life and times

Born in a village in Perambalur district, an 18-year-old Anaimuthu was inspired by Periyar’s speech. After studying for the intermediate examination at Annamalai University, he took an active role in the Dravidar Kazhagam. Maintaining a close association with Periyar in his last years, he accompanied him on many of his tours. Expelled from the party soon after Periyar’s death, he started his own party, Periyar Samaurimai Kazhagam (renamed Marxia Periyariya Pothuvudamai Katchi), and strove to bring together Periyarists, Marxists and Ambedkarites on a single platform. Apart from editing the monthlies,Chinthanaiyalan(Tamil) andPeriyar Era(English), he commissioned the Tamil translation of Dhananjay Keer’s biography of B.R. Ambedkar. Associated with the Lohiate leader Ram Awadesh Singh, he participated in agitations that led to the constitution of the Mandal Commission, and lobbied tirelessly for the implementation of its recommendations.

A committed and self-willed man, Anaimuthu worked without respite. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when it was hard to take the Tamil Nadu Express without running into him on the train.

For a life packed with meaningful activities, Anaimuthu will always be remembered as Periyar’s editor.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy is a historian and Tamil writer

ASI survey in Gyanvapi mosque should not be allowed to resurrect disputes buried by law

The order of a civil court in Varanasi that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct a survey to ascertain whether the Gyanvapi mosque was built over a demolished Hindu temple is an unconscionable intervention that will open the floodgates for another protracted religious dispute. The order, apparently in gross violation of the explicit legislative prohibition on any litigation over the status of places of worship, is likely to give a fillip to majoritarian and revanchist forces that earlier carried on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement over a site in Ayodhya. That dispute culminated in the country’s highest court handing over the site to the very forces that conspired to illegally demolish the Babri Masjid. The plaintiffs, who have filed a suit as representatives of Hindu faith to reclaim the land on which the mosque stands, have now succeeded in getting the court to commission an ASI survey to look for the sort of evidence that they would never have been able to adduce on their own. The order has been issued despite the fact that the Allahabad High Court reserved its order on the maintainability of the suit on March 15 and is yet to pronounce its ruling. It is not clear why the civil judge did not wait for the ruling and went ahead with his directive to the ASI.

By an order in 1997, the civil court had decided that the suit was not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which said all pending suits concerning the status of places of worship will abate and that none can be instituted. The 1991 Act also froze the status of all places of worship, barring the then disputed site in Ayodhya, as on August 15, 1947. There was another exception — any place of worship that was an archaeological site or ancient monument covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. On a revision application, another court had asked the trial court to decide afresh the question whether the suit was barred afresh “after taking evidence”. Presumably, the latest application seeking a survey by the ASI as an expert body is aimed at providing that “evidence”. Regardless of the merits of either side’s case, it ought to be clear to anyone concerned with peace and harmony in the country that the attempt to resurrect disputes buried by law is a serious setback to the cause of secularism and peaceful coexistence. That new challenges are emerging to the wisdom of Parliament in giving a statutory quietus to squabbles over religious sites is deeply disturbing.

India and Russia must ensure their relationship is not strained by changed reality

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Delhi this week, saw both he and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reaffirming traditional India-Russia ties, but there were signs that those ties are being tested. Mr. Lavrov’s trip was to make preparations for the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the annual summit — it was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. On the bilateral front, both sides appeared to make progress on strategic cooperation, cooperation in energy, nuclear and space sectors, and on talks on a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Also discussed were more agreements on military-technical cooperation for the joint production of India-made Russian weapons, with Mr. Lavrov highlighting Russia being the only partner supplying India “cutting-edge military technology”. While neither side referred to the upcoming delivery of the $5 billion S-400 missile defence system directly, they reaffirmed their commitment to their defence partnership, as well as avenues for more investment in connectivity including the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor. The areas of divergence over their worldview seemed to emerge during their public remarks, which were prefaced by Mr. Jaishankar’s reference to the “rebalanced nature” of international relations. Mr. Lavrov’s praise of Russia-China ties was clearly not shared by Mr. Jaishankar. While he referred repeatedly to India’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy, Mr. Lavrov preferred the more continental reference to the “Asia-Pacific” region. Mr. Lavrov’s derisive indirect reference to the Quad as an “Asian NATO” was significant, although he said both sides agreed that military alliances in Asia were inadvisable and counterproductive. On Afghanistan as well, the Russian push for bringing the Taliban into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul seemed to come up against India’s consistent push for a “democratic Afghanistan”.

Beyond those divergences, it was the optics of Mr. Lavrov’s brief visit that fuelled the impression that New Delhi and Moscow are not as much on the same page as they have traditionally been; it did not include a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unlike earlier. The absence of a meeting at the highest level seemed more in focus, as Mr. Modi met with U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry just a day later, and at his next stop, in Islamabad, Mr. Lavrov was received by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa. This was Mr. Lavrov’s first visit to Pakistan in nine years, and was a clear message of deepening ties. Unlike in 2012, Mr. Lavrov this time said that Russia was ready to strengthen Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts with the supply of “relevant equipment”, which will raise eyebrows in Delhi. While India and Russia have successfully addressed divergences between them, even deep, traditional and “time-tested relations” of the kind they have shared for decades cannot be taken for granted, and the two sides should move quickly, if they desire to dispel the notion that those ties are under any strain.