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Afghan Refugees in India

Author(s): Ashish Bose

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 39, No. 43 (Oct. 23-29, 2004), pp. 4698-4701
Published by: Economic and Political Weekly
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4415703
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conditions. To then allow traders to kill story, which was also filmed, by Balraj
use, it will curtail imports and is already
the markets by encouraging unrestrictedwooing the Indian textile industry to buy Sahani and others.
imports of the same products is totally yam and fabric. Statistically speaking, it is easy to argue
incomprehensible. Thus the farmers' distress will not be that with an enormous population of over
mitigated unless some critical steps are one billion people, India should be able
Cotton Glut urgently taken. This should include ato absorb a few thousand Afghan refugees,
moratorium on cotton imports till Janu- and for that matter, even a few million
The news from Gujarat and other states ary 31,2005. Import duty on cotton should 'economic refugees' from Bangladesh. But
when one looks at the political, social and
be raised to 40 per cent, till the US elimi-
in the cotton belt is that production levels
are 20 per cent above normal. Although nates its unfair farm subsidies. The gov- economic causes and consequences of such
the Mysore crop began well this year, ernment should investigate unscrupulous migration, one is confronted with very
market manipulation and heavy rains and fictitious export deals. The agricul- complex issues. Even the term 'refugee'
have forced buyers to hold back their tural departments, universities and scien-is not without controversies. In some circles,
purchase. Nearly 500 truckloads of cottontists need to improve long and extra long Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are called
staple Indian cotton varieties such refugees,
are waiting to be sold in this one district as while Muslim migrants are called
alone. The story of over-production this Shankar 4/6, DCH 32, MCU 5 and Suvin. 'infiltrators' and illegal migrants. The
year is a global phenomenon. Steps must be taken to educate the Indian United Nations steers clear of these con-
Indian cotton production is estimated farmer
at about quality cotton production troversies
in by calling 'illegal migrants' as
more than 210 lakh bales. US is sitting on 'undocumented migrants'. There is no
order to be competitive in the world market.
Besides the farmers commission needs to
an exportable surplus of about 1.7 bales clear-cut definition of an economic refu-
for every 1 bale of world demand, and USbepro-active. Thetextileindustryshould plough gee which is a somewhat loaded term. Are
exporters are luring Indian buyers to buyback some of its profits into the rural Americans seeking jobs in the IT sector
at prices 60 per cent of production cost economy for the improvement and devel- in Bangalore and Hyderabad economic
with 180-day credit. opment of new varieties of long staple refugees? Are they not driven from home
Pakistan is estimating a surplus of 100
primarily by the high unemployment rate
lakh bales and is likely to sell cheap in aThe Indian cotton sector is thus in dire and bleak economic prospects in US?
tight global scenario. China has morestraits and will require urgent action Let
to us look at the definition of refugee
rescue it. El
than enough cotton for its own domestic as given in two international legal instru-
ments which were adopted in Geneva in

Afghan Refugees in India

1951 and 1967 within the framework of
the United Nations and signed by 110
states. The 1951 convention defines 'refu-
gee' as follows:
The story of Afghan refugees in India, mainly Sikh and Hindu As a result of events occurring before
families now settled in Delhi, is one of a hardy and enterprisingJanuary 1951 and owing to well-founded
fear of being persecuted for reasons of
people who have survived in spite of the government's indifference
race, religion, nationality, membership of
to their plight. The Indian bureaucracy has remained largely a particular social group or political op-
indifferent to the complex issues involved and the needfor reviewinion, is outside the country of his nation-

of India's long-standing ambiguity over a refugee policy. As a ality and is unable or, owing to such fear,
is unwilling to avail himself of the protec-
refugee-prone area, south Asia and chiefly India, needs to devisetion
a of that country; or who, not having
regional policy consistent with the region's needs and the capacity
a nationality and being outside the country
of his former habitual residence as a result
to absorb refugees while ensuring them equity.
of such events, is unable or, owing to such
fear is unwilling to return to it. (Office of
ASHISH BOSE Geneva, Sagarika Chattopadhyay and
UNHCR, Handbook on Procedures and
Sabeel Ata). Criteria for Determining Refugee Status,
P athans are poor, but they are never Geneva 1992, p 14).
In our childhood days, we had a terri-
poor at heart", says an Afghan fying image of 'Kabuliwala', the hefty It will be seen that the cut off date is
refugee when I visit his home in and rough moneylender who never fails January 1, 1951. The 1967 protocol relat-
a crowded Muslim locality in Delhi. The to extract interest from borrowers even
ing to the status of refugees amended the
Afghan refugees in India, Hindus, Sikhs by force. Sabeel tells me that Afghans
protocol in view of " new refugee situa-
and Muslims, are concentrated in several were called Kabuliwalas not because tions (which) have arisen since the Con-
localities of Delhi, Faridabad and they are from Kabul but because they vention was adopted and the refugees
neighbouring areas. After going throughused to sell 'kabuli chana' (gram). He said
concerned may therefore not fall within
numerous reports of the UN High Com- that several decades back, the Afghans the scope of the Convention", and omitted
missioner for Refugees and the Regionalused to do flourishing opium business the
in reference to 1951 (Ibid, p 81).
Consultations on Migratory Movements, Uttar Pradesh and lend their money to all During my discussion with the UN High
I decide to do a spell of fieldwork with
and sundry in Bengal. I recall that Commissioner for Refugees in India,
the assistance of volunteer trainees work-
Rabindranath Tagore portrayed a kind- Lennart Kotsalainen, (from Sweden), a
ing with me (Sindhu Pannaikadavil fromhearted kabuliwala in his touching short warm-hearted person dedicated to the cause

4698 Economic and Political Weekly October 23, 2004

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of refugees, I learn that India is not a these forms to the sub-district magistratesurvival strategy by bribing high-level bu-
signatory to the Geneva Convention but (SDM) of Delhi NCT, who in turn had toreaucrats!
is fully cooperating with the UNHCR. submit these cases to foreigners regional
However, India has no law for refugees. registration office (FRRO), who is sup- Stories of Sikh Migrants
His plea was that India could formulate a posed to send back these forms to the
law even without signing the Convention. SDM. Only 376 cases of Afghan refugees Ragini Trakroo laments that India has
It seems that India is reluctant to sign the were submitted to the SDM out if which no uniform policy in regard to refugees.
protocol because of the likely financial 115 were pending with the SDM and There is a high degree of ad hocism while
burden for rehabilitation of refugees, apart another 88 were with the FRRO. The cases dealing with refugees, whether they are
from the fact that the Convention talks of cleared by FRRO and returned to the SDM,from Tibet. Myanmar, Sri Lanka or any
only providing shelter and protection to for forwarding to deputy secretary pass- other country. The policy changes from
the refugees instead of looking at durable port (DS-PP) were 131 while 35 cases government to government. In this con-
solutions. There must be other political were pending with the DS for forwarding text, I wish to refer at some length to the
reasons also for India not signing the to the ministry of home affairs, govern-spokesman of the Afghan Sikh refugees
protocol. ment of India. The FRRO has to take in India., Manohar Singh, ofKhalsa Diwan
The UNHCR felt that Hindu and Sikh police clearance at various stages. After
in all
Delhi, spoke (in Hindi) on the sad plight
refugees from Afghanistan were fairly well these procedures are completed thereof areSikh refugees at a round table organised
integrated in Indian society and there wassix more steps before the hapless refugee by UNHCR in New Delhi (June 20,2004).
no urge on their part to go back to Afghani- gets Indian citizenship! Upamanyu According to him, in Afghanistan, Hindus
stan. The UN High Commissioner regret-Chatterjee who lampoons Indian bureau- and Sikhs have been living for several
ted that though the UNHCR office in Delhicracy in his novel The Mammaries of generations.
the Roughly 25 per cent of the
has been functioning for more than 20Welfare State, could take a few lessonsSikhs on were prosperous businessmen. After
years, it does not have the status other UNthe exasperating bureaucratic hurdles from
the advent of communist regime in Af-
agencies. This does not hinder the UNHCRAfghan refugees trying to become Indian ghanistan in 1979 things started worsen-
in liaisoning with government officials, ing. During the last two decades, Hindus
nonetheless there are limitations. For
A refugee must have a valid passport and and Sikhs were disliked even by their
example, the UNHCR does not have if
ac-it is not available (most of the passports erstwhile friendly neighbours (they had
cess to Mizoram. Regarding the contribu- have expired in any case), a certificate of earlier enjoyed 'bhai-bhai' status with the
tion of UNHCR to refugees it was pointed residence given by the FRRO which is also Muslims). This 'hatred' was more intense
out that the UNHCR has a welfare called a 'visa'. As of now, all the visas have on the part of the new generation because
programme which provides subsistence expired on June 30, 2004 and nobody is of the rise of religious fundamentalism. A
allowance to poor refugees. The allowanceaware of the government's stand. This is large number of Sikhs were forced to migrate
is Rs 1,400 per month for an individual an unacceptable position. The government to India, particularly after 1992 when the
or Rs4,000 for a family. UNHCR finances of India must apply its mind speedily to Sikhs were attacked in Afghanistan but
certain activities related to the naturalis-
the humanitarian issue of granting citizen- unfortunately, India did not quite accept
ation procedure, for example, meeting ship
theto Afghan refugees. The UNHCR, the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus as refugees
cost of advertising in newspapers, etc. New
The Delhi gives a certificate to Afghan and no worthwhile shelter or help was
high commissioner is aware of the refugees which says: "This is to certify that given to them by the government of India.
bureaucratic processes and bottlenecks at (name)...a national of Afghanistan is on To make matters worse, under Indian law,
the sub-district magistrate level whichthe basis of available information consider- one has to wait for 10 years (later increased
slow down very considerably the process ed to be a refugee within the Mandate of to 12 years) to become an Indian citizen.
of naturalisation of refugees as Indianthe Office of the United Nations Commis- The Sikhs had lost everything, their
citizens. sioner for Refugees". This certificate is property, money, and business and there
The UNHCR supports an NGO called valid for a period of 18 months. In addi- was no question of going back to Afghani-
socio-legal information centre (SLIC)tion, a refugee must have a work permit stan. There were eight gurdwaras of great
which helps refugees in processing appli-if he wants to work in India or set up his historical value in Kabul, out of which
cations for acquiring Indian citizenship. Iown business and hardly any refugee knows seven were destroyed. The one gurdwara,
had a long discussion with a brilliant lawyer,how to get such a work permit. SLIC or which was functional, had over 800 Sikhs
Ragini Trakroo who is the director of theUNHCR cannot be of much help in this taking shelter in it. Manohar Singh de-
Refugee Rights Initiative Programme ofregard because to get a work permit one scribes their sad plight. For example, there
SLIC. She also works for Human Rightsneeds a valid passport which most of were only four toilets to tak, care of 800
Law Network in Delhi. I get a factual pic-the Afghan refugees do not have nor persons in the gurdwara.
ture of the situation in regard to the Afghancan they afford to pay the high fee in- The Sikhs from Afghanistan in India
refugees. As on August 15, 2004, thevolved in getting a fresh passport from the realised that the government of India had
number of Afghan refugees (mostly Sikhsembassy of Afghanistan in New Delhi. not given them a refugee status and they
and Hindus) who had shown 'expressionMost of the poor refugees working in the had no certificates and no travel docu-
of interest' was 2,730 (cumulative figure),informal sector have to take recourse to ments. In many cases, their Afghan pass-
out of which 1,499 forms were 'initiated'.a survival strategy which includes ports had expired and it was not therefore
Finally 538 forms were completed andbribing the police and petty bureaucrats! possible for the Afghan Sikhs to go out
submitted to SLIC which advertised 430 The rich Hindu Afghan refugee I met of India. Visas were usually denied to
cases. The next stage was submission oftold me that he too has to adopt the Afghan Sikhs and Hindus on the plea that

Economic and Political Weekly October 23, 2004 4699

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they could settle down in India. This was In the posh colonies of South Delhi,refugees...As a refugee prone area, south
not fair considering that Singhalese and there are several rich Sikh and Hindu mig-Asia requires India to take the lead to
Tibetan refugees were given travel docu- rants from Afghanistan (some of them diddevise a regional policy consistent with the
ments. Manohar Singh thought that this region's needs and the capacity to absorb
come as refugees but some of them had trans-
was a case of injustice and was at a loss ferred their money well in time in Indiarefugees under conditions of global
to understand why Afghan Sikh refugees or had made money during the last two equity". (The Hindu, June 25, 2004).
were given such a shabby treatment. Getting decades in exporting dry fruits, garments, Dhavan who is also the director of
etc). They have bought houses. I met one
an Indian citizenship is an extremely dif- PILSARC (Public Interest Legal Support
ficult task :one must know one of the such rich Hindu who belonged to a very and Research Centre) has just published
languages listed in the eighth scheduleprominent
of family in Kabul and is an engi- a monograph on Refugee Law and Policy
the Constitution (which does not include neer by training (his medium of instruction in India (limited circulation by PILSARC,
English) In addition, there are a number in the engineering college in Kabul wasNew Delhi, August 2004). This is a valu-
German). He talked about Hindu and Sikhable contribution, commissioned by the
of conditions for acquiring Indian citizen-
Afghans settled in US, Canada, Australia,UNHCR. It comes out with concrete sug-
ship like the individual should be a major,
should not be an illegal migrant, should UK, France, Germany, Russia and other gestions including the Model Law for India,
countries. He became an Indian citizen after drafted under the auspices of the Regional
have a valid passport. As a result, nobody
is excited about applying for an Indian a long wait. He was disgusted at the highConsultations on Refugees and Migratory
citizenship. Manohar Singh wondered why level of corruption in government depart- Movements in South Asia Initiative in
ments and the bribes which government1995, with Justice P N Bhagwati as chair-
a country with a population of over a billion
cannot accept 10,000 refugees as citizens.
officers expect from businessmen. I foundperson of the drafting committee of the
in him a devout scotch-drinking Hindu.India-specific version of the national law
After a long wait, ManoharSingh did manage
to get citizenship. He was very proud that on refugee policy (pp 156-164).
there was not a single case of theft or I understand from Sindhu (of Malyalee
Why a Law for Refugees?
dacoity on the part of Afghan Sikhs in India. origin who was bor and brought up in
The Afghan Sikh refugees decided to On the issue of Indian citizenship, I am Geneva) that it is extremely difficult to
form their own association called Khalsa become a Swiss citizen. UNHCR showed
aware that it is extremely difficult to become
Diwan to help fellow refugees. Inciden- an Indian citizen but I do not think that a short film during the Round Table on
tally, the Sikhs in Afghanistan had estab- there is any deliberate discrimination the destruction and devastation in Afghani-
lished the Khalsa Diwan in 1921. The against Afghan refugees. Commenting onstan. Manohar Singh referred to the film
Khalsa Diwan in Delhi pays tuition fees the Afghan refugees, Rajeev Dhavan, aas the best evidence that Afghan refugees
for 550 children and has made arrange- senior advocate of the Supreme Court cannot go back.
ments with the Don Bosco School for observes: "They remain in limbo without The UNHCR has entrusted the Volun-
training students in computers, office citizenship in India...the new governmenttary Health Association of Delhi (VHAD)
management and English language. They needs to re-examine this issue... India needs to look after the health of the refugees (not
also have a plan to rehabilitate youngto Sikh
review its ambivalent refugee law policy, only Afghan refugees but all refugees).
Afghans in India as they cannot possibly evolve a regional approach and enact rules There are limits to this type of health
or legislations to protect persecutedassistance programmes. Unless there is a
go back to the country of their birth. Singh
estimated that there are 10 to 12 thousand
Afghan Sikh refugees in UK and almost
the same number in the US. GRAMS 'ECOSOCI', Bangalore - 560 040
I went to new Mahavir Nagar near Tilak FAX : 91-80-3217008
Nagar in Delhi, where there is a concen- ___~w~~~~ 7'Phone: 3215468
tration of Afghan Sikh refugees. By sheer e-mail: registrar@is
coincidence, on the day of my visit, a meeting
of the executive committee of Khalsa Diwan INSTITUTE FOR SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC CHANGE
was on. There were around 15 members Nagarabhavi PO: BANGALORE-560 072
(all elderly Sikhs from Afghanistan; the
oldest member Saran Singh was 90). They ADVERTISEMENT NO. A/1/2004

were kind enough to answer my questions

(in Punjabi). They publish a weekly news- Applications are invited for one post of Professor in RBI Endowment Un
letter in Punjabi. I was told that there were 3 posts of Associate Professors in Economics (one each reserved for SC,
around 5,000 Afghan Sikh refugees stay- and GM) candidates, and one post of Assistant Professor in Education (reser
ing in that locality. They were doing busi-
for ST). The prescribed application form and other details can be had fr
ness in readymade garments, electrical goods,
Registrar of the Institute free of cost. The advertisement No. A/1/2004 a
etc, and also had chemist shops. Khalsa
Diwan built a four-storey building from the application form can also be downloaded from www.isec.ac.in. Comple
donations by Sikhs. We went around the applications in all respect should reach the undersigned on or bef
fourfloors and were impressed by their acti- 5th November 2004
vities. We saw a music room (with a number
of harmoniums and tablas) where students M J Bhende
are instructed in Sikh religious music. 4th October 2004 Registrar I/c

4700 Economic and Political Weekly October 23, 2004

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radical departure from the current practice Russian aggression, CIA sponsored
health is concerned, every episode of ill-
of honouring reimbursement bills only Taliban movement and the rise of Islamic
ness means going in debt because the
when the patient is admitted to govern- fundamentalism and terrorism. The recent
reimbursement amount is very small". His
ment hospitals, the situation will not daughter had to undergo an emergency
American bombardment of Afghanistan
improve. As Sagarika, who had earlier operation for a burst appendix and he had
and subsequent events have led to a very
worked in a private hospital says, it is to rush her to a private nursing home. tragic
He situation. There are hardly 10,000
possible to involve even tertiary care had to undergo prolonged treatment for Afghan refugees in India (mostly Sikhs
hospitals for giving healthcare to refugees slip disc but he got no money by way ofand Hindus) who have come here during
in need (in fact a certain proportion of beds the last two decades. Most of their efforts
reimbursement except a small amount. "No
are allocated for the poor). I feel that even education for our children, no health for
to become Indian citizens are a cry in the
within the present structure it is possible wilderness thanks to the bureaucratic
the family and the worst of all, no employ-
for UNHCR and VHA Delhi to be more ment opportunities and no permission to
hurdles and the absence of a Refugee law
liberal in these matters; for example,
start a business (unless one paid a heavy
in India. The Muslim refugees are mostly
hospitals run by private trusts includingbribe to petty officials and police). It isimpoverished
a and they are waiting in vain
bleak prospect for us. Our relations to
super speciality hospitals could be brought in migrate to developed countries in the
into the net through innovative pro-advanced countries are not facing such west, an unlikely proposition given the
grammes. Besides the corporate sectorhardships.
is That is why we want to go spreadto of terrorism all over the world. It
getting increasingly involved in CSR (cor- is a sad state of affairs.
these countries. But it is so difficult to get
porate social responsibility) programmes. visa. Our Afghan passports have expiredThe Afghans are a hardy and enterpris-
I discuss health issues with Shanti Ghosh, and we do not have Indian passports".ing people with a great sense of dignity.
an eminent paediatrician who served as the Naim like many other Afghan refugees In spite of the government's indifference
WHO representative in Kabul for over five is disillusioned by UNHCR. They did give they have survived all these years and they
years. She said that Afghans are tough and us some subsistence allowance but that has are not pleading to get allowance from
stopped. We are asked to go back. This
healthy but the first year of their life is most UNHCR. What they need most is some
vulnerable and children need special care. is unrealistic. Has UNHCR any scheme support to from the government to educate
Kiran Gera, coordinator of this UNHCR- educate our children? Have they senttheir a children, get worthwhile medical aid
sponsored project is very knowledgeable medical team to look after our serious (or some sort of special medical insurance
about the condition of Afghan refugees. health problems? Have they given us loans whereby they can go to private medical
She gave me a list of Muslim Afghan refugees to start business? They are helping us to institutions also) and above all, licensing
(who are designated as 'ethnic Afghans' become citizens but is this enough? Even procedures, which will help them to set up
by UNHCR). Unlike the affluent Sikhs if we become citizens, we cannot get out honest business enterprises. I feel that the
and Hindu Afghans in South Delhi and of poverty unless UNHCR or the govern- cause of Afghan refugees has been pushed
Faridabad, the ethnic Afghans live in poorer ment of India helps us. But we will not to the margins not because of any discrimi-
localities. I go to one such locality (Houz go to them with a begging bowl. Many natory policy on the part of the government
Rani) and wade through narrow slushy young Afghans have committed suicide. towards such refugees but because nobody
lanes to locate a leading spokesman of this It seems to me that their expectations are in the government (concerned ministers
community - Sayeed Naim Hashimi. He beyond the mandate of the UNHCR. But and bureaucrats) was really interested in
and his family receive me with warmth and I do feel that the government of India looking at the complex issues involved and
cordiality. It was a very depressing picture should come out with a financially viable overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles by
that he painted. He has aprice on his head scheme to help at least the children of the announcing bold policy decisions.
(as he was involved with a political move- Afghan refugees and involve banks so that One way out is to declare that all Afghan
ment) and cannot go back to Afghanistan. the enterprising Afghan community, known refugees in India will be given citizenship
In spite of his efforts, he has not been given
for its trading skills gets initial help.
subject to security clearance. In fact SLIC
Indian citizenship, though he wants to be would be able to help in quickly process-
in India. He has no desire to go to Pakistan.
Conclusion ing all the pending applications of Afghan
In my subsequent discussion with him, he refugees but as of now, this is an impos-
told me that Afghan refugees in PakistanOn the basis of my very limited study sible task: the lone SDM sitting in an office
are having a tough time. They are harassed of Afghan refugees in India based onin my Patel Nagar can hardly process more
by the police. In terms of numbers, Paki- visits to the localities where they stay,
than two applications a day. The present
stan has the largest number of Afghan discussion with men and women of some system has to be scrapped and a more
refugees. After initial welcome, Pakistan of these families, my interaction with modern
the management-oriented humanitar-
now wants the Afghan refugees to go back.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
ian system has to be introduced. This is
When I asked Naim if it was true that lawyers from SLIC, the NGO helping not possible without the direct interven-
most Muslim Afghans wanted to go toAfghan a refugees, VHAD doing health work
tion of the prime minister, the external affairs
third country like Canada or Germany, for
he refugees, academic scholars and other
minister, home minister, and the law
answered in the affirmative and explained
persons familiar with Afghanistan, I wish
minister or in short, the government of
the reasons: "My children go to school in
to make the following observations:India at the highest level. The present policy
Delhi but they can do so only upto classThe Afghan refugees in India are victims
of letting things take their own time will
of geo-political and historical circum-
ten. Beyond this we have to pay the fees not do as our prime minister repeatedly
which we cannot afford. Thus our children
stances in Afghanistan where the big emphasises, we need a high degree of pro-
are denied higher education. As far aspowers are playing their game, like
fessionalism for good governance. [J3i

Economic and Political Weekly October 23, 2004 4701

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