Ambiguity around atithi devo bhava

MAKING the fine distinction between guests, refugees and intruders is thus an important, albeit confusing, ideologically fraught and sometimes politically utilitarian exercise. Take the Rohingya Muslims. Fleeing near-genocidal violence from, ironically, the Buddhist majority in their home state of Rakhine in Burma, they are clearly political refugees. Targeted on grounds of race and religion rather than political opinion, they are nonetheless fleeing an oppressive state.

India is home to a chaotic medley of cross-border and overseas migrants: Tibetans, Afghans, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankan Tamils and more recently, the Rohingyas. Cities and hill stations play host to small but highly visible enclaves of Africans, Israelis and Europeans, in India to study or work or merely to leisurely explore its pleasurable diversity. Inevitably, these little communities sometimes rub up against local populations, creating avoidable conflicts.

Making the fine distinction between guests, refugees and intruders is thus an important, albeit confusing, ideologically fraught and sometimes politically utilitarian exercise. Take the Rohingya Muslims. Fleeing near-genocidal violence from, ironically, the Buddhist majority in their home state of Rakhine in Burma, they are clearly political refugees. Targeted on grounds of race and religion rather than political opinion, they are nonetheless fleeing an oppressive state.

There is no strategic or diplomatic advantage to be gained in hosting the Rohingyas, who are in India on sufferance. Their very presence undermines the government’s aggressive outreach to the (non-Chinese) Buddhist world. Yet, in a technical sense, they are akin to the Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, who migrated to escape repression and have been granted citizenship. The fact that some of the Rohingyas settled in Jammu & Kashmir have erroneously been issued Aadhaar cards has galvanised the Home ministry to start identifying and deporting them – although no one has an answer to the question of where, exactly, these stateless people are to go.

Contrast their situation with that of the Tibetans, who followed the Dalai Lama to India. Today, they can be found scattered far and wide, from Dharamshala in the north to Kodaikanal in the south. Various states have allotted land for Tibetan settlements over the years. The government of Mysore was the first to do so, in 1960. McLeodganj hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile while Delhi’s Little Tibet is located at the famous Majnu-ka-Tila, proudly fluttering its flags. Conscious of the tremendous prestige of hosting the Dalai Lama, while simultaneously poking China in the eye, the government provides free schools, scholarships and healthcare and documents for international travel.

The Afghans, fleeing to India in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan war, are also here on sufferance. Like the Rohingyas, they are not recognised as refugees but allowed to stay under the aegis of the UNHCR. As their numbers increase, so does conflict with local communities, competing for the same scarce public resources. The Sri Lankan Tamils number a few lakhs and have been immigrating for decades, even before the controversial Ceylon Citizenship Act disenfranchised them. Lakhs were repatriated back to India in the 1970s and 80s. Many of them have been granted full citizenship.

The Bangladeshi Muslims, being economic refugees, are another cup of tea altogether. Unlike Taslima Nasreen, the famous author, they are not political refugees. For the most part, they are illegal migrants who have trickled across the border in millions, resulting in often violent conflicts. Their presence in India has been legitimised through ration cards, which confer de facto citizenship and voting rights. Deporting them is an impossibility, given the numbers involved and successive governments have failed to stem the tide of migration. The Supreme Court was moved to declare in 2005 that it was the foremost duty of the central government to protect its borders and prevent trespass by foreign nationals. More recently, it has been monitoring efforts to fence off the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Europeans, Israelis, Africans and other nationalities are, by contrast, in India on legitimate visas. As such, they are fully entitled to the ‘atithi devo bhava’ (the guest is like a god) treatment, but don’t seem to be getting it. The African envoys, who are seeking a full inquiry into the attacks on their citizens and an official condemnation of such violence from the Indian government, are justified in threatening to take India to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Cultural differences and dark rumours of involvement in the drug and sex trade cannot be an excuse for lackadaisical action against the perpetrators of violence against the country’s “guests”.

All foreign nationals must be assured of security, not merely because attacks on them might undermine tourism but because an assault on a foreign national – a guest, so to speak – is a crime of a particularly heinous nature, rather like inviting someone to your home and then assaulting them. Having said that, they do not enjoy immunity from the law. India’s standards for accepting foreign nationals are unclear. What’s clear is that having accepted them, the state is bound to go the extra mile in treating them with respect.

The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines.

She is now an independent writer and author.

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