Dynamics of human displacement

Published December 18, 2016
Displaced Rohingya children at a refugee camp in Hyderabad, India. — AFP
Displaced Rohingya children at a refugee camp in Hyderabad, India. — AFP

HUMANS are considered social animals and rightly so, not only because we have an urge to communicate with others, but also because we want to have a sense of belonging. This sense of belonging — political, economic, ethnic, linguistic, etc., — gives rise to multiple identities. The most important of these identities is, perhaps, the political identity which determines the nationality of a person. This is not only a political phenomenon, but carries a legal dimension as well. Even in this era of globalisation, the Westphalian concept of nationality determines the rights and opportunities for an individual. Human movement with respect to nationality has given rise to the phenomena of migration, refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless people. The problems faced by such people and the narrative of their agony have been well-documented in the developed world, but social and political researchers in developing countries have largely ignored this crucial and complex area.

Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia, by Partha S. Ghosh, is a remarkable effort to probe the problems arising out of migration in South Asia, an area that has hitherto remained unexplored. The book starts with a chapter introducing the topic as a research paper that gives definitions of important concepts to be discussed, the theoretical framework, and the scope of the study. In this chapter, Ghosh differentiates between Western and South Asian migrations according to two parameters. The first is that European migrations were oceanic while South Asian migrations have been land-based; the second is that collective violence has played a major role in the South Asian experience. The lack of ethnocultural homogeneity has given rise to this collective violence that has not been impeded by even the institutional democracies prevalent in the region.

Migration in South Asia seen through political, economic and cultural perspectives

Ghosh informs that “South Asia’s oldest democracy, Sri Lanka (universal adult franchise was introduced in the country as early as 1931), and the world’s largest and secular democracy, India ... have witnessed recurring ethnic and communal riots”. This phenomenon might force critics to conclude that these democracies sometimes operate as tyrannies of the majority — a trend that needs to be discouraged. Ghosh has identified the Muslim rule of the subcontinent as one factor playing into the contempt Hindus harbour against Muslims in India. “No less than India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, also tends to think like that,” Ghosh states. Speaking in Assam in February 2014, Modi gave clear indications that his government would be soft towards Hindu immigrants from other countries. Criticising this communal approach, Siddharth Varadarajan of the Shiv Nadar University stated, “BJP continues to think of Hindus as primary constituents of India. Why should a Fijian Indian who happened to be Muslim have any less claim over refuge in India than a Fijian Indian who happened to be Hindu?” (The Hindu, Apr 9, 2014).

Chapter two starts with a description that around 50 million people have been involved in interstate migrations or refugee movements in South Asia. Ghosh categorises these movements into eight types. The majority of displacements have taken place as a result of the Indo-Pak Partition, the central culprit of which, as described by Ghosh, is considered Cyril Radcliffe. This line of argument followed by Ghosh is further strengthened by the memoirs of Christopher Beaumont who was private secretary to the Radcliffe-led Indo-Pak Boundary Commission. These memoirs were discovered by Beaumont’s son Robert, and show that Beaumont made a grim assessment of the role played by Britain in the sunset days of the Raj. “The viceroy, Mountbatten, must take the blame — though not the sole blame — for the massacres in the Punjab in which between 500,000 to a million men, women and children perished,” he writes in these memoirs. The central theme that becomes evident in Beaumont’s historic paperwork is that Mountbatten not only bent the rules when it came to Partition, but that he also bent the border in India’s favour.

The second category identified by Ghosh includes instances where there have been failures in nation-building. He has again contrasted the South Asian scenario with European scenarios by highlighting that “[u]nlike the European experience, in large parts of the decolonised world, state formation has preceded nation formation”. Under this category he discusses Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and the Rohingya refugees. In particular, the history of the Rohingya community, their migrations, and several attempts at their repatriation have been discussed by the author, but the latest dynamics of the conflict have not been described which leaves readers with an intellectual longing for more information on this contemporary issue.

Discussing the political aspect of displacement, Ghosh states that initially host societies are sympathetic towards refugees, but with the passage of time they become suspicious of them while conversely, refugees start demanding more rights. The scarce resources of the society come under pressure when refugees and natives compete for control. Moreover, the power dynamics of a polity are challenged by a large number of refugees that change the demography of the host societies. Analysing the same phenomenon, Ayesha Jalal has described in The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics how the settling of Urdu-speaking Mohajirs in Karachi negatively affected the economic and political prospects of the Sindhi-speaking natives of the province.

Ghosh also discusses this problem from the prism of security that is increasingly being used even in Europe in the wake of the refugee crisis resulting from areas affected by the militant ‘Islamic State’ group. In the chapter ‘Relief and Rehabilitation’, among other things, Ghosh quotes Amtul Hassan (Impact of Partition: Refugees in Pakistan) in saying that by 1957, around 30,000 of the hundreds of thousands of women who suffered rape, torture and other forms of dishonour were recovered by both countries — Muslim: 20,728; Hindu: 9,032.

Discussing legal dynamics, Ghosh highlights that no country in the region has signed the international refugee covenants of 1951 except Afghanistan, but Afghanistan does not host any refugees thus rendering this membership ineffective. Although Ghosh falls short of suggesting it, there is a dire need for a coordinated effort to come to a legal paradigm, under the auspices of Saarc, perhaps, to effectively resolve the problems of migrants, refugees and the stateless in the region.

Ghosh also dedicates a chapter to the cultural and psychological effects of migration which have usually been neglected by researchers working on the issue. Although globalisation is bringing various cultures closer, there is a cultural hegemony of the developed world. The phenomenon of migration impacts the cultural milieu of the sending societies as well as the host societies irrespective of the politico-economic dominance. The book concludes on a positive note that “in spite of South Asia being a witness to one of the most massive human flows starting with the Partition of India ... its humanitarian spirit has not been denied”.

The writer works with the Civil Services of Pakistan.

Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia
By Partha S. Ghosh
Sage Publishing, India
ISBN: 978-9351508540

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 18th, 2016



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