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State Responses to Displacement

to Displacement Internal Displacement in South Asia: The Relevance of the UN Guiding Principles edited by Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, Samir Kumar Das; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005;

State Responses to Displacement

Internal Displacement in South Asia: The Relevance of the UN Guiding Principles

edited by Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, Samir Kumar Das; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2005; pp 370, $ 30.95 (pb), $ 66.95 (hb).


his book, a compendium of essays, published as a sequel to an earlier volume, Refugees and the State, is an important work of necessary concern to those interested in the politics of south Asia as well as to students of sociology, anthropology and law. While the preceding volume dealt largely with refugee flows, this volume presents a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of internal displacement, analysed in the context of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. It does this through detailed case studies of seven countries in south Asia – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

By examining various legal and administrative practices concerning security, care and protection in these regions, the book incorporates a political perspective with a close analysis of national and international legal norms and practices in order to provide an encompassing understanding of internal displacement in the south Asian region. Using the UN Guiding Principles as a parameter, the contributors also suggest several important policy measures that will help in dealing with this major though largely unsung humanitarian crisis.

The last two decades have witnessed an enormous increase in the number of internally displaced people in south Asia. Their situation is particularly vulnerable because unlike refugees they are seldom able to move away from the site of conflict and are often forced to remain in the state from which they have been displaced in the first place. What makes their situation even worse is the fact that there are hardly any mechanisms that guide their rehabilitation and care in south Asia. While most people are aware of internal displacement as a phenomenon, it seldom gains enough importance so as to be incorporated into public policy.

Only recently we had the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and there seems to be no sign as yet that these are being given due consideration by governments in south Asian countries while organising programmes for rehabilitation and care of internally displaced persons.

Causes and Patterns

The eviction of indigenous people from their lands has been a recurrent theme in the history of south Asia. Their situation is made particularly worse by the fact that unlike refugees they are unable to move to other countries where they might be granted asylum. They are forced in most cases to remain and rely for help on the very same states whose policies may have caused their displacement. Though numerous causes of displacement are cited, in many countries they are the result either of development related factors or have political causes. This is especially true in India and Pakistan where displacement usually follows a major development initiative like the building of dams or as the result of conflict, either political or ethnic to which all these countries have been constant victims.

The chapter on India takes stock of the nature and magnitude of the displacement as a result of a few recurrent trends over decades in the country. The author, Samir Kumar Das, argues that while India is yet to evolve separate legal instruments to deal with this problem there are nevertheless significant provisions in the existing laws to which people may take recourse. However the need for a separate legal instrument has been increasingly felt after the 1990s when this problem has grown more complex and loopholes are being detected in the existing laws with a regularity that is a definite cause of concern. The author has utilised case studies in Gujarat and Kashmir, frequent victims of communal violence and insurgency, respectively, as well as the examples of river erosion related displacement and the eviction of street hawkers from Kolkata.

In the case of Pakistan displacement is basically discussed with regard to three major categories. These are development induced displacement, conflict induced displacement and natural disaster related displacement. The article provides a comprehensive account of the displacement caused by various development projects as well as an analysis of the case of people affected by various ethnic and border related conflicts, placing a special emphasis on the fairly recent Kargil situation.

The chapter on Afghanistan with which the volume begins, deals primarily with the religio-ethnic conflict which has brought ruin to the country and for which no solutions are as yet forthcoming. This long drawn-out conflict has caused the deterioration of the Afghan economy and a substantial number have been displaced due to incessant skirmishes between ethnic warlords and the continuous invasions by foreign powers beginning from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the repressive policies of the Taliban and then the US-led war of 2001.

Bangladesh has also been victim to several kinds of internal displacement in recent years. As is the case with most south Asian countries, structural violence within the state is the leading cause. The dominance of the Bengali group within the country and a constitution that has declared Islam as the official state religion has led to the marginalisation of many. In addition, the acceptance by the state of the modern globalisation paradigm while still

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006 being in the course of development has further accentuated the problem of poverty and caused displacement in various parts of the country. This problem is analysed using the unique example of shrimp farms which has been dealt with in detail as well as the forced eviction by the state of people living in slum areas.

India’s north-east deserves special attention as a major case of internal displacement and has accordingly been dealt with as a separate area of study. Insurgency, violence and displacement has become commonplace in all the states of this turbulent region. Most of these states have been subject to continuous influx from outsiders, particularly from Bangladesh. The demographic changes caused by this migration have provoked major ethnic conflicts especially in the states of Assam and Tripura. In addition a number of separatist organisations with competing homeland demands have enmeshed themselves in conflict with the federal government and amongst themselves. The sustained conflict and the drastic counter insurgency measures by the central government have also contributed to displacement in the north-east. In such a scenario, development induced displacement, though marginal by comparison, often only serves to exacerbate the conflict.

Political conflict is the major cause of displacement in Nepal too, with continuous fighting between the armed insurgents of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the government. Internal displacement in Myanmar has been studied against the complex background of the country’s socio-political situation, its early colonial and subsequent military background. Having been under military rule for over four decades, the post-colonial history of Myanmar has largely been influenced by the policies of the military regime, problems of ethnic nationalities and many kinds of insurgency organised by aggrieved minorities. The selective recognition of citizenship by the state means that many are relegated to the position of perennially displaced.

In Sri Lanka the two decade-long conflicts between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamilians has caused immense suffering to hundreds of thousands of citizens. As in the case of most political conflicts, the worst affected is the civilian population and the reality of the situation in the island country is staggering in its economic and social dimensions.

Retrogression in social development, human rights and social security makes the humanitarian crisis particularly acute in Sri Lanka.

It is now a fact known worldwide that the majority of the internally displaced are women and children. The last chapter of this book deals exclusively with this aspect of internal displacement. The author, Paula Banerjee, deals primarily with two categories of displacement – that due to conflict and displacement due to development. The author argues that states are often weighted against women in south Asia so that even though they are citizens they are often marginalised. Most of these states have failed to incorporate gender concerns in their programmes for the internally displaced.

Some of the other chapters highlight the gender issue as well. The chapter on Afghanistan analyses how displacement affects men and women differently in terms of the problems faced by women living in refugee camps. The chapter on Sri Lanka too stresses the prevalence of the problem in the vulnerable sections of the population such as women, children and the sick.

Response of Government

In many cases, common to all these nations is the absence of an adequate legal mechanism to deal with this crisis. Like the argument made for the case in India, this is required owing to the mixed nature of displacement that most of these countries face which means that laws cannot be applied uniformly to all forms of displacement. Many of these studies highlight the inadequacies of modern legal systems in safeguarding the fundamental rights of the displaced people, most importantly, their right to a home.

The UN Guiding Principles, although a recent development and not yet a legally binding treaty, are nonetheless based on established international legal principles for aiding human rights of the displaced people. “The primary aim of the guiding principles is perhaps to ensure that humanitarian assistance is carried out with due attention to the moral principles of care and protection and is not made subservient to any other reason – military or political. Most of the reports in this volume are written in the spirit of deciphering the moral basis of the guiding principles and making an audit of the respective cases in their light” (from the editorial).

In addition to going through the nature and extent of displacement in their respective studies the authors have also provided recommendations to minimise the insecurity of the displaced. A few have even suggested some early warning systems to forestall the displacement at the very outset. Most of these essays deal with the question of responsibility, not merely who is responsible for the displacement, but who ultimately takes responsibility for them and the course of action they should follow.

It is important to note however, that the book deals largely with organised responses to the crisis, that of the government as it is mainly in relation to them that questions of ethics and care apply. In doing so however, some of these essays are forced to ignore the possible impact of unorganised responses in numerous cases, carried out perhaps by civil society organisations and which might prove to be equally important. Another acknowledged fact is that organised responses are generally restricted to the established lines of community and kinship, an observation especially relevant to the marginal regions of south Asia. They often define the terms of relief and rehabilitation. In the course of organising the response therefore they can possibly further accentuate the asymmetries that are already internal to the society.

Whether this can be seen as a limitation of the volume however, is open to question as it probably does not fall under its scope of discussion, which is pretty clearly defined from the outset. That said, there are problems with narrowing the scope of discussion or analysis to any general set of laws such as that which the guiding principles represent. While it may be equally important not to fall into any specific modalities while evolving relief measures, the complex nature of the polity of these countries requires, perhaps, a more specific course of action that is based on the country’s capabilities.


Email: jayantsriram@gmail.com

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