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The Refugee's World

Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia by Pia Oberoi; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006; RANABIR SAMADDAR This is one more book on refugees, and one more engagement with the refugee life and refugee condition. Even though the title speaks of exile lives and the belongings of the displaced, the book deals not with the lives and the desires of the displaced, but of state policies and practices, also of international humanitarian policies and organisational measures, with regard to the refugees. This disjunction of course does not take away anything from the quality of this welldocumented work, but it is only fair to point out at the outset the disjunction from which the book suffers. The title is only an indication, for at the end of reading this volume you may think, how much did the lives and the belongings of the exiled surface through the narration of the myriad of administrative measures and what are euphemistically called

The Refugee’s World

Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia

by Pia Oberoi; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006; pp 298, Rs 595.

RANABIR SAMADDAR

T
his is one more book on refugees, and one more engagement with the refugee life and refugee condition. Even though the title speaks of exile lives and the belongings of the displaced, the book deals not with the lives and the desires of the displaced, but of state policies and practices, also of international humanitarian policies and organisational measures, with regard to the refugees. This disjunction of course does not take away anything from the quality of this welldocumented work, but it is only fair to point out at the outset the disjunction from which the book suffers. The title is only an indication, for at the end of reading this volume you may think, how much did the lives and the belongings of the exiled surface through the narration of the myriad of administrative measures and what are euphemistically called “the best practices”? But Pia Oberoi’s angle is clearly the human rights angle; therefore she makes the best effort to bridge the divide, which I repeat is a fundamental one. But as I said it is important to note what she has documented.

Pia Oberoi begins with population movements during the time of the Partition and places the situation of the Indian subcontinent (she could have chosen the better word, south Asia) in the context of international refugee regime. Now we all know at least to some extent how the refugees came, of those who could not come, and those who decided to stay back, and we are aware today how the narrative of refugee care and protection merged with the narrative of nation-building on both sides (in Pakistan, the link between refugee inflow and construction of national identity is still alive; the issue of the ‘mohajirs’ is still today an issue of the refugees and of Pakistani national identity). But few had been aware of the “strategic marginality” in those days of the massive subcontinental refugee question in the global regime of refugee care and administration dominated by big western powers (p 25); Oberoi brings this out clearly and documents the unwillingness of the international administration of refugee care to even partially bear the burden of the massive population flow in south Asia. This was the true story of universal hospitality that the UNHCR had promised, also the real story of discriminate responsibility.

She documents successive refugee flows in the subcontinent – Tibetan refugees coming to India, the massive inflow of the persecuted from East Pakistan in 1971, the Rohingiya Muslim refugees from Burma into Bangladesh, Afghan inflows to Pakistan, Sri Lankan Tamils seeking asylum in India, and she ends her account with pointing out the factors working as fundamental elements of the national and international administrations of refugee relief and care. Besides pointing out these elements she significantly adds the case of the internally displaced persons in Sri Lanka in her account. Today, it is being more and more recognised that the boundaries of cross-border displacement and internal displacement are often thin, and the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are the proto-refugees. In any case the factors in the practices of refugee care are clear today. As she points out, these are – the state and the transnational constituencies, interstate and intra-state interactions, policy motivations, the material dynamics, political self-interest, international norms, and ideational motivations (pp 233-43). Possibly this is an exhaustive list of factors or elements.

The details are the strength of this book. She has documented the administration of care and protection of the refugees by the Indian government and the associated role of the UNHCR through all these forced population movements over the years very closely – particularly on the basis of official papers. She has marshalled facts from a variety of sources – UNHCR archives, records of the US Committee for Refugees, government sources, ICRC statements, various interviews, and contemporary newspaper records. This is a remarkable case of using official data to show the internal contradictions in the regime of care and administration – contradictions for instance evident in the process of repatriation of Rohingiya refugees from Bangladesh to Burma (pp 184-90) or UNHCR’s approach to the Indian government and the relation of the UNHCR in India with the refugees and the organisations and associations that work for them and represent them (p 226). Yet as she discusses these instances, one feels that there is still an inadequate recognition in the book that these contradictions are elemental. But on that discussion we can wait a little more.

The other strength of the book is that in each discussion of the refugee inflow, she shows the interface of the state practices and the international response in terms of the UNHCR policies and practices (in case of Pakistan managing the influx of the Afghan refugees, in Bangladesh administering the Rohingiya asylum seekers, in

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

Sri Lanka managing the 500,000 strong IDPs, and in India managing the Tibetans and several other groups), and shows that if the state practices cannot be lauded for being altruistic, the international policies have been equally marked by global considerations of power. In this enmeshing of power and care, it is good that Oberoi’s account does not revolve around the by now banal question of India’s accession/ non-accession to the 1951 convention. If India had signed, certainly it would have been a good lead for other south Asian countries; but let us be clear that it would not have radically altered the situation. UNHCR would have remained under the influence of the North as it is today; sharing of the refugee burden would have remained as much a misnomer as is now, cold war and North-South divides would have left their imprint on the structure of care as deeply as they did; and wars would have caused as much havoc on settled populations of countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and of the Balkans as they have done. Countries, which have acceded to the convention, have fared no better – one has to only see the profile of “Fortress Europe” and the conduct of the US towards immigrants today to see how much the 1951 convention has to catch up today to be in tune with time. Of course, it is true that India and in general south Asia has a much better record than many northern countries in offering asylum, all the more therefore India could have joined perhaps to bring the convention alive to the realities of the time.

All these realities point to certain factors that this book does not take into account. Today’s flows of unwanted people are massive and mixed in nature. The inflows of the Tamils, Bangladeshis, Nepalis (not to be confused with Nepali speaking Indians) in India have been mixed. Similarly, today’s flows are massive in nature making the nature of individual determination of refugee status completely inadequate. The northern practices of preventing the entry of the refugees at the airports, seaports, or interdicting them mid-way, etc, clearly take advantage of the vaguness of the 1951 convention and go against any spirit of care. After all the international regime of care and protection is dependent on the states for its effectiveness and the implementation of the convention and the 1967 Protocol depends likewise on the states. Buttressed by this unholy alliance, what has been called a global regime of “calculated kindness” continues, and the humanitarian game is enacted in this milieu.

A Humanitarian Game?

How did the work of humanism suddenly transform into a humanitarian game? At one level one can agree with the thrust of the book that refugee policy in south Asia has been often tempered by the exigencies of nation-building, developmental issues, and political unrest, and this explains this region’s minimal adherence to the norms of the international refugee protection regime. Yet, I have already indicated that this international regime is deeply flawed from within, the dynamics of care and power are intermeshed from the beginning of this protection regime, and the claims of international protection are often hollow as great powers go on making or encouraging war as in Palestinian land, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or Vietnam, and then leaving it for the UNHCR to account for the burdens of war, with the powers themselves practising the strictest entry policy for asylum seekers. Therefore is the question, how did the transformation from humanism to humanitarianism happen? The answer has to be located in the composition of humanitarianism, which begins as a sentiment, develops as an ideology, and has to find then its realisation in a structure. Thus you have the church, the multinational care giving corporations, and big charity funds that are as bureaucratised as the states, as corporate culture dominated as the MNCs, and as security minded as defence operations are. Therefore the question everywhere for refugees is: how caring are the caregivers? To answer this, one has to experience the refugee condition – their inexhaustible lives and experiences and think as Daniel Warner exhorted us to think long back, “We are all refugees”. The experiential emphasis is significant, which this volume misses to some extent, because while for instance the official accounts do not tell you the patriarchal bias in the policies and structure of care, experiences speak loudly of the gendered nature of the flows, and the insensitive nature of the policies with regard to women’s position and experiences as displaced.

Why did the book omit this highly significant feature of the refugee world? It seems overemphasis on official documents is part of the answer. Oberoi only had to

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

consult the several entries in the journal Refugee Watch – the only south Asian publication on forced migration – to know of those experiences, also she would have found there a defence of a method of writing that emphasises the experiential dimension of the problematic. She had to only consult the writings of Paula Banerjee, Asha Hans, Samir K Das, Gargi Chakrabarti, Anuradha Bhasin, Meghna Guhathakurta, and others to take note of the particularities of the world of refugee women. She and all of us have to be aware today of the significance of the feminist way of writing on the lives of the displaced. It is not only a way of looking up from the bottom, it is also a way of looking critically from the point of the experiences of those on the margin – in other words, an acknowledgement of the refugee self.

Finally one more thought as one reads Pia Oberoi’s book. Reading her account, it appears as a balance sheet of how certain actors performed their responsibilities towards people who needed shelter. But is not the history of responsibility, I am tempted to ask Oberoi, a discriminate, even in its fundamentals? As we know, the theme of responsibility was linked in the history of colonial power in India to the question of the ruler-ruled relation; it was a discourse, which would say to the indigenous subjects: grow up, be responsible, you will be given freedom. On the other hand, this discourse proclaimed that helping the natives to grow up was the colonial ruler’s responsibility. Care for others thus always connected with care for the self. Technologies for self-care came from technologies of care for others. In this “medicalised” history, responsibility produced power, everywhere, in every social segment, as it does now. Thus we find laws, administrative machineries, the protector-victim relationship, and the secrecy of mission associated with the exercise of responsibility. Responsibility is the political function of property. And who does not know that you need to keep some of the things secret in order to administer the functions of care, protection, settlement, rehabilitation, resettlement, and rule? States and the international states-system create statelessness, and then they create conventions on statelessness to protect them. What is the secret of this paradox?

May be that the answer of this “mysterium tremendum” or “the terrifying mystery”, to borrow a phrase that Derrida had used in his discussion on responsibility just before he died, is that if refugees die on the roads, or are shot on the border, or overflow another country, or plot war of revenge while in exile, or recklessly intermarry with other population groups, or simply ruin the host country with travelling diseases in the way in which the Spaniards destroyed the Aztecs with dirt and diseases, then we shall not know where the world stands in terms of settled populations, neatly divided segments of people; our techniques of governing the population-territory combination will fail – the worst nightmare for all settled histories. Therefore the terrifying mystery of why we want to be responsible to the moving populations, to their lives, for their woes.

EPW

Email: ranabir@mcrg.ac.in

Economic and Political Weekly September 23, 2006

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