India was one of the dozen plus countries who declined the asylum request of the American spy-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Some felt this was a betrayal of an Indian tradition of political asylum, best exemplified by the Dalai Lama’s arrival. Others believed Snowden’s claims to being a man of conscience were questionable and definitely unverifiable. And there were those who believed a Snowden in India would have become a long-standing irritation in Indo-US ties that would have harmed India in crucial areas like counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation.
Snowden’s application did help highlight the fact India has no de jure asylum policy. India has not signed international agreements on this front, including the 1951 Refugee Convention.
It lacks a domestic legal framework so there is no clarity on what criteria anyone applying for asylum would need to fulfil. This has not meant India has been a closed door. The United Nations Human Rights Commission says India is home to nearly 1,90,000 refugees and over 3,500 asylum-seekers. It also argues that New Delhi largely follows international principles in this area, if in a de facto manner.
This beggars the question as to why India should not codify the practices it already follows. The answer lies in its messy neighbourhood. Almost every one of the nearby countries is wracked by sectarian or ethnic conflict — or is simply repressive.
Shias and Hindus are being attacked in Pakistan. Buddhists and Hindus face discrimination in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka, China, Myanmar — the list goes on. In these countries alone, those who could legitimately apply for asylum in India run into tens of millions.
By having a policy of not having a policy, India keeps a very open door to refugees without triggering a domestic backlash. There is a case for the country to have at least the framework of an asylum policy, but only if it does not lead India to restrict this inflow.
Snowden is the sort of borderline asylum-seeker that New Delhi should avoid. He is fleeing a fellow democracy. He would have been controversial at home and abroad. Perhaps, most importantly, he would have destabilised a present Indian system that works for tens of thousands whose need for asylum is much greater than his.