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Ask Partition victims what it means to be a refugee

Those who seek to throw out the migrants from Myanmar must first consider the pain any refugee suffers

analysis Updated: Oct 18, 2017 09:14 IST
Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, carry an elderly woman in a basket and walk towards a refugee camp in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, September 14.
Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, carry an elderly woman in a basket and walk towards a refugee camp in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, September 14. (AP)

The Rohingya issue is before the Supreme Court of India. One side claims them to be illegal migrants and interlopers, who ought to be cast out. It is said they enjoy scarce resources in India, while indulging in crime and are a threat to our national security. The other wants the Indian State to see them as a helpless people seeking refuge from persecution in Myanmar.

I don’t hold a brief for the Rohingyas or any migrants, illegal or legal, irrespective of their religion, creed, colour and nature. But for those who seek to throw out the migrants from Myanmar, they must first consider the pain any refugee suffers first.

For centuries India has been a haven to the world’s outcasts. Diverse communities such as the Parsis, Jews, Armenians and Tibetans found refuge here and have survived the depredations of hostile regimes. With the downfall of the Shah and Pahlavi regime (1979), Iranians, and later with the collapse of Soviet-supported administration, Afghans, came to India.

To understand what it means to be a refugee, cast out from your home, we must go back to what happened in this land in 1947. Hindus and Sikhs left what is West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) to migrate to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan. Both my parents belong to refugee families, who came from West Punjab and finally settled in Delhi. Even today in states where descendants of 1947 immigrants live, they continue to be called refugees colloquially.

For children of refugees born two decades after 1947 like me, the conversations in our homes since birth have been embedded with the horrors of that time, of loss of home and hearth, of being cast out from your land, of overnight poverty, the struggle to survive in an alien place and to make it your home. These feelings are so deeply engrained in our Punjabi psyche, that we think of 1947, not as Independence but as Partition alone.

My late father, who lost everything and began afresh and rose to great heights in the legal profession, taught me an important lesson of my life. Aga Emani, an Iranian gentleman of noble descent, had fled to India with his wife and two small daughters and came in contact with our family in the early 1980s. Soon he began hanging around my late father, who would find ways to keep sending him on odd jobs and errands and would then slip him money, despite our entire family disapproving. To top it he and his wife began calling my parents “daddy and mummy’.

As his constant presence around my father became an irritant to the family, and I could stand it no longer, one day I summoned the courage to ask my father why he indulged this man and his family? His answer was “Son, you were born post -Partition. You don’t know what it means to be homeless, living on the charity of others and with no hope for the future”. The odd jobs, he said, were to generate some money for Mr Emami with dignity, as the man and his family were barely surviving on the dole from the UNHCR. After living in India for about 20 years, Mr Emami went back to Iran. His daughters had grown up in an alien land and he worried for them and he had run out of finances. We never got to know what became of Mr Emami or his family. ‘

International conventions exist to deal with the status of refugees and the UNHCR is active in providing aid and rehabilitation. But no amount of rehabilitation and compensation can make up for the loss of one’s home, which is not just monetary loss in monetary terms, but a loss of identity, a sense of statelessness, of upheaval, of deprivation.

It is for the Indian government to determine which refugees are to be brought in or not, but seeing the humanitarian crisis next door, can an exception be made based on the religion or alleged propensity of crime of any class of refugees?

This land has welcomed many of the world’s oppressed with an open heart and open arms. If we don’t provide safety and sustenance to refugees, (resources and government policy, along with relations with other nations permitting) will we be able to hold our head high as a leader among nations and a proponent of human rights?

Sidharth Luthra is senior advocate and visiting professor Northumbria University.

The views expressed are personal