Power and responsibility at the margins: the case of India in the global refugee regime.

Author:Samaddar, Ranabir

Power, Influence, and Responsibility

In any discussion on power and influence in the global refugee regime, one crucial question to emerge from Indian experiences that reflects worldwide post-colonial experiences is, What is the nature of this power and influence at the margins? This question is important because, unlike the Kantian world, the world we live in is characterized by a great dissociation of power and responsibility. Wars may be launched on countries by great powers, but the burdens of refugee flows that wars create are shouldered by countries that had little to do with them. Wars in and population flows from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya readily come to mind, as do the Vietnam War and disintegration of Yugoslavia twenty years later, followed by massive refugee flows. Millions of Partition refugees in South Asia had little to do with the colonial decision to divide the Indian subcontinent. Yet through all these years the global refugee regime never questioned this dissociation--primarily for two reasons. First, in the age of democracy, responsibility is understood to rest with the people, who must conduct themselves responsibly to prove that they are masters of their destiny; in other words, they self-determine, while in reality power is exercised by the corporate class. Second, international responsibility is exercised by the nation-states, while power is vested in transnational agencies and empires who exercise power without responsibility. In this situation of graded responsibility and the hierarchical history of the notion of responsibility, it is important to inquire about the nature of power and responsibility at the margins.

In discussions on power, the context of protection is of primary importance, for we are discussing how the function of protection, the ability to protect, a specific mode of care produces power, which is both positive and dominating. This article will unravel this dual nature of power.

Also there remains one more introductory point. The so-called regime of protection cannot address displacement due to war. The present massive refugee flows are not marked by mere discrimination or liminal violence, but brutal war. The 1951 Convention barely touches the problem. It refers to war in the context of the Second World War, or to rule out protection to persons accused of war crimes. This is the background in which the question of responsibility for war and displacement assumes urgency. In war and war-like conditions the categorical distinctions between groups seeking shelter, assistance, and protection vanish. In such a time it is important to examine the effectiveness of the global protection apparatus for the refugees. (1)

We evaluate the responsibility of people and groups by how they exercise their power. Sometimes we do this formally, such as in a legal judgment. The question will be, How do we relate moral responsibility and legal responsibility --not only of individuals but of empires, global powers, and other collectives? The refugee protection regime has no idea of (1) responsible agency, whereby an institution such as the state is regarded as a moral agent; (2) retrospective responsibility, by which a state is judged for its actions and is blamed or punished; or (3) responsibility as a virtue, for which a state is praised as being responsible. In the context of post-colonial experiences, we need a wider view of responsibility in order to explore connections between moral and legal responsibility, and between global and national responsibilities.

It is only from the margins that the contradictions and fault lines in the architecture of power, influence, and responsibility can be brought to light, therefore the need for a perspective "on the margins" of the protection regime is strategic. After all, there are asymmetries inherent in the fact that an overwhelming part (by some calculations, 86 per cent) of world's refugees are hosted in the Global South, (2) but an equally overwhelming part (for instance, 80 per cent) of UNHCR's funding comes from states in the Global North. (3) Yet we try desperately not to draw the only possible conclusion, that this asymmetry means that donors have power and host states have responsibility. As we shall show subsequently, the expanded mandate of the global protection regime to the needs of a wider set of "persons of concern" does not alter or significantly modify the wide divergence between the root causes of displacement in the Global South and the 1951 Convention, which remains finally a "persecution-centric" approach. Of course, this is not a new point. The question first appeared in the discussion in Escape from Violence almost thirty years ago. (4)

This article will therefore examine the dynamics of responsibility at the margin. In this context it will discuss how the experience of refugee flows into India since independence has conditioned her engagement with the global refugee regime, including contradictions in state policies on refugees and the policy of giving asylum. The article will argue that the relation between care and power is not a simple causal one, as if simply by caring one amasses power. The relation is complex. Care does not simply flow from the sovereign legal authority at the top. The heterogeneity of power builds up and draws on the heterogeneity of the act of caring. At the same time the dispersed state of responsibility orients the power to care. This will be the basis of a post-colonial interrogation of the global protection regime of refugees and the stateless. India not only offers a story of protection and hospitality but is also an eloquent example of how post-colonial political power had a long reciprocal relation with responsibility.

The Indian Story of Hospitality

The Indian story poses the classic question of how one can study the dynamics of hospitality. (5) Can it be a policy study? Can there be a policy for "hospitality," a policy to be "kind"? Or do we want to study institutions involved in practices of care and hospitality? If the state must practise care and hospitality and exercise power for the relevant practices, do these two functions (providing care and exercising power), which appear to be separate and distinct, build on each other? From this arises the broader question: from where does the capacity to care grow?

In a study of refugee protection by the state, these questions mean attending to the specific Indian arguments and experiences in (1) the definition of the term refugee and its scope; (2) the concept of non-refoulement (the principle of no forcible return) and its scope; and (3), the administrative-judicial machinery to determine the status of a shelter-seeker as a refugee and, once determined, the quantum of assistance the shelter-seeker needs and gets. (6) It also means trying to understand where the refugee features in such policy formulation. (7) Easy physical accessibility, cultural and economic networks, and political support of host government and communities are significant elements in refugee policy--these are elements that orient care. But they also add to the power of the state to decide who will be offered hospitality and who will be denied. (8) India did not sign the Refugee Convention of 1951 or the Additional Protocol of 1967. In acts of "calculated kindness," (9) some refugees were saved, cared, and rehabilitated in this country, while many were left out, refused, and neglected in the same period in and by the same country.

Refugees from Burma were welcomed as the Second World War ended, ignored in the seventies to nineties of the last century, and prevented or obstructed from entering India at yet another point as the new century began.

Similarly, while some groups of refugees such as the Tibetans were almost allowed to be "Indianized" other groups such as Sri Lankan refugees still spend long years in India in strictly watched camps. The logical structure of these contradictions and ambivalence in India's asylum policy has been termed "strategic ambiguity." (10) In some cases, as after the birth of Bangladesh in 1971-2, refugees returned quickly by the thousands, while after 1959 the Tibetan refugees stayed and the Indian state did not even attempt to persuade them to go back. In contrast, the state according to some wanted to forcibly repatriate the Chittagong Hill Tracts refugees in Tripura in the 198os-199os, and the Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu from the mid-1980s.

However, such differential treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is not the full history of the hospitality of the Indian state. Many writers have chronicled how refugee care in post-Partition Punjab and Bengal became part of building the new India. One chronicler commented, "The history of relief and rehabilitation in the east is one of gradual emplacement within a national body of those who were the victims of one of the world's worst population displacements. The travails and trauma that accompanied their emplacement are only reflective of our fledgling nationhood." (11) The chronicler of relief and rehabilitation in the West wrote in similar vein, "It was the characterisation of the refugee as a critical component of nation-building that marked a significant shift in conceptualisation and, consequently, in policy formulation. Linking resettlement with development, and rehabilitation with reconstruction, was a uniquely progressive and far-sighted response to a problem of crushing proportions; in this scheme of things refugees became a valuable human resource rather than, only, an onerous liability." (12) In contrast Joya Chatterjee shows that it was a time marked by the two contending notions of right and charity, (13) but there is a fundamental agreement among all actors in that contentious scenario that we/they are part of the nation, the nation must accept us/them. In this dual context of nationalism and democracy there is not only a re-emphasis on...

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