Literary Review

Between nations: Review of Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia

Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia; Partha S. Ghosh, Sage Publishing, Rs. 995.   | Photo Credit: Partha Ghosh

Collective violence is the prime factor behind migrations in South Asia, asserts Partha Ghosh. Since the drawing of political boundaries demarcating the nation states of the region, some 50 million people have scrambled across national borders for succour, usually among co-ethnics. Remarkably, as Ghosh emphasises, South Asian countries have displayed a unique hospitality and unusual empathy towards refuge seekers. The absence of a legal regime on which to base migration policies has only meant bundling together refugees, migrants, illegal settlers and stateless persons, while otherwise being largely immaterial to trans-national movement of people.

“Nobody in India will love me for the award about the Punjab and Bengal and there will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me,” wrote Cyril Radcliffe, the draftsman of the partition of India, on the day before he fled back to England. The “grievance” he spawned severed Pakistan from India, triggering unprecedented communal violence and massive migrations that have had a lasting impact on politics and society of both countries. Post-Partition migration, mass exodus to India during and after the Bangladesh liberation struggle, effects of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, and migration from Afghanistan to Pakistan in more recent years, which together account for the bulk of cross-border movements in South Asia, can be attributed to failures in nation-building. Open borders between India and Nepal, or virtually-open borders of India with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar, and of Pakistan with Afghanistan have also allowed significant population flows. The reasons for shifting abode may be numerous, but — to generalise — it is not governments that people flee from, but strife and competition for resources.

By and large, migrants in South Asia have been tolerated if not actually welcomed. Ghosh feels that this benign outlook is embedded in shared history, exemplified in the easy rapport that Indians and Pakistanis are — typically — able to establish. But once the initial welcome wears off, tensions may surface; and, while migrants everywhere enrich their new environments in the long term, they also generate a variety of political and social responses. The most interesting sections of the book under review discuss the political impacts of mass migrations, and their cultural and psychological dimensions.

In his detailed study of the subject, Christophe Jaffrelot described the huge boost to Hindu nationalistic politics, particularly in Delhi, from the arrival of traumatised Punjabi refugees in the early years of independence. The communal temper did not escape the Sikh community either, observes Ghosh, and the origin of the Sikh separatist movement can, to an extent, be traced to the “communalisation of the Sikh mind after Partition.” Caste consciousness too, and marginalisation of lower castes, came to be exacerbated among groups returning to India. In the east, Bengali migrants after Partition contributed to expansion of the Left in West Bengal, while refugees from Bangladesh have indelibly influenced the politics of Assam and the Northeast.

If migration continues to influence India, it shaped Pakistan. The Muhajirin, who were central players in the Muslim League before independence and prominent in the civil services and army, found themselves progressively sidelined due to animosity of the Sindhi community and growing influence of the Punjabis who were bolstered by huge influx of their brethren from India. Ghosh attributes the failure of democracy in Pakistan to the nexus among the military, feudal, Punjabi and Sindhi interests at the cost of the Muhajirin. On the eastern flank, the Biharis played a similar role as the Muhajirin in the politics of the province. Initially influential, they came to be viewed by the Bengalis as “collaborators” with the Pakistani oppressors. A solution to the problem of “stranded Pakistanis” in Bangladesh is yet to be found and they continue to be an egregious factor in the country’s politics.

A fascinating aspect of the migration story is the transmission of cultural forms. In moving to new abodes, arguably the most precious possession of the migrant is memory. But it is important to strike a balance between memory and forgetting: too much memory can be an affliction. Ghosh looks at how the migrant experience has imprinted literature, music, film and other art forms of the region.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Nepali migrants in Bhutan and Sikkim, Lhotshampas in Nepal, Sri Lankan Tamils in India, Chakmas in Bangladesh, the Rohingya question and insurgencies in the northeast, all have had political, social and cultural ramifications and have raised security issues for host governments.

Partha Ghosh is a seasoned academic, and this meticulously researched work covering the many aspects — legal, security, relief and rehabilitation — of trans-national population flows in the South Asian region constitutes a valuable source-book.

Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia; Partha S. Ghosh, Sage Publishing, Rs. 995.

Govindan Nair is a retired civil servant.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:21:22 AM |

Next Story