Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia

Author:   Ghosh, Partha S.
Publisher:   Sage
Reviewer:   Sabah Khan

Ghosh, Partha S. (2016), Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia. Sage, New Delhi, pp. 356, ISBN: 978-93-515-0854-0 (HB).


Migrants, Refugees and the Stateless in South Asia is a meticulous text which offers a comprehensive picture of different dimensions of migration in South Asia. Partha S. Ghosh has taken up the colossal task to bring out crucial differences between migrants, refugees and stateless people in seven out of eight South Asian states, namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, with the exception of Maldives. This work addresses important questions of forcible repatriation, desirability of a regional refugee regime. The commitment of the author to make this book as comprehensive as possible has been fulfilled as it cogently deals with migration, ranging from theory, political connection, security variable, aspect of rehabilitation, legal dynamics and cultural and psychological dimensions. The discussion includes wide-ranging examples of Muhajirin to West Pakistan, Bihari Muslims, Lhotshampa of Bhutan, Chin Burmese refugees, Tibetan refugees and eviction of Chinese Indians.


This book has eight chapters, including the introduction. The arguments of the book fall logically, with definitional issues at the outset. There is an ambiguity around the terms- migrants, refugees, illegal settlers or stateless persons. A distinction is brought out in the usage of concepts like migrants, refugees and stateless persons. In terms of how they are defined in the Western context and in contrast how they are used in the South Asian context interchangeably due to lackof legal regimes. The author has categorised migration and refugee movements in South Asia in eight broad categories ofPartition-related uncertainties, failure in nation-building, inter-ethnic conflict, open or virtually open borders, war related qualms, developmental and environmental effects, statelessness or virtual statelessness and intra- regional and extra-regional military interventions.


The first chapter elaborates on the theories of migration to mapping the South Asian scene. It takes account of the 50 million migrants, refugees and the stateless, where they are located, reasons for crossing borders, their rehabilitation, etc. In the past six decades, there has been movement of millions of people across the intra-regional national boundariesowing to virtually unenforceable international borders in South Asia. Migrants coming from Bangladesh to India and Pakistan, hosting refugees from Myanmar; Nepal receiving migrants from India and Bhutan, sending migrants to India, etc. are some of the examples of fluidity of south Asian borders. Even though it had discussed the theories, the approach of this book is primarily empirical citing cases of Partition refugees, Tibetan, Afghan, Indian Tamil, Sri Lankan Tamil, Rohingya Refugees et al. The theoretical dimensions have figured largely circumstantially as most of them are West inspired migration research and has limited usefulness for comprehending the South Asian scene. This work goes beyond the Western theories of migration in primarily two ways, firstly, Western theories of migration only takes account of indentured labour migrations during colonial times or labour migrations to gulf countries in recent times. This work brings in a discussion of post-partition and other refugee movements. Secondly, it brings out the limitations of Western inspired migration research for an understanding of the South Asian context, which has little discussed the aspect of collective violence which is critical for any explanation of cross-border migrations in SouthAsia. Ghosh brings out the relevance of collective violence and collective memories as a prime cause of migration inSouth Asia, whereby people migrate in search of security for life. In other words, how the fear psychosis plays its role as evident in the case of Kashmiri Hindus who left for Jammu and Delhi in early 1990s and several other examples.


Ghosh has studied the interconnections between migration, politics and national security. This is studied in the context of how the issue of Kashmiri refugees continued to figure in the political discourse of Azad Kashmir, Bangladeshi migrants and inner line permit system in Assam. It raises the lesser known concerns of Bhutanese government conceiving their nationalism in ethnic terms and emphasizing cultural nationalism of Drukpas and the political connections of Lhotshampa and Nepal resulting in their exodus to Nepal. The author has explained how one of the important factors in interstate migrations and refugee movements is civil war in which neighboring state invariably gets sucked in. This creates security-related tensions between the two.


In chapter four, the author has discussed four national relief efforts as experienced by India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The remaining four states are not relevant as they are not a refugee-receiving country. It includes the discussion of partition refugee cases of Delhi and Calcutta. But not limiting it to them rather, is a comprehensive description of the Tibetan refugees, Bangladeshi liberation refugees, Indian Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, Chakma, Afghan, Myanmarese refugees. The Bangladesh experience is discussed in context of agreement with Chakmas and finding ways to repatriate, Rohingya refugees. It offers a detailed account of the repatriation measures taken by South Asian states.


In the fifth chapter, Ghosh takes up the issue of legal dynamics. This chapter tried to address the question whether it is desirable to have a regional refugee regime. The surprising aspect is the lack of a legal regime. No South Asian state hassigned the UN refugee convention of 1951 except for Afghanistan. The author points out that ‘even without any refugee-specific legal regime, India and Pakistan have handled millions of refugees.’ The Indian refugee protection regime can be seen in seven frameworks as pointed by a senior supreme court lawyer of India, Rajiv Dhavan. These frameworks are – the citizenship regime, fundamental rights, the statutory framework, India’s obligations arising out of its international treaty obligations, judicial interventions, the SAARC framework, the Model Law of Refugee Protection. To this Ghosh adds two further frameworks of – the bilateral framework and the informal framework. Many refugee issues in South Asia have either been tackled through bilateral cooperation without invoking state orinternational laws or simply by informal mechanisms without taking recourse to legal processes at all. It is seen that the SAARC’s political agenda is limited and often states rely on bilateral resolution. There can be witnesses a lack ofofficial enthusiasm, strong misgivings expressed by security agencies that porous borders may lead to unmanageable refugee entries. Despite this, a benign indifference can be noticed among the South Asian states. There is an unusual empathy towards the refugee seeking people.


In this particular work Ghosh goes beyond his shibboleth of political and security centric debates over migrations and successfully digs into the areas of migration of culture, music, violence, displacement on memory and other related areas, offering rich data and insights. It focuses on the impact of migration on cultural productions such as literature, music, painting, etc. which is one of the strengths of the book. South Asian migration shows how cultural forms and productions move alongside migrating humans. The bone of contention is that migration leads to mix of inventiveness ranging from music to culinary practices. The discussion is made rich with various examples ranging from the case of Chinese workers in India who started worshipping Indian deities to the migration of music back and forth between India and West Indies through the experience of indentured labour. The connection between migration and cinema is alsobrought out. Ghosh not merely provides a superficial discussion of impact on culture by confining to music and cinemarather goes deep and also unravels the impact of Partition migration on other art forms like painting, photography, Bhojpuri drama.


Ghosh emphasizes on the need to explore the negative domain of migration like migration of diseases which has not been explored much, however it forms an important issue to be addressed. He has written at length about migration, refugees and its relation to political and security dimensions and this work can be seen as an extension of his earlier writings. Despite the enriching knowledge offered, there are certain gaps in this book. It has left out some important issues which the author himself acknowledges. For instance, while he explored the impact of Partition refugees on Hindi and Bengali cinema, there was no discussion of the impact of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees on Tamil cinema and other artforms. Another area which remains unexplored is the issue of undocumented Bangladeshis in India. Since the book is preoccupied with the colossal task of mapping issues of migrants, refugees and stateless people in the South Asian region,it tends to overlook the intricacies of a particular migrant or refugee group. However, it remains an engaging book,extending migration research in newer domains. It succeeds in documenting a nuanced account of migrants, refugees and stateless people in South Asia. This book would make an interesting read for scholars on migration, refugee studies, South Asian studies.  


Sabah Khan, Doctoral Student, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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