April 28, 2001


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S Gopikrishna

The great Afghan tragedy

Napoleon Bonaparte, the legend goes, was murdered slowly and steadily. When exiled on Elba, Napoleon lived on a diet that was consistently "spiced" with trace amounts of arsenic, which killed him slowly and steadily.

Even as we discuss this, a similar tragedy is being enacted on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on a gigantic scale -- Afghani refugees escaping the ravages of Afghanistan are slowly and steadily starving to death. The victims of the politics of Pakistani apathy and Western "sympathy", refugees escaping war-torn Afghanistan realise that that while fleeing Afghanistan may have liberated them from various diseases and the psychologically diseased Taleban, it offered no protection from starvation, a silent and stalking killer.

80,000 Afghani refugees literally rot in Pakistan's NWFP and Baluchistan provinces whilst Pakistan and the UNO play "football" with the refugees in the middle.

The UNO claims that it can provide relief amounting to millions of dollars if and only if Pakistan officially designates the sites to be "refugee camps". Pakistan points fingers at the UN and complains about the UN reneging on its promise to fund other refugee camp sites despite their officially being declared "refugee camps" a thousand times over.

We shouldn't be surprised if the Catch 22 results in 22,000 or more deaths. The ranks of the refugees, emaciated by hunger and disease, have already been decimated. The refugees have no means to protect themselves from the bone chilling cold blowing its way through Afghanistan's mountains on to Pakistan or the scorching sun which will mercilessly extract its usual annual toll in Western Pakistan soon. A plethora of epidemics could activate any moment and result in unpredictable consequences.

It is here that India (with its long and humanitarian tradition of compassion towards refugees) can make a difference to the helpless Afghanis.

Limited means notwithstanding, India has always been generous to refugees seeking shelter from calamities, natural or political. The tradition of acting as temporary shelter for refugees started with Nehru's magnanimous offer to Tibetan refugees fleeing the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959. India has also helped Chakma refugees fleeing religious persecution in Bangladesh for over 20 years, in addition to extending a welcome to the thousands fleeing erstwhile East Pakistan both in 1965 and 1971. Thousands of Afghani refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Afghanistan were housed on a temporary basis in the early '80s before being admitted to other countries.

While India does not grant refugees permanent residence, it can facilitate the acceptance of refugees on a permanent basis by signatories of the 1951 Geneva convention which awards permanent residency (and eventual citizenship) rights to refugees. This is well illustrated in the case of Tamil refugees escaping Sinhala persecution in the 1980s. The refugees were housed at tax-payer expense in various refugee camps in Tamil Nadu before being rehabilitated in countries such as Germany, England and Canada.

India should extend a warm welcome to the Afghani refugees just as it opened up its gates and heart to other refugees in the past. If Pakistan offered help in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake, Vajpayee could well reciprocate now and bail out a beleaguered Pakistan by offering shelter to the flood of Afghani refugees in Western Pakistan

Before an invitation is extended in keeping with our hospitable tradition, it is important to dwell on the consequences of accepting refugees, even on a temporary basis.

Refugees often "export" struggles from their homelands. A prime example of this would be the saga of violence unleashed by various Sri Lankan factions in Chennai in the '80s where refugees metamorphosed into terrorists and unleashed violence culminating in the 1990 Mafia style execution of all Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam supporters by the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam. Further attempts to thwart LTTE operations from Indian soil resulted in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The importance of preventing "internal" struggles amongst refugees from extracting a heavy toll on the host country is obvious.

Give them an inch and they take a mile -- runs an old adage, which unfortunately proved true in Assam in the 1980s. After the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, a steady influx of refugees slipped into Assam for economic reasons, surreptitiously at first and not-so-surreptitiously later. The state government (a Congress government) turned a Nelson's eye in the beginning and actively abetted and aided the efforts of the refugees to become citizens at a later stage. The goal was apparently to create a permanent vote bank, an asinine move that resulted in the waxing and waning turmoil that has plagued Assam for two decades now.

In addition to spawning unrest and other politically fissiparous movements, the violence over the influx of refugees was marked by "highlights" such as the Gohpur and Nellie massacres, each of which left more than 300 killed in cold blood. Indeed, much of the unrest that is still prevalent in Assam can be traced back to this period.

It is important to prevent local politicians from manipulating refugees and refugees altering the face of local politics on a permanent basis through unlawful means.

If the Afghani refugees are allowed to settle in Delhi in order to expedite their acceptance as permanent residents through the embassies, we would be gifting political manipulators belonging to the Hindu and Muslim extremist factions a big pond to fish in. The resulting chaos could well prove to be the rumble that activates a dormant volcano.

One (unattempted) technique of addressing the issue is to settle the refugees in remote places such as the Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada districts in Chhattisgarh where the local politicians gain nothing from manipulating the visiting refugees. In addition, settling refugees in a remote area offers a number of advantages, such as:

  • The rather limited prospects of a rural district would discourage any attempts from the refugees to stay on and become permanent immigrants.
  • The refugee camps create jobs for the local population, a valuable resource in a district otherwise bereft of employment resources. The funding agency would be the UN office for Refugees; the GoI incurs no specific expense for job creation.

At the international level, India can deftly move to gain international approbation through its assisting Afghani refugees. The Western press delights in depicting India as a cruel bully with a propensity for insensitivity, thanks to the mess in Kashmir and the Northeast. Providing the refugees shelter would be a powerful way of countering this depiction.

India must realise that it will eventually face the same dilemma faced by China currently -- any move to become a world player can be successfully thwarted by human rights groups.

Overcoming the rivals requires a judicious combination of the stick and the carrot; rehabilitating Afghanis fleeing hunger could well appeal to the Taleban's sense of fealty -- a person providing assistance deserves unwavering loyalty, a recurring concept in the Jirga practices that govern Taleban interaction. Whether this decreases Taleban support to the insurgency in Kashmir would be interesting to monitor.

India should not miss the golden opportunity of helping the Afghani refugees fleeing their homeland and successfully fulfill multiple demands -- moral, humanitarian as well as pull the subtle strings of weltpolitik.

S Gopikrishna

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