Refuge for Pak Hindus: India has a difficult choice



Should India offer Pakistani Hindus the chance to make a new life in our country? At an intuitive level, the answer is obvious. Nobody disputes that Pakistani Hindus are treated appallingly. Not only are there acts of violence directed at them but there is also sexual exploitation of young girls who are abducted and then forced to declare that they have converted to Islam and have married their captors.

Another factor that weighs heavily on us is the tragic reality that Pakistan’s Hindus have nowhere to go. They can hardly seek refuge in Afghanistan or in the Gulf. If India refuses to take them in then they will be forever at the mercy of their tormentors.

But, in policy terms at least, the decision is more difficult than it might be at an intuitive level. Those who urge caution offer several grounds.

First of all, there is the two-nation theory to contend with. Pakistan was created as a homeland for the sub-continent’s Muslims. MA Jinnah urged Muslims from all over undivided India to make their homes in the new country. All you needed to be granted Pakistani citizenship was proof that you were a Muslim. So, if any Muslim in the sub-continent says that he or she wants to live in Pakistan, it is difficult for the Pakistani authorities to refuse admittance on grounds of principle, given the nature of the two-nation theory.

But India’s case is different. We were never meant to be a homeland for the Hindus. We treat all our religions as being equal even though Hindus may constitute the overwhelming majority. Are we to say now that we have been transformed into a Hindu homeland? In that case, are we ready to accept practically the entire population of Nepal? As that country slides deeper and deeper into chaos, it is not inconceivable that millions of Nepalis will want to live in India. Do they have the right to Indian citizenship?

Secondly, say those who advise caution, there is the vexed question of religion. When Bangladeshi Muslims want to come across the border, we term them illegal immigrants even if they insist that they were raped or persecuted in Bangladesh. If we are to open our doors to everyone then the consequences could be more far-reaching that we realise.

I do not dispute that these are substantial objections. But they seem to me to take a black and white approach to a subject that is really shaded in grey. First of all, like it or not, we do – at least, in practice – have different standards for Hindus than we do for people from other religions. Take, for example, the Lankan Tamil refugees. It is hard to deny that they were escaping a pogrom, if not genocide. But would we have been as willing to let them in if they were Muslims and not Hindus? And then, there is the case of Nepal. When Bangladeshis come to India looking for jobs it becomes a huge political issue. But lakhs of Nepalis routinely cross over into India looking for the same kinds of jobs. Not only do we not object but we also legally allow them the right to work here.

What’s the difference between a Bangladeshi who comes looking for employment and a Nepali?

Well, one answer is self-evident.

As for Pakistani Hindus, even though the issue has hit the headlines only now, there has been a tradition of small groups crossing over to India and then staying on longer than their visas would allow. We make very little noise about it but our authorities usually grant them citizenship after a decent interval.

The challenge before us, therefore, is to find a principle that is logical and well-defined and yet accords with our intuitive feeling that Pakistani Hindus must be given the right to live in India.

Though the Government of India is dithering about making policy statements, I think that such a principle can easily be found without compromising our status as a secular nation.

To find a parallel, go back in history to the late 1930s. This was the time when Jews were facing terrible discrimination in Nazi Germany. Though Jewish organisations in Britain and America repeatedly petitioned their governments to grant residency rights to Jews fleeing from Hitler’s executioners, the official response was lukewarm and only a relatively small number was allowed in.

Many of those who were denied entry went on to perish in the concentration camps of Belsen and Dachau.

Since then, the principle has been well-established in international diplomacy that if a religious minority is under threat and faces active discrimination, it is incumbent on civilised nations to offer shelter and refuge to members of that minority.

It is this principle that we should adopt in India when it comes to the question of Pakistan’s Hindus. Are they being discriminated against? Are they under active threat? Are they a religious minority?

The answer to all three questions is yes. And so, we should have no difficulty in granting them right of residence.

If you are to examine all the other cases that have been cited by critics of the plan to welcome Pakistani Hindus, then a logical application of this principle provides answers that are intuitively appealing.

Why did we give shelter to Lankan Hindus? Well, they were a religious minority fleeing violence at the hands of the Sinhala majority. Why is it wrong to take a different position with illegal immigrants from Bangladesh? Easy enough: most of them are not part of a religious minority and suffer no discrimination on account of religion. Why should we deny residency to millions of Nepalis if and when their country collapses? Simple enough: Hindus are not a religious minority in Nepal.

For this principle to be valid and correctly implemented, we would have to extend it beyond Hindus. If Sikhs face discrimination in Afghanistan, then of course we must welcome them. If Christians are under threat in Pakistan, or suffer discrimination of the sort suffered by Hindus, then we must give them the right to seek refugee status in India. And if there is proof that Sri Lanka’s Muslims face genocide of the kind that the Tamils lived through then we must also consider their case.

Of course, India cannot become a haven for refugees from all over the world so in terms of practicality, we should limit the implementation of this principle to neighbouring countries.

It is possible that we will end up with more refugees than we expect now – a religious minority from Burma, for example – but the brighter side is that we will at least have a secular justification for our policies. No longer will people be able to say that it is communalism that guides our willingness to accept Pakistani Hindus and our refusal to extend the same principle to Bangladeshi Muslims who enter the country illegally.

One of the great things about the idea of India is that the framers of our constitution took into account most problems we were likely to encounter. It is a mistake to believe that we need to apologise for our desire to welcome Pakistan’s Hindus. It is not only the right thing to do on an intuitive level. It is entirely in accordance with the principles on which this nation was founded.

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