“Making Refugees in India” by Ria Kapoor

photo: EC/ECHO Arjun Claire photo: EC/ECHO Arjun Claire

India is home to more than 200,000 refugees in India today including Afghans, Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Rohingya and more. Yet almost counterintuitively, the Indian government is highly skeptical of international refugee mechanisms designed to help conditions for refugees. India has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has been widely criticized for its treatment of Muslim refugees. Ria Kapoor argues in Making Refugees in India that India’s complex relationship with refugees is “born of the world of European empires and a colonialism carried on by self-determined post-colonial states.” How a post-colonial India ended up repeating imperial policies regarding refugees requires an appreciation of India’s refugee policy from the Raj to the modern day.

The book opens with India’s experience with what Kapoor argues was a racialized refugee system under the British colonial administration. During World War 2, 84,000 Italian POWs were sent to India, yet at the very same time that India was footing the bill for Italian POWs, the Bengal famine was tearing through the country and left over two million dead. This led to what Kapoor argues is understandable skepticism about an international order that deals with refugees that allowed Europeans far better treatment than Indian’s in their own country. Much modern refugee legislation is based around western norms: Kapoor notes that the first organized international refugee mechanism, the Nansen office, focused almost entirely on European interests and western refugees. Even after UNHCR was created in 1951, its focus extended beyond Europe only in the 1960s.

Kapoor goes on to detail encounters of a newly independent India with refugees, starting right at the birth of India and its bloody partition. The book also describes political contentions and competing interests around Tibetan refugees, Tamils from Sri Lanka, and Indians returnees from Burma in a comprehensive overview of India’s refugee history.  In a particularly interesting example, Kapoor explains the story of the 10 million refugees who arrived in eastern India during the 1971 India-Pakistan War. India had declared a need for donations to assist this refugee population and US$70 million had been pledged by the international community for India to help refugees, but in the end they received just US$6 million. This lack of follow-through and support, Kapoor argues, illustrated how the international community ignored the economic impact hosting these refugees would place on India and in the eyes of many Indians “made the UN-led community just as complicit in the demographic and economic violence that the Indians saw the Pakistan state inflicting on them.” These examples are what skeptics in India point to when asked to explain why India doesn’t sign refuge conventions: it is not that India does not care for people in need but rather India does not want to take on the obligations such treaties require as it fears it will not receive the support it requires.

 

Making Refugees in India, Ria Kapoor (Oxford University Press, May 2022)
Making Refugees in India, Ria Kapoor (Oxford University Press, May 2022)

These events explain, Kapoor continues, how India ended up with the widely decried Citizenship Amendment Act. This Act, which was first proposed by the BJP in 2016 and promulgated in 2019, allows Buddhists, Christians and Hindu (but not Muslims) from states neighboring India to qualify for citizenship. Kapoor vehemently disagrees with the bill, and cites its many critics declaring the bill as Islamophobic and in violation of India’s secular identity. Yet she explains how the bill came to pass and how India ended up here as stemming from the fact the Indian government “is grappling with the post-colonial problem of who the Indian is, rehashing belonging using colonially created categories.”

This is very much an academic book and there is an enormous amount of information packed into tightly written 230 pages; the reader would benefit from a background understanding of India’s political history and of international refugee systems. Yet Kapoor brings together history and political analysis to explain how India arrived at its current refugee policy and provides analysis and critique of these viewpoints and of modern day India’s often Islamophobic and exclusionary refugee policy. A vital contribution to the academic literature on refugees in India and worldwide, particularly in post-colonial states, the book offers a nuanced portrayal of competing ideas and tensions within India regarding refugees.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.