Opinion

The BJP’s denial of refugee status to Rohingyas is in line with the (flawed) logic of Partition

The refugee policies of India and Bangladesh continue to be dictated by the events of 1947.

The Narendra Modi government’s denial of refuge to Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar is seen as a choice made between humanitarianism and security from Islamic terrorism. Somewhere amid these rhetorical flushes rests the (flawed) logic of Independence and Partition that determined the refugee policies of India and Bangladesh, which in 1947 was separated from India to form the region called East Pakistan. History suggests that the Modi government’s policy is very much in continuity with those of the previous regimes in India.

The birth of the Republic of India was accompanied by violent and massive demographic exchange in the wake of Partition, probably the biggest refugee crisis in history. Compared to the rest of India, the demographic exchange in the wake of the Partition was near-total in Punjab, and significant in Bengal, respectively. Once Pakistan was carved out as the homeland of Muslims of these two partitioned states, and displaced Muslims went to East and West Pakistan, it was foundational for India to grant refuge to Hindus and Sikh members of ethnic communities such as Punjabis or Bengalis from Pakistan.

The scale of Partition violence, and its subsequent memory, ruled out any acceptance of Bengali and Punjabi-speaking Muslims as refugees. These were supposed to be the responsibility of Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). To a lesser degree, this was true for other parts of North and Central India as well.

However, in a big country such as India, there are states such as Tamil Nadu and Assam where a composite sense of regional identity has dominated political culture. The Partition did not have such an impact in these states. Consequently, an ethnic Bengali Muslim from Myanmar (Rohingya) cannot seek refuge in India, but a Tamil Muslim from Sri Lanka can. In fact, many of them have, when they sought to escape the tumultuous civil war years in Sri Lanka.

Offering shelter

After Independence, citizenship was granted by the Indian government to all those who were born and living in the country prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1949-’50. This included a sizeable number of Muslims in India, just as it included a sizeable number of Hindus and Buddhists in Pakistan (especially East Pakistan). An interesting trajectory in its own right, the non-acceptance of the logic of Partition by large groups of peoples and individuals, and its consequences, are a separate issue not dealt with here.

India has also been accepting Buddhist Tibetan refugees since the 1950s. It is tempting to say that realpolitik was a greater determinant behind the acceptance of Tibetan Buddhists than anything else. However, the colonial knowledge system that leaders of post-colonial rulers of India inherited saw Buddhism as India’s gift to the world. Jawaharlal Nehru always discussed the Buddha glowingly in his Discovery of India. BR Ambedkar also saw Buddhism, not Hinduism, as the authentic religion of India. Same goes for many other luminaries in the nationalist pantheon.

On the other hand, India has let Muslims of Afghan origins lead a life in Delhi, but has granted them Long Term Visas for stay, not refugee status. Even refugees of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community community that are presently living in India do so on Long Term Visas, not as refugees.

The case of Assam

India made a very different choice in 1971, when huge numbers of largely Muslim, but also Hindu and Buddhist East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis), started pouring into the country leading to the Third Indo-Pakistan War. Many of these migrants are yet to go back to Bangladesh, and their claims to citizenship or refugee status in India are a vexed issue. These are points of serious political contention in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and elsewhere in Eastern and North-Eastern India.

The government of India chose to provide either citizenship, refuge or “illegal status” to resolve the influx from Bangladesh. It never offered refuge to any Muslim Bangladeshis (earlier East Pakistanis). Unlike Muslims from Bangladesh, Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh were provided refuge in India. Just to reaffirm this point, in 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the state of Arunachal Pradesh to ensure that all Buddhist Chakma refugees are granted citizenship and treated at par with other Indians. This went against local sentiment in Arunachal Pradesh and all of North-East India that sees all Bangladeshi settlers, irrespective of their legal status, with disdain.

By seeking to provide refugee status to Hindu Bangladeshis, against local sentiment in the North-East, the Modi Government is not doing anything new. Its active rhetoric of providing refuge to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from East and West Pakistan may or may not match the ground reality, but its policies are built and extended upon the legacy of Nehru and the foundational logic of 1947.

Question of self-identification

It is very important to point out that in some cases, the logic of 1947 has also led to Muslim refugees (Tamil Muslims from Sri Lanka) being admitted to India, and Hindus not being granted refuge in India. The refusal of the Government of India to grant refugee status to even one out of lakhs of ethnic Nepalese people kicked out of Bhutan as “illegal” settlers during an ethnic cleansing in the 1980s and 1990s might seem striking. Even more so because these were Hindus without a home.

However, in this case, the self-identification of these people was more as Nepalese than Hindus. While, some of them have been accepted by Nepal as refugees, most have been granted refuge not by Nepal or India, but by the United States, and to a lesser extent by smaller First World countries. Unlike Tamils, whose homeland exists in India, the homeland of Nepalese people exists outside India. Thus, in cases where a regional identity or pan-South Asian identity is involved, the Hindu-Muslim lens of looking at people breaks down.

The Modi government should not be seen as novel in refusing to come to the aid of Muslim Rohingyas. The logic and patterns of nationhood determined in the formative years around 1947 (and 1971) continue to determine the trajectory of nationhood and refugee policies of India and all other South Asian states. Here, humanitarian concerns stand on a pedestal lower than ideas of nationhood. As per the logic of 1947, foundational to the birth and subsequent evolution of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Rohingyas, whose language is akin to the Chittagong dialect of Bangla, fall into the care of Bangladesh. Bangladesh, too, in its self-image as the nation of Bengali Muslims, has provided refuge to the Rohingyas.

Vikas Rathee is Assistant Professor in History, Central University of Punjab.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.