A Rohingya refugee negotiating with Bangladesh authorities
Communities take refuge elsewhere after leaving their home country for many reasons. Refugees are the people who leave their home country, move to another country to live there. They either set up a thriving community, or struggle to get by. A United Nations’ report in 2009 said that there are at least 42 million people who are refugees, and most of them struggling to make a living. 45% of the refugees are children. A refugee seeks asylum due to constant fear of persecution based on religion, race, and many other factors. In modern times all the countries call people who seek refuge as “asylum seekers”, until they grant refugee status to them.
For millennia, communities form different parts of the world are seeking refuge in India. Despite the complaints about shortcomings in the treatment of refugees, India is one of the most generous nations for refugees and have opened its doors for those looking for safety. This post is not about population exchange like that during the ‘Partition of India’, as it is a list for another day. This post is about people who came looking for sanctuary.
1. The Siddis
The Siddis are the people that are native to Eastern part of the continent of Africa. They belong to the Bantu community of Africa. In Karnataka, they are called Siddis. Brought in by boats to India between the 12th and 19th century AD, they were employed as soldiers, entertainers, mercenaries, and laborers in various kingdoms in India. Today they live mostly in Gujarat, and Karnataka. When US President Barack Obama visited India in 2010, the Siddis of Karnataka wanted to gift him a jar of honey because they believe that President Obama belongs to their community. Over the years that they lived in India, their customs have not changed. They have music native to Africa. Most of them are Muslims while some of them are Christians.
Some communities who were being treated as slaves, escaped slavery and created a small Siddi principality in Kathawar in Gujarat. The Marathas have employed Siddis in their army, and have said to have used guerrilla tactics of the Siddis. This helped the Marathas weaken the Mughal empire. There are smaller communities of the Siddis in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan as well. Many Indian do not know of their existence. The Siddis are scattered so thin that they are called ‘Lost Africans’.
2. Somali Refugees
Somalia and other Arab countries were one of the biggest trade partners of ancient and medieval India. Today Somalia is in the news for all bad things. Somalia is a failed state where the government does not function properly. The Civil War broke out in 1991, and it has been embroiled in conflict ever since. They form one of the biggest group of asylum seekers in India registered with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR). Somalis face difficulty because they cannot speak Hindi, and neither the local language. It is difficult for them to make a living. One cannot get a SIM card, or buy anything without help of the locals. They do face some degree of discrimination, and looked at suspiciously. The plight of Somali refugees everywhere is not about to end soon.
3. Afghan Refugees
Afghan people have had close relations with India since ancient times. The Soviet – Afghan war, and the ‘War on Terror’ has brought about an influx of Afghan refugees. The recent war has brought almost 14,000 people. Most of Afghan refugees live in Delhi, and the areas where they live is called ‘Little Kabul’. They seemed to have blended well with the locals. Most Afghans in Delhi do not want to go back to their home country because of the uncertain future. They like India’s openness, secular values, and security. There are Afghani restaurants serving authentic Afghani food in Delhi. Some Afghan people make a living by selling Afghani carpets, clothes, food. The UNHCR helps people who cannot make enough for themselves.
4. Rohingya People
The Rohinya people who number almost 36,000 are native to Rakhine in Myanmar, thus the name. Most of them came to India through the India – Bangladesh border to escape the military junta who insisted on Burmese nationalism. The majority of them live in Jaipur, and Delhi. Myanmar’s Citizenship Act of 1982 does not include the Rohingya people an ethnic community among the 135 communities in the list.
The refugees work for minimum wage in many establishments in the places they live. They do not have the official refugee status, but the Indian government encourages them to enter India with a valid visa, and then get a refugee card. However, they live in safety here who otherwise live in torturous condition in Myanmar, but they would like the Indian government to do more for them.
During the 12th century the infamous Mongol empire launched several invasions into India. During the several battles they met the sultans of Delhi. There is a small Mongolian community in India today, who are mostly students studying in India, and there are Buddhist scholars and monks living here. Some Mongolians who were in Tibet came to India with the Tibetans following the Chinese invasion of Tibet, and the 1959 Tibetan uprising. However, most of them were attracted to India because of practice of Buddhism. Most Mongols are studying Buddhism in India which was made possible after Dalai Lama’s visit to Mongolia in 1979.
6. Sri Lankan Tamils
The Sri Lankan Tamils or the Jaffna Tamils came to India in droves during the Sri Lanka Civil War which happened between 1983 to 2009. There are more than 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil people in South India. Many of them refuse to leave to Sri Lanka because of the stories of the alleged human rights abuse they hear in North Sri Lanka. People who have gone back have found their property taken by the military. The refugees also complain of hardships. They complain of discrimination, and are constantly monitored by the police, and feel unwanted by both India and Sri Lanka.
There are more than 60,000 refugee camps set up by the government that lacks basic facilities. It seems there are camps with better facilities in Jaffna, North Sri Lanka. Some have still stayed in India several years after the war ended, but some have gone back using the UNHCR facilitated voluntary repatriation program.
There are many Indian movies with the war as the backdrop. One such movie is Kanathil Muthamital, a Mani Ratnam produced Tamil film starring Madhavan and Simran.
7. Polish People
In 1939, Nazi Germany attacked Poland from the West while the Soviets attacked from the East as per the agreement signed in the Nazi-Soviet pact. This was the start of the Second World War, the war which saw 60 million people dead, and displacement of many. The annexation of Poland by both the Soviets and the Nazis was the start of the suffering of ethnic minorities including the Polish people. The Soviet Union executed 150,000 Poles that included Polish soldiers and army officers.
About 110,000 Polish people who were being held in the gulags in Siberia by the Soviet Union, managed to leave and come to countries like Iran, New Zealand, Africa, Mexico in 1942. Some of the people took a long and torturous journey to India. The ship containing refugees docked in Bombay after leaving Africa; however, the British authorities in Bombay refused them entry.
The Maharaja of Nawanagar in Gujarat, Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji Jadeja, also called Jam Saheb who heard about the ship full of refugees in Bombay, ordered for the ship to be docked at Rosi port in his province. The Maharaja took in the refugees almost 5000 in number. There were 640 Polish children among them. The Maharaja adopted the children. The first thing the Maharaja did was give the people a good meal. Many people including the British authorities opposed the idea of taking in refugees but the Maharaja did not relent.
The children probably had free access to the Maharaja’s seashore palace. They called him bapu (father). Today there are many Polish settlers in England, Australia. and a small Polish community continue to remain in Gujarat. The area where the community lives is called ‘Little Poland’, or ‘Little Warsaw.’ The Polish government recently acknowledged the good treatment of the Polish refugees. There are many Polish people living in different parts of the world who credit the Maharaja for being alive.
Both India and the modern state of Israel gained independence within few months of each other in the mid 1940’s. Indian Jews migrating to Israel are called Aliyah (migrated). A little over 1% of the Jews living in Israel today are Indian Jews. A small community of Jews live in Cochin, and Bangalore, Delhi, Chandigarh, Chennai, and Andhra Pradesh. Most of them live in Mumbai, at Nariman House.
The Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews are the main communities in India. Many other Jewish communities are created to fit the religious and social needs of businessmen and Israeli backpackers traveling in India. The first batch of Jewish people came to India between the 1st century BC, and continued till 70 AD following the Roman conquest of the Holy city of Jerusalem. Back then the King of Kerala took them in, allowed them to build synagogues, and allowed them into trade.
Indian Jews who migrated to Israel have separate identity, they speak Indian languages like Hindi, Marathi. Many have the opinion that the India is the safest place for the Jews . Many of them from the Jewish community have made their name in Bollywood, politics, sports, and in the art. The story about Lieutenant General Jacob, from the Indian Army is a stuff of legends. He was responsible for the surrender of Pakistani troops in East Pakistan which helped in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Lt. Gen. Jacob was the Chief of Staff of the Eastern Command then. The genocide in East Pakistan killed more than half a million people, displacing people beyond capacity. The Indian government gave Lt. Gen. Jacob the task of leading troops to battle.
9. Bengali Refugees
There are many Bengali people taking refuge since 1950, but the world community ignored the refugee crisis in 1970. In the 1970 elections in Pakistan, the result of which saw the Awami League win the majority over the Pakistan’s People party (PPP) in East Pakistan. Awami League’s Mujibur Rahman was supposed to be the next President of Pakistan. However, the then President General Yahya Khan advised by PPP’s Zulfikar Ali Bhutto chose to keep Awami League away from power. This led the Bengali majority in East Pakistan to demand independence from Pakistan.
President Bhutto made General Tikka Khan the Commander over the Eastern Command, and gave him the responsibility to put down the unrest. What followed was the worst human rights abuse in modern times. The genocide and the mass rapes gave Tikka Khan a nickname, ‘the butcher of Bengal’. About ten million people who managed to get away took refuge in India during the early 1970s. To escape from atrocities approved by the authorities in Pakistan, people walked hundreds of miles only to sleep in empty buildings, open fields. Syrian refugees that are trying to escape to Europe pales in comparison to the number of people who escaped to India.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger supported dictatorship in Pakistan because it was the important ally of the West. Most of the refugees died in refugee camps because it was difficult to provide decent facilities. The West did not stop the genocide, India’s appeal to the world community was to no avail. This culminated in the Bangladesh Liberation War, one of the shortest but bloodiest wars in history that saw the creation of Bangladesh. Pakistan and Bangladesh today have good diplomatic relation and are trying to increase trade between them. Today there is a new problem of illegal infiltration into India originating from Bangladesh during the present times. Recently, the security forces rounded up many infiltrators, keeping them in many detention centers in various North Eastern states. But some continue to live illegally in many Eastern and Southern states.
10. Tibetan Diaspora
In 1959, The People’s Liberation Army of China invaded Tibet to occupy it. The Dalai Lama exiled to Dharamsala in India. Many people of Tibet left with him during the 1959 due to the fear of persecution, taking the 20 to 30 days long journey through the treacherous Himalayas. Another wave of refugees came after a failed uprising of Tibetans against the Chinese rule. Central Tibet Administration (Tibetan Government in Exile) is the organization that is representing the Tibetan people in India. Their goals are to restoring freedom and happiness in Tibet, and to rehabilitate Tibetan people. The legal status they have does not make them refugees, illegal immigrants, nor stateless people.
Tibetan people are still coming to India today. There are more than 150,000 people living in exile in India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There has now been migration of Tibetans from their colonies in India due to many reasons. Tibetans are protective of their culture, and blending it with the Indian culture is not an option for them as they would like to preserve their culture. They are waiting for Tibet to be free. Among the many rights, they would like their ‘Right to Return’ the most. Many Tibetans have not become naturalized citizens of India yet even after they were born here, which is another reason for their migration to other countries.
Most Tibetan people in India live in Dharamsala, Arunachal Pradesh, and Karnataka. The city of Dharamsala and the Thekchen Choling Tibetan Buddhist Temple, and the Namdroling Monastery (Golden Temple) in Bylakuppe is a tourist attraction. There are many Tibetan restaurants, guesthouses, businesses in these places. After banning the travel to Tibet for so many years, the Chinese started to let in foreigners recently. Even local Tibetans face difficulty in traveling within Tibet where the Chinese authorities keep a watch on them. The India – China border is completely sealed for Tibetans.
Syrian Refugee Problem
Displacement of Syrians from their land is one of the biggest humanitarian problems in the world today. India does not have an active policy that turns down Syrian refugees. Those who are against taking in Syrians are of the opinion that it will add to problems to the already stressed economy. India already has Syrian refugees, mostly in Delhi. However, India is not the first country Syrians would turn to. Because of India’s geographical position and the treacherous terrain Syrians have to follow to migrate, their natural choice is Europe. When the Jews escaped Jerusalem during the Roman siege in 66 AD, people took the three to four month journey on boats to reach India. But the geopolitics is not the same today.
Human trafficking, conflicts, persecution is displacing more than twenty million people worldwide. However the world leaders are allowing a huge humanitarian crisis to take head ignoring refugees. Asylum is a human right as per the Convention in 1951, and 1967 Protocol relating to Status of Refugees. Noticeably, India is not a signatory to both of these, while almost the rest of the world is. Yet India has opened the country for displaced people.