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Noted Congress MP Shashi Tharoor says he has introduced a Private Member’s Bill in the Lok Sabha “proposing the enactment of a Refugee and Asylum law”. While the Bill lays down comprehensive criteria for recognizing asylum seekers and refugees and prescribes specific rights and duties accruing from such status, as Tharoor himself felt the need to tell us, he has made only a passing mention of Sri Lankan Tamils in an article he wrote for The Hindu.

No major news outlet seems to have reported on that. Evidently if The Hindu had not carried Tharoor’s piece, the bill would have remained in some file in the Lok Sabha computers, with none hearing about and be forgotten after some cursory discussion, assuming any such will take place.

According to some accounts, “Of the 300 or so private members’ bills introduced in the Lok Sabha during the UPA government, barely 4% were discussed; 96% lapsed without even a single debate in the House. Less than 15 private member bills have been passed since Independence.”

Nobody needs to take a private member bill seriously – of course no one does. It only gives one an opportunity to do some grandstanding, and one can expect Tharoor to go all out to hog some limelight.

If Tharoor can take the opportunity to stress the need to ensure the right to seek asylum in India to all foreigners irrespective of their nationality, race, religion, or ethnicity, and also constitute a National Commission for Asylum, and the media reports it all, it is certainly some progress. Seldom does our political discourse engage itself with issues that might not yield much dividend to any party.

But the thing is not even his fellow Congress members might care to spare any time for a bill on refugees, a much harried and ignored segment of the population anywhere in the world.

Still, if Tharoor can take the opportunity to stress the need to ensure the right to seek asylum in India to all foreigners irrespective of their nationality, race, religion, or ethnicity, and also constitute a National Commission for Asylum, and the media reports it all, it is certainly some progress. Seldom does our political discourse engage itself with issues that might not yield much dividend to any party.

And along with Tharoor, we, in Tamil Nadu, can look at the relevance of the bill to the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees we have been hosting for decades now.

Approximately 95,000 Sri Lankan Tamils have taken refuge here. Of them 60,000 live in government-run camps, and the rest outside, without receiving any government doles. Now it is not clear for how long these people have been here or whether at all they intend to go back, assuming Lanka takes any serious effort to facilitate their repatriation.

Ideally, all the Lankan Tamils who are refugees should be granted citizenship, but there has been no move on that front, barring, of course, occasional platform rhetoric. The camp inmates would find themselves like fish out of water once out of the camp, for where is the source of livelihood? Yes, many youngsters might have acquired some degree or diploma, but where are the jobs? Minus doles, they will find it difficult to have even one square meal a day, and the Lankan government would not open camps for returnees or take any special efforts to rehabilitate them — and in any case Lanka’s finances are in a mess.

The controversial Citizenship Act Amendment doesn’t cover Lankan Tamils of course — it only provides for citizenship for persecuted immigrants, except Muslims, from three neighboring countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, leaving out Sri Lanka.

All that can be expected is long term visas for Tamil refugees, thus leaving them in a permanent state of uncertainty.

Tharoor talks eloquently, as is his wont, of “India’s millennial traditions of asylum and hospitality to strangers,” but we are not a signatory to any international convention on refugees, as he himself admits.

But for the disastrous experience with Tibetans when India played hosts purely out of humanitarian considerations, we have tended to use refugees as political pawns, strikingly seen in the case of Bangladesh. Even the Chakmas, the Bangladesh tribals, are still in a limbo.

“We’re connected by the umbilical cord,” is a favourite imagery of Tamil politicians while referring to the Tamils across the Palk Straits. But the vicissitudes they have undergone show unmistakably nothing — language, shared religious beliefs and scriptures, ethnicity — nothing matters, except for self-interest.

Even the late Karunanidhi, for all his claims of pan-Tamil concerns, never went beyond a point in demonstrating his professed love. Back in the 1989 assembly elections, he agreed not to raise the Lankan issue at all on the insistence of the Left.

He might have allowed the killers of anti-LTTE militant leader Padmanabha, his associates and the Tiger echelons a limited amount of freedom, but as the Chandrashekhar government turned up the heat, he went about establishing special camps for suspected militant sympathizers. And during the last phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, he dragged his feet, unable to do anything even to ensure the relief of the beleaguered civilians. The fast he undertook, lasting just a few hours, demanding an end to the war, only made him a laughing stock.

Jayalalithaa of course once virtually declared war on the refugees, calling them dacoits and worse, and sought to compulsorily repatriate — more than 50,000 were indeed sent back — but the process was stalled because of furious protests and court interventions.

Even the late Karunanidhi, for all his claims of pan-Tamil concerns, never went beyond a point in demonstrating his professed love. Back in the 1989 assembly elections, he agreed not to raise the Lankan issue at all on the insistence of the Left.

MGR himself, though playing footsie with Prabhakaran, swallowed his pride and went along with the Centre’s decision to take on the Tigers.

Thus, even for Tamil Nadu’s politicians the Lankan tragedy is a politics of convenience, leave alone the Centre which doesn’t have much of a clue or doesn’t care.

Neither are we a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, 1951 nor do we have any clearly laid down framework on the issue — everything is left to the whims of the government of the time, as Tharoor acknowledges.

Granting that the athithi devo bhava (guest is god) principle has its limitation, and all nations have their own resource constraints besides concerns over the impact on their respective social fabric, those seeking to escape persecution have to be accommodated in neighboring regions of the strife-torn one.

Modi and his parivaar might want to block Muslim immigrants, but has anyone “acceptable” been granted citizenship? No. Rules are yet to be framed under the amended Citizenship Act.

To know how hypocritical we are all, remember Shashi Tharoor, who is the point of departure for this piece, while serving in the UN was a crass US apologist for long, but when his candidature for the post of Secretary General came up, his erstwhile idols let him down badly and suddenly he started lashing out at the Big Power arrogance and so on.


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