India needs to formulate a humane refugee and asylum policy in keeping with its cultural tradition

Having a refugee and asylum policy will improve India's standing in the global community and avoid unnecessary expenditure from the national and state exchequers, writes Amb Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor

A crowded refugee camp in Assam, northeast India

In November 2019, India's Home Minister Amit Shah told the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) that a National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise will be carried out across the country, leading to an outcry among minorities, particularly Muslims, and protests and violence in several parts of the country, particularly in Assam. Shah would later repeat this assertion at various election campaigns. The creation of an NRC is mandated by the 2003 amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955, whose purpose was to document legal citizens of India so that illegal immigrants can be identified and deported.

In February 2020, roughly four months after Shah’s remark in Rajya Sabha, Nityanand Rai, then Minister of State for Home Affairs, however, in a written reply in Parliament said the ministry has not yet taken any decision on conducting a nationwide NRC exercise. Later in an interview with India Today, Shah appears to have backpedaled in the face of a huge political pushback, and protests from Bangladesh, and said when it (NRC) comes, all stakeholders will be consulted.

In February this year, when questioned by a Parliamentary Standing Committee, the ministry reiterated that the government has not taken any decision on conducting any nationwide NRC. Rai repeated the same last month in Parliament. However, he informed on the same day that the government will update the National Population Register (NPR) -- which is different from the NRC - according to the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The tricky part for the central government is how to tackle the government in the northeastern state of Assam which isn’t satisfied with the result of the NRC published in 2019 and has been demanding re-verification of some of the documents in some districts. The BJP, which is the ruling party in both the state and the center, had promised earlier to conduct a fresh NRC.

On September 20, however, the Assam Foreign Tribunal said the NRC 2019 list is final. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma met Home Minister Amit Shah on the issue in New Delhi. After the meeting, Sarma said the central government will back the state in its petition in the Supreme Court demanding 20 percent verification in some districts. However, no comment was made either by Shah or by the Home Ministry in this regard.

Formulating a refugee and asylum policy

India now has no refugee and asylum policy, only citizenship laws and rules. Even if India does not sign the international refugee conventions, it needs a better system for handling refugees staying for long in the country, legally or otherwise. Detention camps like in Assam are neither humane nor productive and only represent a drain on the exchequer while creating great resentment and avoidable opprobrium around the world. The nation is losing both the skills and the contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP - the value of total production of goods and services) that was being made by the detainees until they were remanded to custody. The country is providing for their maintenance out of precious taxes. Implementation of the NRC in more states will only aggravate the situation.

Therefore, why not treat them on par with Tibetan refugees and issue them Identity certificates, valid initially for one year but extendable in blocks of six months or one year, while confiscating their Indian identity documents for verification? India can allow them the rights of employment, short-term tenancy, skill development, education and to operate bank accounts and access health insurance services so that they are not a burden on the taxpayer. 

But the government should not extend Public distribution System (PDS) food provisions or other social welfare schemes meant for Indian nationals to them. Then they can continue to live, work and maintain themselves while contributing temporarily to India's prosperity by the additional output in the service or other sectors of the economy.

They can continue to reside in India as foreigners and shift to other countries in due course or apply for naturalization in India after the required number of years of residence under the Citizenship Act. This will solve the immediate problem of Myanmar, Afghan and Rohingya refugees, especially those who fled across the Indian border without passports. Long-term visas valid for one year may be given to those with passports. This will also extend a lifeline to those provisionally identified as foreigners in Assam and elsewhere.

Needed a humane policy

The asylum thus offered by India to those fleeing persecution from elsewhere in South Asia will be limited in time but humane in scope, encouraging the refugees to find their feet and move on to better lives unless they wish to acquire Indian citizenship by naturalization on fulfilling the residency requirements. Having a refugee and asylum policy will improve India's standing in the global community and avoid unnecessary expenditure from the national and state exchequers.

The major problem will be in handling the issue of any real estate holdings they may have illegally acquired, especially agricultural or plantation land. These may be compulsorily turned into leases and then sold by the holders to bring them into conformity with laws regarding property holdings by foreigners in India.

The central government will also need to improve its border surveillance, to prevent unauthorized or unmonitored entry by migrants into India. Facilities must be provided at designated entry points for incoming foreigners to declare themselves as asylum–seekers and to be processed accordingly. This will enable the government to definitively establish the original nationality/ country from which they entered and to inform that country immediately so that the repatriation of denied asylum seekers can happen expeditiously. 

Advice and support may be sought from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for dealing with these. The present detention camps may be used as processing centers and funds sought from UNHCR to maintain them temporarily until their claims processing was completed, as is being done in Nepal for their asylum seekers from Bhutan.

This new policy, if accepted and legalized, will provide the structure for humane treatment of those unfortunate persons displaced from their original homes by persecution, climate change, or economic hardship, reduce the burden on the national exchequer, transfer the maintenance onus on to the UNHCR, allow expeditious claims processing, prompt and definitive repatriation of refused applicants, give dignity and possibility of earning legitimate livelihoods to accepted claimants, add to India’s capability and prosperity, bring more diversity into its cultural and social milieu, earn some support from the accepted claimants, reduce crime and put into real and visible practical practice India’s long cultural tradition of  "Vasudhaiva Kutumabakam" (the world is one family).
Fifty years after India’s generosity towards East Pakistan refugees in 1971 and 62 years after the country welcomed Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama and his retinue who crossed over to India in 1959, adherence to India's tradition remains the need of the hour.

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. The views expressed are personal.  He can be reached at

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