Analysis

Why India Won’t Ease the Afghan Refugee Crisis

New Delhi once rolled out the welcome mat for those fleeing its neighbors. What happened?

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Afghan refugees rest in tents at a makeshift shelter camp in Chaman, Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, on Aug. 31. -/AFP via Getty Images

In 1947, when the British partitioned their Indian empire into two dominions, about 14 million people felt compelled to migrate across the newly formed borders of India and Pakistan. Amid intense interreligious violence, Muslims fled to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India. Despite limited resources, the fledgling government of then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acted quickly to resettle this vast uprooted population, deeming it essential to provide assistance to those who had lost their homes and livelihoods.

The welcome mat Nehru extended to refugees in the wake of the Partition served as a template for subsequent governments in the second half of the 20th century. But in recent years, this tradition of helping those seeking shelter has been cast aside with the ascendance of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). From the Rohingya fleeing genocidal violence in Myanmar to the current plight of Afghans seeking to escape the Taliban regime, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government now appears not to care about the plight of refugees in its neighborhood.

For decades, India welcomed waves of refugees with open arms. After the 1959 Tibetan uprising against communist rule, New Delhi not only granted the Dalai Lama asylum but also took in thousands of Tibetans fleeing Chinese repression, leading to a significant diaspora community in India. The Dalai Lama remains in the north Indian town of Dharamshala with his loyal entourage. Apart from limiting Tibetan political activism out of fear of provoking China, successive Indian governments have allowed the community to thrive.

In 1947, when the British partitioned their Indian empire into two dominions, about 14 million people felt compelled to migrate across the newly formed borders of India and Pakistan. Amid intense interreligious violence, Muslims fled to Pakistan, while Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India. Despite limited resources, the fledgling government of then-Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru acted quickly to resettle this vast uprooted population, deeming it essential to provide assistance to those who had lost their homes and livelihoods.

The welcome mat Nehru extended to refugees in the wake of the Partition served as a template for subsequent governments in the second half of the 20th century. But in recent years, this tradition of helping those seeking shelter has been cast aside with the ascendance of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). From the Rohingya fleeing genocidal violence in Myanmar to the current plight of Afghans seeking to escape the Taliban regime, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government now appears not to care about the plight of refugees in its neighborhood.

For decades, India welcomed waves of refugees with open arms. After the 1959 Tibetan uprising against communist rule, New Delhi not only granted the Dalai Lama asylum but also took in thousands of Tibetans fleeing Chinese repression, leading to a significant diaspora community in India. The Dalai Lama remains in the north Indian town of Dharamshala with his loyal entourage. Apart from limiting Tibetan political activism out of fear of provoking China, successive Indian governments have allowed the community to thrive.

All that said, India did not sign the 1951 Refugee Convention because it said it would threaten its sovereignty, and it did not endorse a 1967 amendment to the convention on similar grounds. Meanwhile, Nehru’s India was less welcoming to immigration when it came to members of the Indian diaspora requesting to return, especially from the Caribbean. As they were not refugees facing persecution, Nehru’s government encouraged them to remain in the West Indies while they sought citizenship instead.

India’s most generous moment came in the wake of the East Pakistan crisis of 1971, when close to 10 million Bengalis fled into India to escape the brutal repression of the Pakistan Army. With limited international humanitarian assistance, India provided for these victims of military brutality for more than six months, regardless of their religion. (Many of those who fled the violence were Bengali Muslims.) India intervened in the Bangladesh Liberation War in December 1971, leading to Pakistan’s surrender. The majority of the refugees who fled to India ultimately returned to the new state of Bangladesh.

Although Pakistan absorbed the bulk of the refugees in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, India also accommodated a smaller number. Later, as a civil war racked Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s, India took around 30,000 Tamil refugees, and members of the group have continued coming in the years since. There have been allegations of mistreatment of Tamil refugees in camps in southern India. Those issues aside, New Delhi’s stance toward refugees from the region had long reflected a generous capacity for humanitarian action.

So then what explains the shift in New Delhi’s stance toward refugees? One can find the answer in the politics of the ruling BJP and the changing domestic political climate. To varying degrees, past Indian governments committed to a vision of a pluralist and civic state and felt compelled to provide a safe haven to refugees—regardless of their ethnicity or religion—to live up to these principles. The Hindu nationalist BJP, especially under Modi’s leadership, no longer appears to believe in adhering to those norms.

Far from welcoming refugees, Modi’s India has sought to slam the door shut. The BJP government displayed stunning callousness when members of the Rohingya Muslim minority sought refuge in India from the Myanmar military’s campaign of terror in 2017. India refused to grant refugee status to the Rohingyas and even deported seven Rohingya men in October 2018, threatening to kick out thousands more. The government’s justification for this inhospitable policy was that supposed terrorists would enter India under the guise of seeking asylum. The Modi government’s policy toward refugees has frustrated other South Asian states, particularly Bangladesh, which hosts over 1 million Rohingya refugees.

This unwelcoming attitude toward refugees, and especially Muslim refugees, is evident in the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants an expedited path to citizenship for Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who arrived in India from three neighboring countries before 2015, on the grounds that they constitute persecuted religious minorities. The legislation remains silent on a number of persecuted Muslim sects in South Asia, from the Ahmadis in Pakistan to the Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan, whose situation is likely to worsen under Taliban rule. The BJP likely thought it could get away with this discrimination because most of India’s Muslims don’t vote for the ruling party anyway.

The trend the Modi government set in motion with the mistreatment of Rohingya refugees now seems inexorable. After allowing Afghans to study, seek medical treatment, and even find informal employment in India for the past two decades, the government has now adopted a stringent policy of keeping Afghan refugees at arms’ length. It has limited the visa process by requiring e-visas for Afghans and has not shown much willingness to ease the flight of those who face persecution under the Taliban regime.

It is possible that the Modi government has other reasons for limiting the influx of refugees to India. As in the United States, immigration has become a more polarizing topic in India in recent years. For more than 18 months, the coronavirus pandemic has stretched India’s medical infrastructure to a breaking point and led to job losses, likely exacerbating that trend and making the public less disposed to welcome large numbers of refugees. But, ultimately, the BJP has fanned anti-Muslim sentiment as the demographics among refugees have shifted.

India’s abrupt departure from its civic values is distressing on many levels. These unwelcoming policies are hardly likely to promote New Delhi’s goals of winning friends in South Asia and warding off growing Chinese influence. Worse still, this parochial stance toward refugees undermines a long-standing commitment to humanitarian action—something that justly once made India proud.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.