Interview with Ravi Hemadri

Ravi Hemadri is Founder and Head of Development and Justice Initiative (‘DAJI’), a public charitable trust working on issues of justice, human rights, and dignity for marginalized communities, with a particular focus on urban migrant workers, refugees, internally displaced people, stateless persons, and Indigenous peoples. He has over two decades of experience in research and advocacy on the rights of Adivasis, Dalits, women, migrants, and refugees. He was also one of the advisors on the Securing Citizenship report.

The following questions were formulated with the help of Devashri Mishra and Aashish Yadav. This interview was conducted over an audio call and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Arunima Nair: What is the situation of the Rohingya refugees in India, and the socio-economic deprivations that they are faced with? How have they been affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

Ravi Hemadri: My organization DAJI has worked with the Rohingya since 2012, and has conducted mapping exercises with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (‘UNHCR’) including on child protection issues etc. We’ve also conducted research with other agencies such as the Danish Refugee Council and the Asia-Pacific Refugee Rights Network. As part of this network and the Statelessness Network Asia Pacific (‘SNAP’), we’re also aware of situation of the Rohingya in Myanmar, Malaysia, Bangladesh etc.

In India, the Rohingya are the worst off among all other refugee groups. They are under UNHCR protection and care, unlike the Sri Lankans and Tibetans who are given refugee cards directly by the Home Ministry. Typically all other categories of refugees—like the Afghans and all the Myanmar refugees—fall under the ambit of the UNHCR. These categories of refugees have a precarious legal status, because UNHCR cards have uncertain legal validity. These cards are accepted by the law enforcement agencies as a customary practice. The UNHCR card gives some protection against detention since it’s a UN issued card. However, in the context of the 2017 campaign launched against the Rohingya in Jammu and other places, a junior Minister in the MHA stated on the record that UNHCR cards are not valid. That puts the Rohingya and other refugees under the mandate of UNHCR in a very precarious situation. Initially, when the whole Aadhaar scheme was launched, it was for all residents including foreigners (i.e. any foreigner who had continuously stayed in India for 180 days) which was a good start – several refugees did get Aadhaar cards, but then the Police took away the Aadhaar cards that many refugees had in 2017. The Government also has the Long Term Visa (‘LTV’) facility – anyone who has stayed in the country for a long time can get an LTV, and several Rohingya had also got LTVs in Hyderabad, Delhi, Jaipur etc., but a huge issue was created in Parliament along with the 2017 campaign against them in Jammu etc., and then the Government stopped issuing LTVs to Rohingyas.

AN: Is this lack of legal validity of UNHCR cards common across South Asia – presumably stemming from the fact that no country in South Asia has signed any refugee or statelessness conventions?

RH: The Rohingya are also the least skilled of all refugee groups who’ve come into India. The Afghans, for example, are comparatively better-educated and better skilled, with many engineers, doctors etc. among them. The Rohingya as the least educated and least skilled need the most support, but they have the least support from the Government. The UNHCR operates in India under a wider mandate between the Government of India and the United Nations Development Program (‘UNDP’). The only formal collaboration the UNHCR has with the Government is with respect to the repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees to Sri Lanka. UNHCR India facilitates the repatriation of refugees to Sri Lanka.

The term refugee is undefined in Indian law – they are treated as any foreigner, they’re also subject to detention when they enter India ‘illegally’ in West Bengal, Assam, Manipur etc. At least 300 Rohingya are in detention, including 70 children in these border states.

AN: Are the children separated from their families?

RH: As far as I know, till the age of 6, they’re allowed to be with their mothers, after that the boys are separated and sent to children’s homes and the girls are allowed to remain with their mothers up till 10 years. So a lot of children are separated—when they migrate across the border, many times those who are able to cross into India and those who are detained are fragmented families. Once they reach Delhi and get the refugee card, they are relatively safe from detention, but if caught in these border states, particularly without valid UNHCR cards, they are detained.

Since Rohingya are traditionally farmers, cultivators fisherman etc. in Myanmar, they don’t have any urban skills, and so most of them go to professions requiring the least skill, which is picking up recyclable waste in cities – 70% of Rohingyas in India are involved in rag picking. Because of that their income levels are very low. In Jammu, several used to work in cinema theatres, hotels, pharmacies etc. – but since the misinformation campaign started, these establishments started asking for Aadhaar cards etc., so they lost this kind of semi-formal employment. So definitely, the precarious legal status of all refugees, coupled with xenophobia particularly in the case of the Rohingya, have a deep impact on their socio-economic condition.

In COVID-19, they have been severely impacted in a similar way to other migrant workers – in the sense that they lost their jobs due to the strict imposition of lockdown, with no way of finding alternate employment, and in general as has happened with all workers, the employers have taken this opportunity to cut down salaries. In the Tablighi Jamaat incident in April, some Rohingya refugees from Mewat were part of the congregation. Some four of them were arrested and put in isolation for a month.

The Rohingya community in Myanmar has dispersed all across Asia and South-East Asia. You are right when you say that in South Asia and South-East Asia, except for Afghanistan, none have signed the refugee conventions.

India’s policy has always been ad-hoc: it has changed based on the diplomatic relations between the country of origin and India. When the whole student uprising started in Myanmar against the military in 1988, India gave the International Award to Aung San Suu Kyi. 1988 was when the Burmese activists started coming to India and taking refuge, there were camps set up to receive them in Mizoram etc. That slowly faded as relations between India and Myanmar grew, both economic and military. Even with the Rohingya, initially they gained visibility since 2012, when they put up a demonstration, because prior to that they were only being given asylum seeker cards and not refugee cards. Questions were raised in Parliament over why, since India has had refugees from Myanmar since 1988, Buddhists and Christians and so on were all given refugee cards, but Muslim refugees were not. After that they started recognizing getting refugee cards. There was absolutely no problem even in Jammu, but suddenly in 2017 political issues were raised at the local level. In 2017 the then Chief Minister of J&K gave a written reply in Parliament that there is no radicalization threat from the Rohingya settled in Jammu and Kashmir. Since 2017, we’ve only seen more xenophobia against the Rohingya.

AN: The Securing Citizenship report recommends that the Indian state must recognise stateless persons formally and issue identity certificates. These certificates will guarantee them legal personhood and the full gamut of rights until they are granted citizenship. The Ministry of External Affairs is empowered to grant identity certificates under the Passports Act, 1967 and the Passport Rules, 1980. Do you believe that this recommendation, as an interim measure, can combat discriminatory treatment in part?

RH: In the context of cases like Sheikh Abdul Aziz case (W.P. (Crl.) 1426/2013, Delhi High Court), where the person first said he in Bangladeshi, and Bangladesh refused, then he said Saudi Arabia, and Saudi also refused, in cases like this where he was very clearly a foreigner, this measure may work. Similarly with refugees, who are clearly foreigners from another country.

I don’t think the time is ripe for any solution of this kind in Assam specifically. When the NRC was finalized in August last year and there was a lot of international outcry there is a statement by the Government on the PIB website stating that there will be options available to persons excluded from the NRC and they will have to appeal their exclusion before the Foreigners Tribunals (‘FTs’). So that remains the official position, and this process has still not started even over a year since the NRC was published, despite appointing members to over 200 new FTs which have been established. Now they’re talking about re-verification in certain districts. It doesn’t seem that the Government is seeking any solutions at this stage. Our concern should be with the FTs, whether they’re appropriate platforms for the excluded to seek justice and inclusion in the NRC. I find it problematic to imply that the MEA will grant stateless certificates to such persons; the people will not accept it. Many Bengali Hindus I know are not happy with the CAA. Look at the irony – a person has been in Assam for decades, even if they came in 1971 they have been here for 50 years, yet to secure citizenship through the CAA, the Bengali Hindus, Buddhists etc. who have been excluded from the NRC will first have to admit that they entered India illegally! So it’s very ironic and insulting for someone who has been in the country for 60 years, even those whose lineages have been in Assam for 200 years, to call themselves ‘illegal migrants’ first. And we know how the smallest spelling mistakes or discrepancies have excluded people from the NRC.

No refugee is asking for Indian citizenship, except for the Sikhs and Hindus who have arrived from Afghanistan. Unfortunately the CAA is a political project – because the naturalization avenue has always been available, yet lots of Sikh and Hindu refugee families from Afghanistan, who came to India in the 1980s and they still haven’t got Indian citizenship! Recent news featured stories of Hindu refugees who came from Pakistan to Rajasthan, a lot of them have gone back! 11 refugees committed mass suicide. The problem in giving citizenship to these refugees from Afghanistan/Pakistan is more of a procedural problem as the law had always existed. The CAA doesn’t solve issues of refugees, even if we go by these three countries and these six particular communities that the Government has identified, they are not getting citizenship. It is extremely difficult and lengthy process that involves a lot of scrutiny. There’s a lot of corruption – every application of Pakistani and Afghanistani Hindus and Sikhs goes to all kinds of agencies – the Intelligence Bureau (‘IB’), Research & Analysis Wing (‘RAW’) etc. – each of which has to approve. There has been one case from a Bheel family who came 2-3 years ago whose application was rejected, they appealed to the Rajasthan High Court, which passed an order stating that their application should be considered, but by the time the order was passed they’d reached the Wagah border, and a woman of the family had died!

In the case of Assam, we are talking about resident populations, who have inter-generational relationship to Assam. It’s completely unjust, unfair, and completely violative of all international commitments to deem them illegal migrants. I see the problem more as an underlying ethnic tension between two communities, which manifests in the form of anti-foreigner movement. The Government has to admit that what is happening is wrong, only then can we move on to solutions.

AN: The report further recommends a path to citizenship for all stateless individuals in India keeping in mind India’s duty to prevent and reduce statelessness and to operationalise the right to nationality of such individuals. Do you think this recommendation can prove effective and model a path forward?

RH: One of the latest developments re: the Rohingya is that Myanmar has offered to take back people BORN in Myanmar. But then what will happen to children born in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia etc.? It becomes a very protracted situation. Myanmar has consistently refused to take back the Rohingya, even from Bangladesh. It is something that is going to be around for many years to come. There will have to be an international effort to come up with a solution to this. Otherwise, as we have seen, the Rohingya have become a floating population, risking lives, traveling on mechanized boats. The men keep moving across borders all the time; women and children are trafficked. This undocumented movement is then a threat to regional security. Therefore, populations like the Rohingya will have to be documented, they will have to be given some status in whichever country they are in, and they will have to be resettled internationally. This requires an international solution to the Rohingya issue. The Rohingya are stateless persons; since they are stateless, it is the responsibility of the India or whichever other country they are in to take them, give them residence, give them documents etc.

AN: You have worked with individuals who have been excluded from the National Register of Citizens (‘NRC’) in Assam, in an effort to legally empower them. Can you tell us about the ground realities of the current proposal of re-verification of the NRC? What role should civil society play to assist those facing uncertainty regarding their citizenship status in Assam?

RH: What happened in 2019, almost 2 million were excluded, and 120,000 declared foreigners by FTs so the situation was already bad. This re-verification exercise is going from bad to worse. Many Assamese parties, CSOs, and student bodies want numbers of exclusions to increase; as per media reports in Assam, the percentage of exclusions in Bangladesh-bordering districts is low. What will happen is that those who have been excluded from NRC and declared foreigners will be excluded from other rights and services.

We have recently done research of COVID exclusions in Assam, which will come out at the end of this month. We have noticed that already there is some exclusion from PDS, ration cards have been cancelled of some of those who have been declared foreigners, we have evidence from one district of a letter asking cards to be cancelled. A lot of people in Guwahati city people who were looking like they were from the border districts were not given the food rations. Another is land registration law, where there seems to be some new developments . What we thus fear is that there will be more and more marginalization and exclusion from rights and services. Such persons may lose freedom to travel freely in the country: we have seen how vigilante groups in states bordering Assam put up barricades on borders asking for NRC inclusion papers. So formally or informally they will be excluded and denied a lot of rights and services and freedoms.

 So civil society has two roles to play: first in highlighting citizenship by legally empowering communities to support them in fighting their cases before FTs, and the second is supporting them in securing access to services, and participation in local government. What may happen is that 2-5 years down the line the Assam Government may say that you require NRC inclusion to fight Panchayat elections. Unless a stop is put to this madness, the madness will go on advancing. If at all this crisis gets resolved, it’ll take many years; if it doesn’t get resolved, it will be very unfortunate and will become another Rohingya-like situation – the population will go footloose, there could be mass violence, and it will be a threat to regional stability and peace. It’s easy to target persons who aren’t considered citizens: even attacks on Rohingyas are because the attackers know they can get away with it with no repercussions.

AN: The Securing Citizenship report calls such persons precarious citizens since they are facing the threat of arbitrary deprivation of their Indian nationality. The Securing Citizenship report recommends that India must affirm the citizenship of precarious citizens in Assam who have been rendered vulnerable from the operation of the NRC and the Foreigners Tribunals (‘FTs’). Drawing on your previous work, do you think this recommendation is viable? What could be the possible challenges in its implementation?

RH: Absolutely, they should be treated as Indian citizens. One of the problems with FTs and the entire process is that the benefit of the doubt is not given to the applicant. So the smallest discrepancies in names, dates, locations etc. are treated as enough grounds to exclude someone or declare them as foreigners. One of the things about Assam is that it’s an ecologically sensitive region: lots of flooding, lots of shifting river basins and islands coming up and disappearing, so people shift a lot. So people have shifted a lot, according to one report 140 villages have disappeared in Assam in last 20 years. I have with me FT orders where for reason of shifting locations, people have been considered to be migrants from Bangladesh and declared foreigners. The exclusion is a political project – the members are required to declare a certain number as foreigners, they’ve been given a quota.

On the one hand, if someone says they’re stateless, people will argue that you can’t say that as they all have the option of going to the High Court. The question is how many can even go to the HC? Secondly, if there is still an option open for appeal, why detain people? Not only should they be considered citizens, they should not be detained. Even if FTs have to exist, there has to be a complete overhaul of the system, there are too many procedural problems, there is too much political interference in terms of appointment of members etc. There has been controversy over this: there is a case of some members who went to the Gauhati High Court over their non-continuation as FT members, there he has clearly alleged that his appointment was discontinued because of low level of declaring people foreigners (Sri Kartik Chandra Roy & Ors. v State of Assam W.P. (C) No. 4868/2017).

AN: The Securing Citizenship report recommends that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and State Human Rights Commissions (SHRCs) must be further empowered to function akin to an Ombudsman to tackle discrimination faced by vulnerable groups such as stateless persons. Do you agree with this recommendation?

RH: SHRC is in disarray in Assam, it is not functional at all as far as I know. The last time I went there the office was closed for no reason. One of the issues however is that FT decisions are often upheld by the High Court, the High Court is in a way validating the arbitrariness. HRCs should look at procedures and appointment of members, which is a responsibility that the HC has.

AN: But with HRCs as they currently exist, there is little they can do to have their recommendations enforced, right? The most they can do is serve show cause notices to the government or release a set of recommendations, which the government can very easily choose not to comply with.

RH: Yes, that’s correct. The High Courts have the responsibility to look at procedures because of this lack of enforcement on the part of the HRCs. There’s just too much arbitrariness in the process.  

AN: In your opinion, how can awareness and research around statelessness be foregrounded in human rights discourse by civil society and academia? Accordingly, how can we effectively use the Report in such advocacy efforts in India?

RH: There are certainly increasingly internationally many people being excluded from citizenship. Lots of Governments are using this to exclude minorities from citizenship. People also need to understand the link between rights and citizenship – we’ve seen in this country how communities have been deprived of rights, resources. Their land has been taken away, their water and air have been polluted. Resources are being taken away, we have a history of the state denying resources to people. I see citizenship deprivation as a continuation of the same policy of depriving people of natural resources. Other rights groups like farmers, women, Dalits etc. need to understand that this is one way through which the Government is trying to control the population.

AN: How would you respond to the counters that the issue in Assam, and the necessity of the NRC exercise, flaws and all, are in order to protect indigenous Assamese lands and cultures from historical encroachment and movement of non-indigenous persons, and that Assam has borne the brunt in terms of shrinking resources due to the waves of illegal migration by virtue of being a border state?

RH: This is certainly an issue to be considered: the protection of indigenous populations. However, Assam is no Tripura: the Assamese elite are not the same as Tripura’s indigenous people. In Tripura in the course of 70 years, the tribals were 70% in 1950 or so, now they’re 30%, the proportions between indigenous and non-indigenous populations has completely reversed. This is what happened in Tripura, which is highly problematic. This isn’t the case in Assam. In Government jobs, trade, industry etc., while trade has more Marwaris, in Government jobs you’ll hardly find any Bengalis. Even this spectre of large-scale illegal economic migration is suspect. Bangladesh’s economic situation is much better than in Assam, and the fishing and leather industries are thriving, so why should there be economic migration in Assam? There are some refugee flows of Buddhists happening, but not large-scale migration. While I agree that land should be protected as in Meghalaya and Himachal Pradesh, the bogey of illegal migration and targeting minorities as ‘illegal foreigners’ is not the solution. Depriving people of citizenship will be counterproductive to India’s objectives of peace, development and justice.

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