On Finding Family

2015 De Santi JessicaBy Jessica De Santi

On my second weekend in Kolkata, I went to a street dance battle.

A few parts of the above sentence require some explanation.

First: as a member of Montreal’s street dance community (though with much less involvement than I would like, such is the life of a student) and a lifelong dancer, I was not looking forward to a summer without dance. So, a few months before leaving for Kolkata, I asked my mentor whether he knew of any lockers in India, especially in Kolkata. He was able to connect me to a couple in Mumbai, who then connected me to some lockers in Kolkata. As it happened, on my second Sunday in Kolkata, there was both a locking class and a battle, so I took the opportunity and went to both.

Locking class with Locking Kira

Locking class with Locking Kira; Author’s photo

Second: dance battles are arguably an integral part of street dance culture, and hip-hop culture more generally. To oversimplify almost unforgivably, hip-hop culture finds its roots in Black and Latin communities, particularly the Bronx, in the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. While most people nowadays associate hip-hop with rapping (or MCing), there are three other main elements of the culture: graffiti, DJing, and breaking (sometimes known to outsiders as breakdancing). The dance battle comes out of this culture, and provides a space for direct competition between dancers to determine their “ranking” in the community. Nowadays many other street dance styles, such as house, locking, popping, and waacking, also incorporate the dance battle into their respective traditions/styles.

The battle I went to was called Cypherology, a name which itself evokes other aspects of the culture: the cypher, a coming-together of dancers who take turns dancing and exchanging at the centre of a circle; and the suffix “-ology,” literally “study of,” a recurring theme for street dancers: our commitment to studying our style, that we are students of the dance and of the culture and that we should always seek to learn and expand our knowledge.

The organisers of the event were apparently told ahead of time that I, an out-of-towner, would be dropping in to see the battle and to say I was welcomed with open arms would be an understatement. I was given the opportunity to share a bit of my dancing with the other dancers, including a spur-of-the-moment locking showcase battle against 3D_Lock, a Kolkata locker, which is one of my favourite exchanges I have ever had with another dancer. He was one of the dancers I had been connected to through the Mumbai dancers, and had convinced me to come to the battle. Dancing the same dance with someone who learned it on the other side of the world to me represents one of the best aspects of street dance: its ability to bring people together to share in something we love, no matter our background or our training, or even where we are from. Street dance truly does create a global community, and for the first time I truly understood what that meant and felt like.

Building families across oceans: 3D_Lock and Jess. Photo courtesy of 3D_Lock

Building families across oceans: 3D_Lock and Jess. Photo courtesy of 3D_Lock

What was even more inspiring for me was watching the battles.

Montreal has an impressively strong street dance community – the city has earned the nickname Funktreal – and I was incredibly fortunate to be able to enter into the community by learning from some of the best dancers in Canada, and arguably in the world. The scene in Kolkata, being younger in both age of the scene and age of the dancers, is still building that same base. Despite the age and experience difference, the vibe at Cypherology was incredible. It was humbling and inspiring to see so many young dancers demonstrate so much passion and energy for their dance. Being in a room full of dancers, dancing, and great music, for the first time in the two weeks I had been in Kolkata, I felt at home.

In the culture, we often talk about the importance of values such as peace, love, unity, and having fun (see supra, but also here for a live representation). At Cypherology, on the dance floor and in conversation with other dancers, I saw, felt, and breathed those ideas, for which I am truly grateful.

Third: the street dance battle was in Kolkata, a city separated from the country where hip-hop was born by several thousand kilometers of ocean, politics, and culture. Despite the massive separation, an underground culture originating in oppressed communities in the United States has not only made it to India, but it has flourished. Thanks to globalisation and the proliferation of internet availability, dances that were once localised to particular cities in North America have reached decades into the future and across continents. As this global community continues to grow and to connect, the other scenes out there are going to need to watch out. Kolkata’s holding it down, and they’re coming for you.

Rethinking Scholarship

2015 De Santi JessicaBy Jessica De Santi

In my experience as a student educated in “Western” institutions, most of the scholarship to which I was exposed, and which was touted as particularly high-quality or important, was almost invariably written in a detached, impersonal manner. Political science as I studied it emphasised the importance of theory-building, of a theory’s explanatory power, and discovering patterns and trends across cases. Increasingly, scholarship in the discipline has attempted to incorporate quantitative analysis into its work; think, for example of the Correlates of War project which has been ongoing since the 1960s and is maintained to the present.

In law, this detached, impersonal approach can be even more evident. The bulk of what we study comprises of case law and the Civil Code of Quebec, with some doctrine or other scholarship. We are even taught to write in a way that is devoid of personality, that stresses the importance of conveying information in a specific way for a particular audience. While I was very much aware that such an impersonal approach to scholarship could not tell the full story, I was rarely exposed to alternative types of scholarship – to experience those I needed to take courses outside the discipline.

The past five weeks interning at the Calcutta Research Group (CRG) have given me much to think about in this regard. The CRG is a research centre which publishes original research, in its own journal, Refugee Watch, in books, and other short compilations of articles. Staff members also occasionally contribute to local news publications. Much of their research concerns refugees and border studies, with a South Asian focus and frequently an interdisciplinary approach. Since my main project as an intern is to produce a piece of research which the CRG could eventually publish, my first task was to read what had already been published.

It was jarring at first. Many of the pieces, though their subject matter certainly fell under the scope of political science, were unlike what I had grown used to considering “political science scholarship.” Ethnographic research, often conducted in refugee populations and border communities, was the prevalent methodology. Neutral language was occasionally eschewed in favour of withering criticism of authorities who either failed in their duties or whose policies encouraged grave human rights abuses. A compassionate tone often accompanied particularly harrowing cases.


Work station at CRG.

Rarely were scholars attempting to build or prove a particular theory. Rather, the focus of the scholarship concentrated on the effects of government practices, bringing real-world experiences into the foreground. I was confused, occasionally frustrated, and uncertain of what I was supposed to be taking away from what I was reading, as fascinated as I found the work. It took a few articles before I started to “get it.” The research, whether ethnographic, legal, or otherwise, was bringing to the academic world the perspective that is often overlooked by Western scholarship: the human.

In writing this blog post, my goal is not to suggest that theory-building, prescriptive scholarship ought be abandoned, or that all scholarship needs to focus on the experiences of a person. Both types of scholarship, and many other types of scholarship, serve important functions in advancing our understanding of the world, particularly in areas where clearly measurable variables are not evident or possible. Nor are they mutually exclusive. I also do not intend to essentialise scholarship into “Eastern” and “Western” forms: beyond this being a problematic and arguably false division of the world, I think it is coincidental that my first in-depth exposure to different, less impersonal research approaches is occurring while in India. However, my experience thus far has certainly encouraged me to be more critical about what is presented as “authoritative” scholarship, to more actively seek out alternatives, and to make more of an effort in synthesising differing perspectives on the same issue.

India and its 1971 Refugee “Problem”

“Do they know we are coming?”

In 1971, an estimated 10 million refugees crossed the border from East Pakistan into India (UNHCR 2000 59). The sheer magnitude of this movement of people – the largest single displacement of refugees in the second half of the 20th century (59) – is staggering. Writing from the town of Barasat, a city located in the outskirts of Calcutta, West Bengal, Sydney Schanberg, a journalist with the New York Times, describes the town as a “swarm” with refugees “so thick in the streets that cars can only inch through” (Schanberg 17 June 1971). The refugees seemed to be everywhere – sitting in the streets, crouching in doorsteps, sleeping on porches, occupying empty buildings, and cooking in the fields (Schanberg 17 June 1971). They attempted to build lean-tos only to have the monsoon rains rip them apart (Schanberg 17 June 1971). The refugees, Schanberg writes, appeared “anxious and troubled … look[ing] for someone to answer their questions … ‘Do they know we are coming?’” (Schanberg 17 June 1971).

Refugee Influx (Time Magazine)

Refugee Influx (Time Magazine)

After having “trodden long distances on foot in grim agony and in a desperate effort to escape from the ruthless atrocities of the Pakistan Army” (Luthra 1971 2467), to ask such a question seems out of place, even unnecessary. With its odd mix of apology, affirmation, and imposition, it is the question of a guest who is extended a welcome by the host and yet seems unsure as to the nature and extent of that welcome. Such an interaction reflects what Ranabir Samaddar describes as “the double imperative of how the State governs – a contradictory logic of power and care, and a paradoxical injunction built on the heritage of rule” (Samaddar 2010 113).

Like other mass influxes of populations that sought refuge in India – the Tibetan refugees who arrived in the 1950s and the Chakma refugees who arrived in 1964 (Chimni 1994 378) – the 1971 refugees were indeed welcomed. However, unlike the two previous mass influxes of refugees, the 1971 refugees were extended a limited welcome and were accorded hospitality “only until such time as they were able to go back to their country of permanent residence with dignity” (Mukherji(2) 1974 399). The policy for the 1971 refugees, as articulated by the Indian state, makes no mention of rehabilitation, integration, and absorption (399). Their existence in India was to be temporary and their status was to remain as foreign nationals (399). Their existence would ultimately prove to be temporary when, on December 15, the Pakistan army with 93,000 soldiers surrendered in Dacca (Jahan 1995 202). Following decisive military action led by the Indian army, the independent nation-state of Bangladesh was born (202). Just as the 1971 refugees made history with their arrival, so too did they set a record with their departure. Beginning in December of that year, millions of the refugees returned to a new homeland in what would be and remains the largest repatriation operation of the post-Second World War era (UNHCR 2010 59).

The story of the 1971 refugees – their exodus, reception, and eventual return – forms part of a wider narrative that brings to life the disintegration of one nation – Pakistan – and the birth of another – Bangladesh; the revival of historic grudges between two bitter neighbours – India and Pakistan; the international indifference manifested against a backdrop of Cold War politicking; and the miserable conditions that greeted the 10 million souls who sought refuge in India. The story that serves as the basis of this paper is that of the Indian state, namely the way in which its articulated policies on the 1971 refugees shaped, on the one hand, the state’s understanding of refugeehood and its response towards refugees, and, on the other hand, the refugees’ own understanding of this label and the implications the policies had on their sense of belonging and identity formation. Through an analysis of the decisions taken by the Indian state, the labels administered, and the bureaucratic institutions established, this paper explores the tension between the notion of charity and the notion of rights (Samaddar 2010 114) by asking: On what grounds did the Indian state justify repatriation as the only viable solution to the situation of the 1971 refugees? Since the answer to this question goes beyond the constraints of a blog post (and forms the basis of a paper that is forthcoming from CRG Policies and Practices) I outline one conceptual framework – the legal – to think through the state’s response.

The Legal Approach

Repatriation, along with resettlement and local integration, form the ‘three durable solutions’ to refugee problems as recognized by international law and supported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) (Bradley 2006 1).[1] To repatriate, in its most basic form, is to send the refugee or asylum seeker from their country of asylum back to their country of origin (1). The key principles underlying repatriation are the right to return (as codified in Article 13(2)[2] of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and the right not to be forcibly returned to situations of persecution or serious danger i.e. the right of non-refoulement (as codified in the negative terms of refoulement in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“1951 Convention”))[3]. The solution of repatriation is thus premised on the country of asylum’s right to withdraw refugee status so long as it has determined that protection in the country of origin is viable (Hathaway 1997 551). Once withdrawn, the refugee becomes subject to the regular rules of immigration control and may be required to return to their state of origin (551). The challenge of situating the 1971 refugee influx and state response within the legal conceptual framework is that India is not a party to the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol (Chimni 1994 379). Furthermore, India only acceded to the two Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1979, several years following the return of the refugees to Bangladesh (379). The value of this conceptual framework therefore does not derive from what it tells us about India not signing these documents but rather the way in which this non-accession defined and configured the state’s responsibility (Samaddar 2010 115).

Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees from East Bengal at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971 (Source: http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/dynamic/00866/17TH-opedBanglaRumi_866425g.jpg)

Indira Gandhi meeting a group of refugees at the Kaliganji camp, Assam, in June 1971 (Source: http://www.thehindu.com/multimedia/dynamic/00866/17TH-opedBanglaRumi_866425g.jpg)

In a meeting with economic editors, Indira Gandhi described the solution to the refugee influx this way: “I am just going to send them back. I am determined to send them back” (Statesman 18 June 1971). This policy of “sending them back” served as a constant reminder that the refugees “belonged to Bangladesh … and were going back as soon as the situation returned to normal” (Rangan 29 December 1971). Had the policy not been this clear and forceful, members of the government feared that they would be giving the wrong impression, namely “that [the refugees] are going to be absorbed in this country” (Statesman 24 May 1971). The policy had two principal implications. First, it was used by the state to justify limiting the refugees’ access to the labour market, relegating the refugees to camps, and discouraging the dispersal of refugees from the Border States to other parts of India (Statesman 21 April 1971). Second, it was employed by the newly created Bangladesh government to encourage and foster feelings of patriotism for the new state. In his tour of the refugee camps, the Bangladesh Minister of Home and Rehabilitation urged the refugees to “not stay here as evacuees but go back and take part in the national reconstruction” (Statesman 31 December 1971). The policy of “sending them back” was realized in a surprisingly successful manner. Funded by the Indian state (Rangan 23 December 1971) and coordinated with international relief agencies and the administration of Bangladesh (Durdins 3 February 1972), over 6.8 million of the 10 million refugees returned within two months of the end of the conflict (Durdins 3 February 1972). Each family was given two weeks’ worth of rations that included rice, wheat-flour, lentils, charcoal, cooking oil, and a small cash allowance (Rangan 2 January 1972).

While the Indian state was not constrained by the international legal regime, refugee rights were recognized in practice, albeit in a limited sense. In an August speech, Indira Gandhi commented that repatriation would only occur if the “conditions for their (refugees) safe return were created” (Statesman 31 August 1971) and again in a September speech, where she articulated her vision of returning the refugees “in safety and dignity” (Rahman Volume 12 80). In the absence of any legal regime according to which the state response can be evaluated, phrases such as “safety and dignity” become highly malleable, even strategic tools to be employed by the state according to its own needs and demands. One editorial roots the responsibility of the state in the notion of humanity (Statesman 22 April 1971). However, to what extent does humanity guide state action? The editorial proposes one understanding of the term by focusing on housing, feeding, and clothing the refugees but arguing against the “dispersal to other States or arrangements for permanent rehabilitation” (Statesman 22 April 1971).

There emerge two principal limitations with this legal conceptual framework. First, the legal framework is unable to account for the situation of those refugees who feared a return to this so-called “home” (Rangan 23 December 1971). For some refugees, particularly the Hindu minority population, this fear stemmed from the threat of religious persecution whereas for others, a desperate economic situation in Bangladesh seemed discouraging (Toffler 5 August 1971). Pervading both the religious and economic concerns is a questioning of this notion of “home.” Toffler discusses repatriation with a group of refugees who respond to him this way: “‘Why should we go back?’ many replied.’ This is our country.’ To the Pakistani Hindu, India has always been Amar Desh – ‘my homeland’” (Toffler 5 august 1971). The state’s use of repatriation as the only solution is premised on the faulty assumption that “everyone wants to return … home,” a premise that the state did not assess since it appeared, “in the absence of other options, to be largely irrelevant” (Zieck 1997 447). Second, the legal framework is unable to evaluate the nature and extent of the voluntary dimension of the repatriation effort. Reports from the press describe the Indian state withholding rations and future transport to encourage the refugees to leave. According to Rangan, “although the refugees were not compelled to return they were not being given much choice either” (Rangan 8 January 1972).


Bradley, Megan. “FMO Research Guide: Return of Forced Migrants.” Forced Migration Online. 2006. http://www.forcedmigration.org/research-resources/expert-guides/return-of-forced-migrants/fmo042.pdf.

Chimni, B.S. “The Legal Condition of Refugees in India.” Journal of Refugee Studies, 1994.

Durdins, Tillman. “Bengalis in Dacca Coping with Problems.” The New York Times, 3 February 1972.

Hathaway, James C. “The Meaning of Repatriation.” International Journal of Refugee Law, 1997: 551-558.

Jahan, Rounaq. Pakistan: Failure in National Integration. University Press Limited, 1995.

Luthra, P. N. “Problem of Refugees from East Bengal.” Economic and Political Weekly, December 11, 1971: 2467-2472.

Mukherji, Partha N. “The Great Migration of 1971: II: Reception.” Economic and Political Weekly, March 9, 1974: 399-408.

Rahman, Hasan Hafizur, and Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh Ministry of Information. History of Bangladesh War of Independence Volume 12. Dhaka: Bangladesh Government Press, 1982.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Hindu Refugee Returns, Finds Ruins in East Pakistan.” The New York Times, 29 December 1971.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Refugees to be Returned.” The Statesman, 23 December 1971.

Rangan, Kasturi. “India Begins Returning Bengal Refugees.” The New York Times, 2 January 1972.

Rangan, Kasturi. “Return of Bengali Refugees is Gaining Momentume.” The New York Times, 8 January 1972.

Samaddar, Ranabir. “Refugees and Dynamics of Hospitality: The Indian Story.” In Immigration Worldwide Policies, Practices, and Trends, by Uma A Segal, Doreen Elliott and Nazneen S Mayadas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Schanberg, Sydney. “South Asia: The Approach of Tragedy.” The New York Times, 17 June 1971.

The Statesman. “Evacuees Will Not Be Pushed Back.” The Statesman, 31 August 1971.

The Statesman. “Refugee Dispersal in Big Way From Tomorrow.” The Statesman, 31 December 1971.

The Statesman. “214,000 Refugees Have Come to W. Bengal So Far.” The Statesman, 21 April 1971.

The Statesman. “Mrs. Gandhi Says… I am Determined to Send Them Back.” The Statesman, 18 June 1971.

The Statesman. “Evacuees Not To Be Sent To Other States – Khadilkar.” The Statesman , 24 May 1971.

The Statesman. “Editorial: Yet Another Exodus.” The Statesman , 22 April 1971.

Toffler, Alvin. “The Ravaged People of East Pakistan.” The New York Times, 5 August 1971.

UNHCR. “The State of The World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action.” Geneva, 2000.

Zieck, Marjoleine. UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees: A Legal Analysis. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997.

[1] For a legal analysis of UNHCR and the voluntary repatriation of refugees, consult Zieck (1997). For a critical perspective from the Global South on UNHCR and the voluntary repatriation of refugees, consult Chimni (2004).

[2] Article 13(2): “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” (United Nations 1948)

[3] Article 33: (Prohibition of Expulsion or Return) 1. No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. 2. The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country” (UNHCR 1951).


2014-Grbac-PeterBy Peter Grbac

I met Indian bureaucracy the other day. She is a large, round woman who was perched on a dark solid wooden chair. Her bright blue sari fluttered gently under the creaky dusty fan swirling above her. Her round silver spectacles complimented her equally silver hair. Her face was smooth, her eyes a dark brown, her mouth slightly curled on one side. Shifting a pile of tattered manuscripts, aged books, weathered notes, and plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes from side to side, the only constant unmoving presence on her desk seemed to be the placard clearly identifying her as The Librarian.

I approached her desk slowly, unsure as to which language I should use to break the silence – English? Hindi? Bengali? I cleared my throat and aligned myself directly in front of the placard. She looked at me. Up and down. Down and up. Her sharp eyes moved slowly. With purpose and conviction. She gracefully raised her hand and lowered it in one motion, directing me to take a seat. I followed her lead, took a seat, and shifted nervously from side to side – like an elementary schoolboy summoned to the Principal’s Office. “Is there a problem?” I asked. “You tell me,” she responded wryly as she handed over the document request form I had dutifully filled out and submitted just moments earlier. [FYI – It took me a good three minutes filling out that form by hand old school style – all of the information for that particular document had to be transcribed word for word, symbol for symbol, number for number from the catalogue card (no, not the electronic catalogue… I’m talking about those vintage wooden shelving units organized by author, subject, and title) to the form.] The sweat that had already stained my shirt was beginning to reform under my neck and around my armpits. The dust caked onto my fingers from the old manuscripts I had been handling all morning began to loosen and form a dark paste.

Unsure as to how to respond to her comment, I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best. She slid the form across the table and with her red pen circled a space. “You are missing the word “AND.” With a somber straight face, I slowly spelled out the word in the space she circled. I inserted the A. And the N. And the D. I turned the form around and slid it back to her. “There, that’s better,” she replied. In those few painful minutes, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream or cry or jump or shake my head or [insert any emotion that encapsulates frustration, anger, annoyance, humour, and confusion all in one]. I opted for none of these. Instead, I smiled. She smiled. In those brief seconds, order was restored and everything seemed right with the world again.

It’s been two weeks since I wrapped up my work at that particular Archive and it seems so silly that this is the one event from that time that has stuck with me (and now forms the basis for this post). Silly yes but there is something serious about it all (the form, the interaction, the people involved), namely the hows and whys and why nots of carrying out research in a foreign and sometimes unfamiliar environment. First, research(ing) abroad requires both patience and flexibility. Libraries and research centres run on different timelines, resources, and sets of expectations. Second, sometimes good research comes down to luck. Three weeks ago, I hit a significant roadblock when I was told I wouldn’t be able to access the secret police reports and security files from the 1970s. A fellow researcher recommended that I try sifting through the files from the 1960s hoping that a file from the 1970s would be misplaced. He happened to get lucky that way although I wasn’t as fortunate. Third, research stands at the intersection of the intellectual and the practical. This one has taken some time to appreciate but the academic argument is not solely a reflection of intellectual imagination; instead, it is shaped by practical considerations that may or may not be within the researcher’s grasp… a missed taxi, damaged books, deleted files, closing time, opening time, and the speed at which you can copy a paragraph by hand. Finally, (and this applies more generally to travel I think) research(ing) abroad requires a healthy dose of humour A.N.D. humility.

In the next blog post, I’ll take you through some of my research on the 1971 refugees but for now I’ll leave you with these archival images featured in Time Magazine:

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Refugees crossing the border from then East Pakistan to India.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.

Concrete pipes (originally meant for the construction of planned suburbs in Salt Lake) were transformed into temporary housing units.


The Power of Place


Street Scene, Kolkata
Source: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/327/cache/street-kolkata_32764_990x742.jpg

There are cities that you visit. Shining lights, framed portraits, manicured parks, picture-perfect moments. And then there are cities that you feel. The dust between your toes, the hazy, thick heat that envelops your body, those looks – some of joy, others of despair. To walk the streets of Kolkata is to feel. It is to register the way in which the extremes play out in the daily lives of the strangers that surround you – the begging child and the extended hand, the young student from Presidency College rushing to the library, the corporate Tata executive passing through security barriers, and the tourist, that perpetual outsider, looking in and observing the daily celebration of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.

To walk the streets of Kolkata is to also appreciate the relevance and importance of place – those physical spaces imbued with history, memory, and meaning. To inhabit a place is to move beyond the crushing sea of humans, the honking horns of Park Street, the rickshaw wallahs jostling for space on the road, and those historic buildings wilting in the heat, tragic reminders of how nothing is immune from the rain, the wind, and the ticking hands of the clock. For Somini Sengupta, Kolkata as a place represents both the parochial and the modern. She writes, “India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years.” (Note: In 2001, Calcutta was renamed Kolkata to match the Bengali pronunciation of the city name).

In my opinion, one of the best examples of this “littering” is the South Park Street Cemetery. In use from 1757 to 1840, the cemetery is the resting place for hundreds of British men and women who took up the colonial mission of the British Empire (serving in occupations as diverse as jail-keeping to school teaching to coopering). Venture off the central path and push past the jungle cover to discover the grand rotundas, soaring pyramids, and sober plaques. Rub your hands along the cold stone facades and read the names and descriptions of these people of a bygone era. There’s the large white pyramid in the center that belongs to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society and one the foremost scholars of ancient India. There’s also Grave 363, containing only the following epitaph – “A Virtuous Mother (died 1825).” These markers offer us a glimpse into the colonial past of Kolkata. They also prompt us to extend our analysis and consider the ways in which individuals stake their claim to a particular space and attempt to make it their “own.”

Through an internship with the Calcutta Research Group, I’ll be taking up elements of this analysis as I explore the content and character of the claims (to housing, to water, to education, to citizenship) made by refugees and the displaced on the spaces of the city. The first part of this exploration will be historical – I hope to carry out an archival study of the lived experiences of refugees who settled in and around Calcutta following the events of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence (when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh). Throughout the conflict, over 10 million people crossed the border into India, with the majority settling in and around the city of Calcutta (Bandyopadhyay 2000 37). To appreciate the sheer magnitude of this movement, consider that 12 million refugees were uprooted in Europe in the wake of the Second World War (35). While scholars have documented the state’s administrative response to this influx, very little has been written about the lived experiences of the refugees in the camp setting. The second part will be contemporary – I plan on analyzing the current urban design policies governed by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and asking what space (if any) is afforded to the displaced and the refugee.

Even though I haven’t yet formulated my theses or generated working hypotheses, my general hunch is that place matters when we think about the claims made on the city. That hunch might seem quite basic and obvious but I think the exciting and worthwhile intellectual pursuit lies in interrogating what it is about city space that makes it distinct and relevant as we think through if and how the displaced and the refugee claim rights to the space of the city. The ‘distinct’ and ‘relevant’, I believe, emerge from both the content and the approach. In terms of content, there is a renewed focus in the academic literature on cities, particularly the cities of the Global South, and what cities have to say about the larger nation-states in which these cities are located. According to Sassen, “After the long historical phase that saw the ascendance of the national state and the scaling of key economic dynamics at the national level, the city is once again today a scale for strategic economic and political dynamics” (2005 357). Consider one possible application. By situating the lived experiences of the refugee within the urban context of Kolkata, we should be able to better understand the crises of Indian national membership while rethinking the notion of the ultimate claim itself, that claim being citizenship (Holston and Appadurai 1996 202). In terms of approach, there is a push to move beyond the famous midnight hours of 14-15 August 1947 (India’s moment of Independence) and embrace both a postcolonial methodology and an integrated analysis (instead of divorcing India from the regional dynamics, attention needs to be paid to the plurality of voices from the region).

Even though the city represents just one strategic type of place, it is one that I think offers a powerful conceptual framework to work through these questions of recognition and entitlement, culture and identity, inclusion and exclusion. The Calcutta of 1971 and the Kolkata of 2014 thus challenge us to respond to the key question posed by Sassen – “Whose city is it?” (1996 206).

Bandyopadhyay in Bose “Refugees in West Bengal” Calcutta Research Group 2000, 32.
Holston and Appadurai “Cities and Citizenship” Public Culture 1996, 187-204.
Sassen “Whose City Is It?” Public Culture 1996, 205-223.
Sassen “The Future of Urban Sociology” Sociology 2005, 343.
Sengupta “A Walk in Calcutta” New York Times April 29, 2009.

How Indian Law Produces Statelessness

By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

While at the Calcutta Research Group, one of my tasks has been to look into the legal aspects of statelessness in India to compliment the extensive archival and field work conducted by the CRG over the last three years in mapping the statelessness situation in India. In my research, I learned that India has numerous legal provisions with actively produce statelessness.

Wait a minute, what’s statelessness again?

Article 1 of the 1954 Statelessness Convention, a stateless person is one “who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.”  Since that definition is now widely understood to be customary international law, meaning it should be applied by all states including those not party to the convention and Article 51(c) of the Indian Constitution provides that India “shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with another,” it follows that, regardless of whether or not the state accedes to either statelessness convention, this definition of statelessness carries the weight of law in India.

So, those who do not have a legal bond with any state are unambiguously de jure stateless. When this narrow definition is applied, however, it usually only covers those who are not automatically granted nationality at birth by the application of state legal instruments, those without nationality who are unable to obtain it through establish legal provision for its acquisition, and those whose nationality is revoked or terminated for any reasons and who do not have a second nationality.  Indeed, the 1954 Statelessness Convention definition precludes those with a legal bond with a state without ensuring that that bond carries with it particular rights, entitlements, or guarantees.  Because there is no universal standard for citizenship or nationality and because discriminatory laws, policies, and practices can mean that citizenship is experienced unequally between those citizens of the same state, it is possible for those with citizenship to experience it in such an ineffective manner that their experience mirror that of those who are de jure stateless.

The term de facto stateless, therefore, exists to describe the position of those who fall within the large range of people whose lived experiences are essentially of statelessness, but who do not form a part of the smaller group of people able to satisfy the de jure  definition.  While the term carries no legal definition and there is no clear consensus about its meaning in the literature, the term is generally used to refer to those who are unable to disprove the assumption that they have a nationality and those whose legal bonds of nationality is ineffective.

Isn’t that a bit restrictive?

Yes, I think so.  This definition rests on an assumed binary opposition of the citizen or national against the stateless person, which fails to account for the complexity of lived realities. In practice, many stateless people are unable to have their status recognized as such and legal bonds of citizenship are not always effective. States generally operate with a presumption of nationality, which makes it impossible for those whose nationality is unknown, but who have not been found to have established that they are without nationality to access protection as stateless people. Additionally, many states have demonstrated reluctance to classify certain people as stateless and others do not recognize the stateless status of those whose citizenship they have denied.  Matters are substantially complicated when the effectiveness of a person’s nationality are considered.

Ok, so how is it that Indian law produces statelessness?

A number of explicit provisions in the Citizenship Act of India, 1955 provide legal means by which a person in possession of Indian citizenship may lose that legal bond. First, renunciation (under section 8) entitles Indian citizens to renounce their citizenship even if by doing so, they would become de jure stateless and can deprive children of their Indian citizenship on the basis of their father’s actions in such a way that may leave them stateless until they reach the mandated age to resume their Indian citizenship by declaration. Second, termination (under section 9) leaves open the possibility that those whose citizenship is terminated end up de facto statelessness, because there is no guarantee that the non-Indian citizenship that has been voluntary acquired is an effective one. Finally, deprivation (under section 10), in no uncertain terms, provides for creates statelessness by prescribing it as punishment for certain action and inaction.

So, what’s to be done?

Simply put, India must stop legally sanctioning the production of statelessness. It should revise its citizenship laws such that citizenship cannot be revoked from those who would be rendered stateless by such an act.  It must, however, be remember that addressing statelessness in India, like elsewhere in the world, is not merely a legal question. The existence of effective rights and entitlements goes much beyond the courtroom to the political arena and socio-cultural milieu.

Still Far to Go: World Refugee Day in India

2013-Malischewski-100x100By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

Today marks World Refugee Day. The number of refugees worldwide is at an 18-year high and the UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters that, around the world, a person is forced to flee every 4.1 seconds.

While much of the world’s attention is placed on the crisis in Syria and countries which continue to produce huge numbers of refugees such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is much to be concerned about when it comes to the plight of refugees in South Asia.

No country in the region is party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 or to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967.

In India, the central argument against ratifying the 1951 Convention is that it is too much a representation of European ways of addressing European problems to be effectively implemented in India.  Presently, India is not bound by the provisions of these key tools of international refugee law. That said, article 51 (c) of the Indian Constitution provides that India “shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with one another”.   So, the principles of refugee law are often adopted in India, but the state is not bound by them in the way that a signatory country would be.

To make matters more ambiguous, India has no domestic refugee policy. Because there is no legal framework for asylum, the UNHCR conducts refugee status determination for asylum-seekers from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar.

In an address in honour of World Refugee Day, Dr. Shashi Tharoor (former Minister of State for External Affairs and now a  Member of Parliament who spend much of his career working for the UNHCR) said:

“It troubles me that a country with our proud traditions and our noble practices remains neither legally committed nor obliged to do anything for refugees, even if we behave humanely in practice. I think it is high time the Government reviewed its long-standing reluctance to sign up legally to what it is already doing morally. The Convention and the Protocol involve no obligations that we have not undertaken voluntarily.”

To say that the convention is in keeping with existing Indian intentions towards refugees, to draw parallel’s with India’s ancient historical of acceptance of migrants, or even to demonstrate that the current situation is inconsistent with constitutional principle is useful in trying to convince the powers that be to sign the convention, but to say that India is already doing morally what it would be required to do legally if it signed the convention is somewhat misleading. It masks the fact that India is not only resisting signing the 1951 convention, it is resisting implementing an effective legal system of refugee protection – period.

It’s been a year since the government committed to new long term visa that all refugees are suppose to be able to apply for, but those on the ground are not seeing the benefits of these new visas. An article in The Hindu today tells the story of refugees from Myanmar still waiting to hear from the Foreigner Regional Registration Office about these long-term visas. In it, a UNHCR official is quoted as saying:

“The Government of India has committed to allow all UNHCR-registered refugees in India to apply for long-term visas, which will also allow them to work in the formal sector and enrol in any academic institution. The process is slow and it is not clear how long it will take for all refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain them. So far, according to our information, refugees from Myanmar and some Somali refugees have obtained them. Refugees from other nationalities have also applied but have not received them yet.”

If India is to live up to the “heritage of diversity” Dr. Shashi Tharoor celebrates, it has a long way to go.  Signing the 1951 refugee convention will likely not be enough, because as a product of post-War Europe it is ill-suited for the South Asian context, but it could be a start.  A regional mechanisms is another option. A mixture of the two might be ideal.  Ultimatley, though –  while the means are many, the need is clear.

India needs to to implement a legal framework for refugee protection that is in keeping with international legal norms and responsive to South Asia realities and then, it needs ensure that these laws become practice.

As an advocate of the Supreme Court of Hinda and  human rights activist, Rajeev Dhavan, said five years ago on this day:

“India needs to review its ambivalent refugee law policy, evolve a regional approach and enact rules or legislation to protect persecuted refugees. This is one step towards supporting a humanitarian law for those who need it. As a refugee-prone area, South Asia requires India to take the lead to devise a regional policy consistent with the region’s needs and the capacity to absorb refugees under conditions of global equity.”

For those forced to flee and  now stuck in a legal lacuna, India’s history of hospitality is meaningless.  They need legislated rights protection mechanisms and active efforts to ensure social, political, and economic inclusion in the present.

Settling in at the Calcutta Research Group

2013-Malischewski-100x100By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

When I first arrived at the Calcutta Research Group, I found a large, unmarked dark brown door, chained shut in a residential area.  I wondered if I had come to the wrong place, but I had double checked the address last night and I was certain that I was the address I’d written dow.  So, I sat down, crossed my fingers, and waited.

It took a while to settle into my internship, partly because I am the first McGill intern to have a placement with the Calcutta Research Group and partly because “intern” has a different meaning here than it does in North America. Luckily, though, once I realized I was here more as a visiting researcher and I began to get to know the other folks in the office, what started out a bit confusing and very unknown turned into a fascinating experience.

The Calcutta Research Group was founded in 1996, emerging from a gathering of 400 peace activists from the sub-continent who came together in support of the peace movement in West Bengal.  It started out as a forum for young public activists and socially committed researchers and is now well-known for its research and publications, courses, dialogue work, and library. Over the years, the CRG’s areas of research have evolved.  They now work on issues relating to partition, borders, displacement, migration, conflict, peace, governance, democracy, autonomy, and social justice with a special focus on gender, class, the environment, labour, and minorities.

PP Pile - DemocracyRefugee Watch Yellow Pile copy

Because the CRG has been dependant on project-based grants and funding, it has never achieved the level of institutional stability required to retain researchers on a long term.   Yet, somehow, despite the financial insecurity that comes with being a public institution without any formal affiliations to the government, a university, or a political party, the CRG continues to produce an impressive collection of books, an array of reports, and a bi-annual journal.  The neat thing about the CRG is that it’s not just a research centre, it’s also a network of scholars, activists, and institutions across India with connections around the world. The list of people who have come to deliver lectures or teach modules in their winter course is quite impressive.

Books layed out

At the office, I am working on a legal brief on statelessness to assist the centre in tying in legal aspect to their three-year statelessness study, which is soon coming to a close. So, I’m putting together a document that discusses the international legal framework on statelessness as well as the regional and national legal mechanisms available for the prevention and reduction of statelessness and the protection of stateless populations in India. Like everyone else here, I also lend a hand on various project, grant proposals, and presentations on topics such as rural migrants in cities and post-conflict realities for women in India’s northeast.

It might have started slow, but the only thing that’s still slow are the computers. There’s no lack of work to be done. And, thanks to Mohan-da, no matter how busy it gets, cups of darjeeling tea are a plenty!

Orientation Course Posters

[The photos in this post are ones I took for an audiovisual presentation I am developing for the CRG about their work.]

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