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.

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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