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Indian Hospitality: Time to look beyond the humanitarian aspect


By Hemaadri Singh Rana

Making a mockery of Tibetans’ gratitude, who intended to commemorate a ‘Thank You India’ event to thank the Indian government for its 60 years of hospitality, the MEA had passed a circular discouraging the central as well as the state government officials not to participate in any of the Tibetan events, stating the participation as “undesirable”. Few speculations perceive such an act on the part of the Indian government as mending ties and burying the hatchet with China, through placatory gestures.

In an article for Indian Express (Giving up on a statesman, March 24, 2018), Rajmohan Gandhi very poignantly accentuated how the flip in the political stand of India with regard to Tibetans could have its consequences in tarnishing its ethical and political image. It is reprehensible, he rightly remarked, for not taking cognizance of the ‘life-long tapasya’ of the Dalai Lama, who has ‘earned a firm place in the hearts of humanity’.

The government’s unconscionable response to the gratitude of the renowned noble prize winner and religious guru, the Dalai Lama and his community is, without a shadow of doubt, a disappointing setback and demands condemnation. However, prudence also dictates to delve deep and allow critical analysis of such a state action. It is equally imperative to refrain ourselves from merely romanticizing the humanitarian aspect of the state, to emphasize on why the state acts in a certain way as it does, and to identify the gravity of such decisions, which is indeed a matter of concern.

State not only structures and marks the boundaries of one’s identity and behaviour but also sanctions its existence. Individuals bounded by the state laws, circumscribed within its borders, act, and survive at the will of the state. As Ashish Nandy (State, 1992) argues, modern state seeks legitimacy in the guise of a protector, in return of which it guarantees ‘security’ and ‘development’, which again could only be gained with the sheer willingness of its people to submit and sacrifice. From the decisions with regard to the matters as personal as what to wear or what to eat, to which institution or employment to join, fall under the ambit of state power. It, notably, turns more stringent in the case of refugees, which are, what C.B. Keely points as, “system induced threat” as they deviate and disrupt the normative geopolitical structure of the state and threaten its sovereignty.

Refugees are either expected to integrate in the host nation or repatriate to the native state in order to bring normalcy to the international state system. In cases, such as the Tibetans, who have turned their backs to both the options for the preservation of a separate culture or a nation within a nation, they have to follow an additional list of dos and don’ts, obligations and duties.

There are no two views that undermining the value of Indian assistance is like cleaving off oneself of the reality, and amounting to empirical errors. But claiming it to be India’s sacrosanct humanitarian values – values that vary with different refugee groups and provides unethical ‘justification’ of the persistence of their unequal treatment – is indigestible too.

Since their arrival in 1959, Tibetans can be seen as pawns in the hands of the Indian government which directed their mode of behaviour as per its convenience. Using the presumption of Tibetans being non-violent as preached by their religion, the government structures their identity in a manner to save itself from trouble, i.e. to remain loyal, passive recipients of government aids, as they have always been. They are to act in congruence with their assumed temperaments or otherwise are subjected to detention. It is noteworthy, however, that Tibetan refugees were the first among others who had been recruited in the 1962 war against China by the Indian Government, who considered them more capable of surviving in high altitudes.

With the provision of refuge to Tibetans, an assumption, albeit flawed, was also developed that perceived Nehru’s response as primarily driven with his humanitarian endeavours, which sparked witnessing Tibetans’ plight. The flaw in such assumption becomes perceptible if one observes the domestic politics of late 1950s and developmental politics of Nehru. The sympathetic sentiments of the population for refugees loomed over Nehru’s Panchsheel obligations. In such a scenario, Nehru advanced a decisive step to brush up his political image by rendering refuge to Tibetans, saving himself from bearing the brunt of a disappointed population.

The conversations between Nehru and the Dalai Lama in Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama, if one manages to read between the lines, also reveal the confusingly reluctant, and somewhat aggressive, attitude of Nehru constantly reminding His Holiness of the short period of his stay in India. What changed, then? If I quote the Dalai Lama, from his autobiography, “his humanitarian instincts win him over”. Could it only be humanitarianism? Or could it also be the augmenting of international support and lining up of funds for the Dalai Lama and his community? Tibetan refugee community possesses high economic and political value. It would be nothing but befooling ourselves if one overlooks the instrumental role Tibetan refugee community played for political and economic gains India made through the provision of refuge.

Some might also try to defend Indian hospitality by stating the Citizenship Amendment Act of 1986, which allows the Tibetans to become Indian citizens, on their volition. They fail to come to terms with the fact that the Act indeed came into existence in response to Bangladesh immigrants, and not keeping in sight the vulnerable position of Tibetan refugees. Although bestowal of benefits with citizenship status is irrefutable, the formation of a strong, what Gandhi calls, “Tibetan constituency” producing major impact on electoral outcomes, if not improbable, still needs to be studied.

It is surprising how the widely extolled humanitarian values of the Indian government, worth an ‘applause’, instantly disappears in particular occasions – the internal displacement of thousands of families, in 1950s and 1960s, caused by the construction of Bhakra Nangal Dam, Hirakud Dam and Rihad Dam; the deportation of Rohingya refugees; forced repatriation of Sri Lankan refugees; and the list goes on.

The intention is not to take a wholly pessimistic view, dismissing any assistance whatsoever being provided by the Indian government to refugees, but to contradict the ‘pure humanitarian’ image of the Indian state. Indira Gandhi, for instance, had set a magnificent account in the way she tackled Bangladesh refugee crisis, in the absence of international support.

While addressing the displaced families of Hirakud Dam in 1948, Nehru had notoriously said, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” Governments have changed, their manifestos have changed, but the essence of every government has remained the same. No matter if you are a citizen, denizen, refugee or a migrant, your sufferings are measured and thereby justified using the scale determining state’s interests.

Today, the times when the government is adamantly after turning the economic, social and institutional system upside down, when the personalities and their speeches of hatred are being despisingly adulated, it is hard to easily speculate its next move in any sphere. The point is not only to condemn government’s equivocating official statements, but also to mull over as to how long the Tibetans would remain a politically and economically significant category for Indian government.

Hemaadri Singh Rana is pursuing PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include forced migration, refugee crisis, philosophy and climate change. Email:


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2 Responses to “Indian Hospitality: Time to look beyond the humanitarian aspect”

  1. parwatisingari

    Is this a part of your greater work Hemaadri, the things you have brought out are interesting though a bit nebulous for a random reader.

  2. Animesh Shukla

    Very good piece. It would be interesting to look the Tibetan Refugee issue in the light of the fascinating argument of Hannah Arendt where she argues that the true tragedy of a refugee is that in the absence of concrete legal or political rights he only has vague humanitarian rights, which only result in refugees being treated arbitrarily. Keep writing.


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