1. People are free to choose religion: SC
Court refuses to entertain petition on conversions
The Supreme Court on Friday said people are free to choose their religion, even as it lashed out at a “very, very harmful kind” of “public interest” petition claiming there is mass religious conversion happening “by hook or by crook” across the country.
Instead, a Bench, led by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, said people have a right under the Constitution to profess, practise and propagate religion.
“Why should a person above 18 years not choose his religion? What kind of a writ petition is this? We will impose heavy costs on you… Withdraw it or argue and risk the consequences,” Justice Nariman told petitioner-advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay.
Justice Nariman reminded Mr. Upadhyay of the fundamental right under Article 25 of the Constitution to freely profess, practise and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health. “Why do you think there is the word ‘propagate’?” Justice Nariman asked the petitioner.
Religious conversion is being done through a “carrot-and-stick” approach, Mr. Uapdhyay had claimed in his petition.
Justice Nariman said every person is the final judge of his/her choice of religion or who their life partner should be. Courts cannot sit in judgment of a person’s choice of religion or life partner.
Religious faith is a part of the fundamental right to privacy.
Justice Nariman reminded Mr. Upadhyay of the Constitution Bench judgment which upheld inviolability of the right to privacy, equating it with the rights to life, of dignity and liberty.
Mr. Upadhyay’s petition was dismissed as withdrawn. His pleas to approach the Law Commission or the High Court with the petition was not expressly allowed by the Bench.
Right to Freedom of Religion
The Constitution of India guarantees the right to freedom of religion to not only individuals but also religious groups in India. This is enshrined in Articles 25 to 28.
Article 25 (Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion)
Article 25 guarantees the freedom of conscience, the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate religion to all citizens.
- The above-mentioned freedoms are subject to public order, health, and morality.
- This article also gives a provision that the State can make laws:
- That regulates and restricts any financial, economic, political, or other secular activity associated with any religious practice.
- That provides for the social welfare and reform or opening up of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all sections and classes of Hindus. Under this provision, Hindus are construed as including the people professing the Sikh, Jain, or Buddhist religions, and Hindu institutions shall also be construed accordingly.
- People of the Sikh faith wearing & carrying the kirpan shall be considered as included in the profession of the Sikh religion.
Article 26 (Freedom to manage religious affairs)
This Article provides that every religious denomination has the following rights, subject to morality, health, and public order.
- The right to form and maintain institutions for religious and charitable intents.
- The right to manage its own affairs in the matter of religion.
- The right to acquire the immovable and movable property.
- The right to administer such property according to the law.
Article 27 (Freedom as to payment of taxes for promotion of any particular religion)
According to Article 27 of the Constitution, there can be no taxes, the proceeds of which are directly used for the promotion and/or maintenance of any particular religion/religious denomination.
Article 28 (Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions)
This article permits educational institutions that are maintained by religious groups to disseminate religious instruction.
- This provides that no religious instruction shall be provided in State-run educational institutions.
- Educational institutions administered by the State but that were established under any endowment or trust which requires that religious instruction shall be imparted in such institutions are exempt from the above clause (that no religious instruction shall be provided).
- Any person who attends any educational institution recognized by the State or receiving State aid shall not be required to participate in any religious instruction that may be imparted in such institution, or also attend any religious worship in such institutions unless he/she has given consent for the same. In the case of minors, the guardians should have given consent for the same.
The word ‘secularism’ means separate from religion.
- It entails the separation of religion from the government, social, economic, and cultural aspects of life.
- Here religion is an entirely personal matter.
- India is a secular country with no state religion.
- However, this in India also means that there is equal respect for all religions and faiths.
- The word is also a part of the Basic Structure of the Constitution. It was added by the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution.
- This concept enjoys high regard in Indian democracy.
- Secularism has also been an inalienable part of Indian culture as seen by the multitude of faiths that have co-existed in this country for centuries.
- All religious groups in India have the same powers without any discrimination.
Indian and Western Models of Secularism
The term secularism, as explained above, indicates the separation of the State from religion. This concept, however, has slightly differing connotations in the Indian and the western polity. This is discussed below.
- In the Western model, secularism connotates complete separation of the State from the Church. This owes its origin to the French Revolution where the revolution sought to establish a ‘secular’ government, one which did not influence the church or the clergy.
- Both the institutions (church and government) would not interfere in each other’s domains.
- In India, however, the State and religion are not water-tight compartments.
- Even though the State has to maintain equal distance from all religions, the influence of the government does extend to religious affairs, albeit in a limited fashion.
- Unlike the western model, where the State does not offer financial support to any religious institution, in India, the State has chosen a positive engagement model.
- The state provides religious minorities the right to establish their educational institutions, and in some cases, also extends assistance to these institutions.
- Many Hindu temples are directly governed by the State.
- The State has set up Boards for the administration of large temples and has also set up the Waqf Board, etc.
- In India, when talking about society and the community, the word pluralism is better suited than the word secularism.
- Western societies have largely been homogenous with minimal religious (and other) minority groups, until recently.
- In India, for centuries, many religious groups have shared spaces in all respects and thrived together.
2. China, Pakistan to back each other’s ‘core interests’ at UN
Both countries agree to ‘firmly safeguard multilateralism’
China and Pakistan have pledged to back each other’s “core and major interests” in the United Nations after holding bilateral consultations on UN affairs.
The countries, which describe their relationship officially as one of “all-weather partners” and “iron brothers”, have in recent months stepped in to provide crucial support to the other on issues they see as sensitive, with Beijing raising the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council and Islamabad backing China on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
The two sides on Thursday held the third round of consultations on UN affairs virtually, led by Yang Tao, Director-General of the Department of International Organisations and Conferences of China’s Foreign Ministry, and Usman Iqbal Jadoon, Director-General (United Nations) of Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry, and with their permanent missions to the UN in New York and Geneva also participating.
In a joint statement, the two countries said they would “firmly safeguard multilateralism and support the central role of the United Nations in international affairs.”
This comes amid heightened Chinese criticism of what it calls United States-led “selective multilateralism”, aimed particularly at the India, U.S., Australia and Japan Quadrilateral framework, as well as the “rules-based order” advocated by the Quad.
Peace and stability
China and Pakistan also agreed to “strengthen their cooperation on the UN and other multilateral platforms and to support each other on each side’s core and major interests, work toward the political and peaceful resolution of regional and international hotspot issues, and jointly safeguard peace and stability of the world, especially in Asia.”
The statement said they would “continue to strengthen cooperation on counter-terrorism and peacekeeping in the UN framework, by addressing the issue of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations”. China has in the past stepped in on many instances to block the listing of Pakistani terrorists at the UNSC sanctions committee..
The statement added they would “consolidate strategic coordination in the field of human rights, jointly opposing double standards and the politicisation of human rights issues, and working for the promotion and protection of all human rights in a cooperative manner.”
China in 2019 and 2020 raised the Kashmir issue at the UNSC on at least three occasions, calling for discussions in the wake of India’s dilution of Article 370, reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir and revocation of special status.
Pakistan, meanwhile, has lobbied for China’s support amid increasing criticism from western countries over Xinjiang. In October, Pakistan also made a joint statement on behalf of 55 countries at the UN “opposing interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Hong Kong.”
- One Belt One Road (OBOR) is an ambitious project that focuses on connectivity and cooperation among multiple countries spread across the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. OBOR spans about 78 countries.
- Initially announced in the year 2013, the project involves building networks of roadways, railways, maritime ports, power grids, oil and gas pipelines and associated infrastructure projects.
- The project covers two parts.
- Silk Road Economic Belt: It is land-based and is expected to connect China with Central Asia, Eastern Europe and Western Europe.
- 21st Century Maritime Silk Road: It is sea-based and is expected to connect China’s southern coast to the Mediterranean, Africa, South-East Asia and Central Asia.
Stated Official Benefits
- China continues to pitch OBOR as project for regional development involving Infrastructure development to enhance transnational and cross-regional connectivity as a priority area for cooperation.
- Economic and trade cooperation among OBOR countries.
- Expansion of production capacity and investment cooperation among the OBOR countries.
- Cooperation and exchanges in cultural, social and other fields.
Advantages of OBOR for China
- It will help China in developing its western region, ensuring safe navigation over sea and improving strategic and economic relations with neighbouring and far-west countries.
- It will help China secure access to energy and mineral supplies allowing China to overcome the “Malacca Dilemma” through access to maritime facilities in the Indian Ocean, granting it an important strategic advantage
- OBOR will strengthen China’s presence in the Eurasian region and puts it in a commanding position over Asia’s heartland.
Potential Advantages to India
- It will help India’s border and outlying areas to develop infrastructure that it presently lacks.
- Funds from financial institutions may be more easily available and support from China and its infrastructure construction companies may also then be readily available.
- This project will help Improve connectivity with India’s neighbours improving economic, diplomatic and strategic relationship.
Issues with OBOR
- Implementation of this project will take many years to complete and also carries risks of failure.
- OBOR’s financing is through loans extended to member countries. Chinese Loans for infrastructure projects are made with understanding that the developing countries award construction contracts to Chinese companies.
- China benefits from both financing and construction of infrastructure projects, while developing countries will bear the financial risk.
- The Centre for Global Development in Washington reckons that eight belt-and-road countries are at risk of debt distress; among them are Laos, Mongolia and Pakistan.
- China will acquire controlling interests in the ports if member countries fail to repay the loans. This situation can prove strategically disadvantageous to member countries.
- The CPEC is bilateral project between Pakistan and China, intended to promote connectivity across Pakistan with a network of highways, railways, and pipelines accompanied by energy, industrial, and other infrastructure development projects linking the Western part of China to the Gwadar Port in Balochistan, Pakistan running some 3000 km from Xinjiang to Balochistan via Khunjerab Pass in the Northern Parts of Pakistan.
- It will pave the way for China to access the Middle East and Africa from Gwadar Port, enabling China to access the Indian Ocean and in return China will support development projects in Pakistan to overcome the latter’s energy crises and stabilizing its faltering economy.
- CPEC is a part of OBOR.
Issues with CPEC
- CPEC Passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Baluchistan, both of which are home to a long-running insurgency where it faces terrorism and security risks.
- China would also disseminate its ideology and culture in Pakistan through terrestrial distribution of broadcast TV, which will cooperate with Chinese media in the “dissemination of Chinese culture”. A similar Sinification is visible in the Mandalay town of Myanmar which has impacted local architecture and culture.
- CPEC project’s lack of transparency and accountability is a cause of concern, as it may be skewed in favour of China economically and strategically.
- Chinese approach of not partnering with local companies will not help Pakistan create job opportunities.
- The project may undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty as its foreign policy, especially with India may be dictated by China, complicating the already estranged relations and create political instability in the South Asia;
- The political tension in Afghanistan also may severely impede the benefits of transit corridors in South Asia.
India’s Objections to OBOR-CPEC
- India has not supported OBOR. China’s insistence on establishing the CPEC project through PoK is seen by India as infringing its sovereignty.
- China is building roads and infrastructure in the disputed territory of Gilgit-Balistan, which is under Pakistan’s control but which India claims as a part of Jammu and Kashmir.
- If CPEC project gets implemented successfully, this would hamper India’s strategic interests in the South Asian region. It will serve Beijing’s strategic ambition to encircle India.
- CPEC can aid Pakistan’s legitimacy in the Kashmir dispute.
- China’s increasing footprints in the South Asian region is detrimental to India’s strategic hold e.g. construction of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka provided China critical strategic location in Indian Ocean.
3. Bhutan, China to schedule boundary discussions soon
The coming talks will be the first since the Doklam standoff
Bhutan and China have agreed to set up the next round of much-delayed boundary talks between them “as soon as possible” and discussed a roadmap for expediting the boundary resolution, a joint release of the 10th Expert Group Meeting (EGM) on the Bhutan-China Boundary held in Kunming announced on Friday. The upcoming talks, the 25th round of the boundary talks mechanism, will be the first since the Doklam standoff in 2017, and the first since China made new claims on Bhutan’s eastern boundary bordering Arunachal Pradesh in June 2020.
“The EGM was held in a warm and friendly atmosphere, and held in-depth and fruitful discussions on the boundary issue in keeping with the close ties of friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and China,” a joint statement issued in Kunming at the end of talks between senior officials from April 6-9 said.
“The two sides agreed to continue to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas pending a final settlement of the boundary issue,” it added, referring to the annual boundary talk mechanism that began in 1984, and was followed by two agreements on the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the border areas in 1988 and 1998.
Since then, 24 rounds of talks have been held, but there have been no talks scheduled since 2016, ostensibly due to tensions over the Doklam standoff between India and China over PLA transgressions in Bhutanese territory, and more recently due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The previous 9th round of the ECG was also held prior to the Doklam standoff, in April 2017 in Beijing.
The talks have thus far focused on two areas of dispute: Pasamlung and Jakarlung valleys to the North of Bhutan and Doklam to the West of Bhutan, along the tri-junction with India. However, at a UN environmental meeting in June 2020, China raised an objection to a grant for Bhutan’s Sakteng Sanctuary to the East frontier as well, saying that it was disputed as well.
In a rare public statement on the issue, the Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi, which handles relations with a number of countries including China, had said that “all disputed areas” would be discussed in the next round of boundary talks.
China-Bhutan Border Dispute
- The Sino-Bhutanese relationship normally flies under the radar. Bhutan has the distinction of being the only other country apart from India with which China has an unsettled land border.
- It is also the only state to border China that does not have official diplomatic ties with Beijing. But despite this lack of official relations, the two sides have worked for years to arrive at a resolution to their border disputes, which until now primarily focused on areas in the central and western sectors.
- The western sector dispute — over the Doklam plateau — has received the most attention after the 2017 India-China standoff there. The central sector disputes — over areas known as Jakarlung and Pasamlung — have received less attention comparatively.
- Even without formal diplomatic ties, Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of border talks between their envoys; talks that have been frozen since their last round in 2016, partly due to the heightened tensions that erupted during the Doklam standoff. A 25th round is yet to take place.
Eastern sector claim:
- The addition of the eastern sector is notable as this has not been part of the agenda across the 24 rounds of China-Bhutan border talks. The China’s MFA statement’s inclusion of the eastern sector came shortly after the government of Bhutan issued a demarche to China after a Chinese delegate at the 58th Global Environment Facility Council, held earlier this summer, referred to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, an area in eastern Bhutan, as disputed.
- The claim itself may have some basis in history, but not one well supported by official Chinese maps. Back in 2017, in the course of studying the Sino-Indian and Sino-Bhutanese disputes over Doklam, it came across at least one older, unofficial Chinese map that portrayed a capacious dispute in the eastern sector.
- Now, that view has changed in Beijing. The political geography of the area in question bears underscoring: Given that India fully administers Arunachal Pradesh, even if Bhutan were to unilaterally cede this area, it would amount to an enclave without any direct border with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region.
The complicating factors:
- The novelty of China’s claim in its dispute with Bhutan has already raised eyebrows, but there are other complicating factors here.
- First, the purported eastern sector dispute over the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, in geographic terms, would be the single largest tranche of disputed territory across all sectors in the China-Bhutan context, representing about 11 percent of the territory currently administered by the Bhutanese government.
- Second, the territory in question abuts the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is itself claimed in its near entirety as part of Tibet.
- Not only is this the case, but the Sakteng area specifically borders Arunachal’s western Tawang region, which China has particularly prioritized in negotiations with India; arguably, Tawang is the least negotiable piece of territory for Beijing in the entirety of the eastern sector.
Background of Border issues between Bhutan and China
- Early Chinese territorial claims on Bhutan: Chinese claims on Bhutanese territory were first made when Mao Zedong declared in the original 1939 version of The Chinese Revolution and the Communist Party that “the correct boundaries of China would include Burma, Bhutan, and Nepal”.
- The annexation of Bhutanese enclaves: In July 1959, along with the occupation of Tibet, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army occupied several Bhutanese enclaves in western Tibet which were under Bhutanese administration for more than 300 years and had been given to Bhutan by a Ladakhi King Singye Namgyal in the 17th
- Chinese map claiming territories in Bhutan: A Chinese map published in 1961 showed China claiming territories in Bhutan, Nepal, and the Kingdom of Sikkim. Incursions by Chinese soldiers and Tibetan herdsmen also provoked tensions in Bhutan. Imposing a cross-border trade embargo and closing the border, Bhutan established extensive military ties with India.
- Engagement: Until the 1970s, India represented Bhutan’s concerns in talks with China over the broader Sino-Indian border conflicts. Obtaining membership in the United Nations in 1971, Bhutan began to take a more independent course in its foreign policy. In 1984, China and Bhutan began annual, direct talks over the border dispute. However, China’s building of roads on what Bhutan asserts to be Bhutanese territory, allegedly in violation of the 1998 agreement, has provoked tensions.
- On 11 August 2016 Bhutan Foreign Minister Damcho Dorji visited Beijing, capital of China, for the 24th round of boundary talks with Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. Both sides made comments to show their readiness to strengthen co-operations in various fields and hope of settling the boundary issues.
- Doklam crisis, 2017: When China started constructing a road in the disputed area of Doklam, Bhutan asked for help from India and it sent the army to stop the construction. The military standoff in the area lasted more than two months. However, after diplomatic conversations between the two sides, both countries agreed to withdraw troops from the region.
- Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary: China raised a new dispute over territory in June 2020 that has never come up in boundary talks earlier. Beijing objected to the grant for Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district bordering India and China, claiming that the location was disputed, during the virtual meeting of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in the first week of June.
4. Nod required for exercises: India
MEA responds to U.S. 7th Fleet statement on manoeuvres near Lakshadweep
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in a statement on Friday that the Government of India’s stated position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is that the Convention “does not authorise other States to carry out in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state”.
The MEA was responding to a statement by the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet on April 7 that its ship the USS John Paul Jones had carried out Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the Indian EEZ in the western Indian Ocean.
The statement said: “India requires prior consent for military exercises or manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law.”
Stating that the USS John Paul Jones was “continuously monitored” transiting from the Persian Gulf towards the Malacca Straits, the MEA added, “We have conveyed our concerns regarding this passage through our EEZ to the Government of U.S.A through diplomatic channels.”
As per the annual FONOP reports released by the U.S. Department of Defence for each fiscal year, the U.S. has been regularly conducting FONOPs in Indian EEZ. The U.S. similarly carries out FONOPs against several other countries including its allies and partners. From 2007 onwards till 2017, the U.S. carried out multiple FONOPs every year challenging “excessive” Indian maritime claims.
A South Block official, on condition of anonymity, said it is only when it is “military manoeuvres” in our EEZ that we need nations to seek our permission and not if you are simply transiting through. And, the term military manoeuvres is not defined anywhere, the official added.
A second official, also on condition of anonymity, said it was the statement issued on the FONOP which was surprising more than the FONOP itself.
Commenting on the development, former Navy chief Adm. Arun Prakash tweeted: “While India ratified UNCLOS in 1995, the U.S. has failed to do it so far. For the 7th Fleet to carry out FoNOPs missions in Indian EEZ in violation of our domestic law is bad enough. But publicising it? USN please switch on IFF (Identification, friend or foe)!”
Raising an important issue, Adm. Prakash said FONOPs by U.S. Navy ships, “ineffective as they may be,” in South China Sea (SCS), are meant to “convey a message to China that the putative EEZ” around the artificial SCS islands is an “excessive maritime claim.” “But what is the 7th Fleet message for India?” he asked.
Joint Military Exercises
The details of joint military exercises conducted with foreign countries during the last three years and the current year are as under:
Joint Exercises conducted by Army:
|1.||Australia||Ex AUSTRA HIND|
|3.||China||Ex HAND IN HAND|
|5.||Indonesia||Ex GARUDA SHAKTI|
|6.||Kazakhstan||Ex PRABAL DOSTYK|
|9.||Mongolia||Ex NOMADIC ELEPHANT|
|11.||Nepal||Ex SURYA KIRAN|
|15.||Sri Lanka||Ex MITRA SHAKTI|
|17.||UK||Ex AJEYA WARRIOR|
|Ex VAJRA PRAHAR|
|20.||Multinational (ADMM Plus)||Ex FORCE 18|
Joint Exercises conducted by Navy:
|3.||Brazil & South Africa||IBSAMAR|
|6.||Malaysia||IN-MN Table Top Ex|
|16||Multilateral Exercise by Brunei||ADMM+ Exercise|
|17||Multilateral Exercise by Indonesia||Ex KOMODO|
|18||Multilateral Exercise by India||MILAN|
Joint Exercises conducted by Air Force:
|1.||Bangladesh||Table Top Ex|
|2.||Israel||Ex Blue Flag-17|
|3.||Oman||Ex EASTERN BRIDGE-IV|
|5.||Singapore||JOINT MILITARY TRAINING|
|6.||Thailand||Ex SIAM BHARAT|
|9.||USA||RED FLAG 16-1|
|10.||Multinational Air Exercise||Ex Samvedna with Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, UAE|
5. Sonia writes to Javadekar on Ken-Betwa project
Congress president Sonia Gandhi has written to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to ensure that the Ken-Betwa river linking project did not get approval in its present form, as it will “irretrievably damage” the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
“Over the past decade, Panna has been revived with great difficulty. It is considered an outstanding example of translocation and successful breeding. It is now threatened by the river linking project and the State government’s open estimate is that around 40% of the area of the PTR will be irretrievably damaged,” Ms. Gandhi said in her letter dated April 3, released by the Congress on Friday. She cautioned the government against rushing as the issue had been legally challenged in the National Green Tribunal and the top court.
Panna Biosphere Reserve
- Established in 1981, PBR is located in the Panna and Chhatarpur districts of Madhya Pradesh with an area of around 540 km. sq.
- It is situated in the Vindhya mountain range in the northern part of Madhya Pradesh.
- Ken River (one of the least polluted tributaries of the Yamuna River) flows through the reserve and the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project will also be located in it.
- The region is also famous for Panna diamond mining.
Conservation and Recognition:
- 1994: The Panna National Park got the status of Project Tiger Reserve as India’s 22nd tiger reserve.
- 2011: It was notified as a Biosphere Reserve by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
- 2018: By 2018, it witnessed a remarkable turnaround in tiger population by increasing their numbers remarkably from zero estimated a decade ago.
- Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of tigers in the country followed by Karnataka and Uttarakhand.
- 2020: UNESCO included it in the Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB).
- Biosphere Reserves (BRs) are representative parts of natural and cultural landscapes extending over large areas of terrestrial or coastal/marine ecosystems or a combination thereof and representative examples of biogeographic zones/provinces.
- The idea of the biosphere reserve was initiated by UNESCO in 1974 under the MAB with the objective of obtaining international cooperation for the conservation of the biospheres.
- The first biosphere reserve of the world was established in 1979 and since then the network has increased to more than 600 in 119 countries across the world.
- A scheme called Biosphere Reserve has been implemented by the Government of India since 1986.
- Under it, financial assistance is given in a 90:10 ratio to the North Eastern Region States and three Himalayan states and in the ratio of 60:40 to other states for maintenance, improvement and development.
- The State Governments prepare the Management Action Plan which is approved and monitored by the Central MAB Committee.
- India has a total of 18 Biosphere Reserves and with the inclusion of PBR, the number of internationally designated WNBR has become 12.
- In 2000, the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve became the 1st BR from India to be included in the WNBR.
- In 2018, the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve became the 11th BR to be included in the list.
6. Editorial-1: India does have a refugee problem
It needs to clinically address the issue of refugee protection and introduce appropriate legal and institutional measures
The heart-wrenching scenes of Myanmarese citizens, including little children — fleeing from a junta bent on killing its way into power in Myanmar — being turned away at the Indian border in the Northeast has once again revived the domestic debate about refugee protection in India. The current plight of the Myanmarese has been preceded by that of another group of Myanmarese, the Rohingya. And not too long ago, the debate was dominated by the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 and its impact on those seeking refuge in India, even though new refugees would not be benefited by the law since the cut-off year of the CAA is 2014. In any case, refugee flows to India are unlikely to end any time soon given the geopolitical, economic, ethnic and religious contexts of the region. There is, therefore, an urgent need today to clinically address the issue of refugee protection in India and put in place appropriate legal and institutional measures.
Refugees versus immigrants
India has emphatically argued over time, particularly in the recent past, that illegal immigration from the neighbouring countries to India must come to an end. There is little doubt that illegal immigration is a threat to the socio-political fabric of any country, including India, with potential security implications. And yet, in this growing debate about the sources and implications of illegal immigration into the country, the issue of refugees tends to get subsumed under it or at best relegated to the backburner, neither of which do justice to the helpless people fleeing from persecution at home. While the reality is that much of the debate in the country is about the illegal immigrants, not refugees, the two categories tend to get bunched together. And because we have jumbled up the two issues over time, our policies and remedies to deal with these issues suffer from a lack of clarity as well as policy utility.
Ambiguity in the framework
The main reason why our policies towards illegal immigrants and refugees is confused is because as per Indian law, both categories of people are viewed as one and the same and are covered under the Foreigners Act, 1946 which offers a simple definition of a foreigner — “foreigner” means “a person who is not a citizen of India”. Needless to say that there are fundamental differences between illegal immigrants and refugees, but India is legally ill-equipped to deal with them separately due to a lack of legal provisions. Recall that India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee and its 1967 Protocol, the key legal documents pertaining to refugee protection.
The absence of such a legal framework also leads to policy ambiguity whereby India’s refugee policy is guided primarily by ad hocism which, of course, often has its own ‘political utility’. Ad hoc measures enable the government in office to pick and choose ‘what kind’ of refugees it wants to admit for whatever political or geopolitical reasons, and what kind of refugees it wants to avoid giving shelter, for similar reasons. At the same time, the absence of a legal framework increases the possibility of the domestic politicisation of refugee protection and complicates its geopolitical faultlines.
The absence of a clearly laid down refugee protection law also opens the door for geopolitical considerations while deciding to admit refugees or not. Consider the most recent case of Myanmarese refugees fleeing to India for protection from the junta at home. New Delhi’s concern is that if it takes a decision that irks the Generals in Naypyitaw, Beijing would get closer to the junta and use the opportunity to hurt India’s interests in Myanmar. This fear, at least partly, is what has prompted India’s decision not to admit the refugees. However, hypothetically speaking, if New Delhi had a domestic legislation regarding refugees, despite not being a signatory to the relevant international conventions, it could have tempered the expectations of the junta to return the fleeing Myanmarese.
Legal, moral complexities
India, for the most part, has had a stellar record on the issue of refugee protection, a moral tradition that has come under great stress of late. New Delhi has been one of the largest recipients of refugees in the world in spite of not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Whether or not India should be a party to these international legal instruments has been a matter of some debate in the country. A proper interpretation of the text of the 1951 Convention and the less-than-perfect western practice of refugee protection could lead one to conclude that a country like India, given its track record of refugee protection as well as a vulnerable geopolitical and socio-economic situation, need not unreservedly accede to the convention and the protocol in the way they currently stand.
For one, as is often discussed in India, the definition of refugees in the 1951 convention only pertains to the violation of civil and political rights, but not economic rights, of individuals, for instance. Put differently, a person, under the definition of the convention, could be considered if he/she is deprived of political rights, but not if he/she is deprived of economic rights. If the violation of economic rights were to be included in the definition of a refugee, it would clearly pose a major burden on the developed world. On the other hand, however, this argument, if used in the South Asian context, could be a problematic proposition for India too. And yet, this lop-sidedness is something New Delhi has traditionally highlighted, and justifiably so, as a reason for its non-accession to the treaty. The West’s lopsided obsession with civil and political rights at the cost of economic rights is a convenient excuse with little moral backing.
Second, as scholar B.S. Chimni has argued, “India should not accede to the 1951 convention at a time when the North is violating it in both letter and spirit… India should argue that their accession is conditional on the Western States rolling back the non-entrée (no entry) regime they have established over the past two decades. The non-entrée regime is constituted by a range of legal and administrative measures that include visa restrictions, carrier sanctions, interdictions, third safe-country rule, restrictive interpretations of the definition of ‘refugee’, withdrawal of social welfare benefits to asylum seekers, and widespread practices of detention.” In other words, India must use its exemplary, though less than perfect, history of refugee protection to begin a global conversation on the issue.
Let us return to the Indian context. So if we have a refugee problem, as we do, and the accession to the refugee convention, in the manner it exists today, is neither desirable nor pragmatic, what other options do we have to respond to the refugee situation we are faced with and which is increasingly getting mixed up with the raging political debate on illegal immigration into the country?
New domestic law needed
The answer perhaps lies in a new domestic law aimed at refugees. The CAA, however, is not the answer to this problem primarily because of its deeply discriminatory nature: it is morally untenable to have a discriminatory law to address the concerns of refugees who are fleeing their home country due to such discrimination in the first place. More fundamentally, perhaps, the CAA is an act in refugee avoidance, not refugee protection.
What is perhaps equally important is that such a domestic refugee law should allow for temporary shelter and work permit for refugees. This is crucial because in the absence of proper legal measures, refugee documentation, and work permit, refugees may end up becoming illegal immigrants using illicit means. Put differently, the absence of a refugee law incentivises illegal immigration into the country. New Delhi must also make a distinction between temporary migrant workers, illegal immigrants and refugees and deal with each of them differently through proper legal and institutional mechanisms. Our traditional practice of managing these issues with ambiguity and political expediency has become deeply counterproductive: It neither protects the refugees nor helps stop illegal immigration into the country.
7. Editorial-2: A disturbing order
ASI survey in Gyanvapi mosque should not be allowed to resurrect disputes buried by law
The order of a civil court in Varanasi that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct a survey to ascertain whether the Gyanvapi mosque was built over a demolished Hindu temple is an unconscionable intervention that will open the floodgates for another protracted religious dispute. The order, apparently in gross violation of the explicit legislative prohibition on any litigation over the status of places of worship, is likely to give a fillip to majoritarian and revanchist forces that earlier carried on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement over a site in Ayodhya. That dispute culminated in the country’s highest court handing over the site to the very forces that conspired to illegally demolish the Babri Masjid. The plaintiffs, who have filed a suit as representatives of Hindu faith to reclaim the land on which the mosque stands, have now succeeded in getting the court to commission an ASI survey to look for the sort of evidence that they would never have been able to adduce on their own. The order has been issued despite the fact that the Allahabad High Court reserved its order on the maintainability of the suit on March 15 and is yet to pronounce its ruling. It is not clear why the civil judge did not wait for the ruling and went ahead with his directive to the ASI.
By an order in 1997, the civil court had decided that the suit was not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which said all pending suits concerning the status of places of worship will abate and that none can be instituted. The 1991 Act also froze the status of all places of worship, barring the then disputed site in Ayodhya, as on August 15, 1947. There was another exception — any place of worship that was an archaeological site or ancient monument covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. On a revision application, another court had asked the trial court to decide afresh the question whether the suit was barred afresh “after taking evidence”. Presumably, the latest application seeking a survey by the ASI as an expert body is aimed at providing that “evidence”. Regardless of the merits of either side’s case, it ought to be clear to anyone concerned with peace and harmony in the country that the attempt to resurrect disputes buried by law is a serious setback to the cause of secularism and peaceful coexistence. That new challenges are emerging to the wisdom of Parliament in giving a statutory quietus to squabbles over religious sites is deeply disturbing.