Former ICKCBI Fellow on Indian refugee politics | Shreya Sen


We’re always excited to receive new articles and research updates from our network of scholars. This latest update comes from one of our former ICKCBI graduate students, Shreya Sen, who has just published an opinion piece in Refugee Review titled “Understanding India’s refusal to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention.”

Here is an excerpt from her latest piece:

India is the largest refugee receiving country in South Asia. Refugee groups that have sought asylum in India include Tibetans, the Tamil from Sri Lanka, Partition refugees from erstwhile East and West Pakistan, the Chakmas from Bangladesh, Bhutanese refugees from Nepal, Afghans, Rohinyga and other refugees from Myanmar and refugees from Somalia, DRC and Sudan. In spite of having such a substantive asylum seeking and refugee population, India is a not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. Neither has any domestic legislation in India been passed to protect refugees. The fate of individual refugees in India is essentially determined by protections that are made available under the Indian Constitution. The question often raised is why India, like several other nations in South Asia, has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention. This article analyzes a number of scholastic arguments that have been made to explain India’s refusal to accede to the Convention, and examines the existing legal set-up for refugees in India in order to arrive at an understanding of the context of non-accession. This opinion paper concludes that India will likely never be party to the Convention despite hosting numerous refugees on its soil, and argues that uniform domestic protection legislation must be enacted.

You can read the whole article online at Refugee Review here.

Before India

It was less than 48 hours before my flight left and I was standing at Cox and Kings Visa Application Centre asking for my visa for the 5th time that week. It was time to enter into panic mode. I knew if I didn’t get my visa by tomorrow I would miss my flight, and it looked like that was a strong possibility. At this point I had made friends with the staff at the centre and was begging for a way to make sure it came tomorrow. One of the guys put his hand over his mouth and mumbled “Consulate, basement, go to window 2.” I had a final in less than an hour but it was down to the wire and decided to just go for it. I jumped in a cab and got up to the consulate by central park and started thinking maybe this was a bad plan and I would miss my final but as the great minds of our generation say: YOLO. I saw the stairs leading down to the basement were roped off. Not sure what got into me, but I climbed over the little wall and jumped onto the stairs, ran through the metal detector setting off the alarm and walked straight past the security guard to window 2. Note to anyone who wants to get into the thief field: the Indian Consulate is remarkably easy to break into. I summoned the (fake) tears and stated my problem to the woman behind the glass. She asked why I had booked my ticket before I got my visa despite the website saying not to do that and I started to explain the email said my visa would be ready in time which immediately lost her interest. Then I just said “because I’m an idiot.” She seemed to like that and sent someone to go look into my visa.

Preparing to go to India was a mission and a half. Between finding out a few weeks before my plane left and thus being pressed for time, being in the thick of finals, finishing my internship and having to do a trip back to Canada to deal with an almost expired passport, things were pretty hectic. But aside from all of that, how does one even prepare to go to India? I had no idea what to expect. I started asking friends and family for their thoughts and got a whole slew of advice. I got lists from people who had traveled and worked there, my parents, the lady at the bank, my Dad’s cab driver. Everyone had something to say. Most of the advice was safety and food related, making me think I had a strong possibility of being kidnapped/raped/deathly ill within the first few hours of arriving. A girl my age who had traveled in Dehli last summer said she felt unsafe all the time. The advice ranged from cautious to extremely cautious. Some of the most common pieces of advice were:

  • Never take rickshaws, the subway, buses or cabs.
  • If I get in a cab to take a photo of the driver, license plate and send all the information to my parents. – Others said the only safe way to get around was to get a driver.
  • I was told not to go out after 7 pm, or if I must go with a group.
  • Do not go to the market by yourself.
  • Do not go anywhere with someone you do not know (this is going to be interesting since I do not know anyone).
  • Carry all your money in a money pouch attached to the inside of your shirt.
  • Do not drink the water, only bottled water
  • Do not buy food from street vendors, eat as much hotel food as possible it is usually safe
  • No fruits or vegetables unless they have been cooked

A lot of people who gave me advice had never even been to India. This is interesting because it is a reflection of how the West views India. India is negatively portrayed in the media; we hear all these stories of rape, severe illness, theft and danger. The most common response I got when I said I was going was “Why? Don’t get raped.” I joked with a friend and said “why doesn’t everyone keep saying that to me!” and he said “it’s not you, it’s India.” But is it really India? Or is it just our skewed perception of India? The people I spoke to who are actually from India kept saying “it’s fine, you’ll be fine. It’s not like everyone says it is.” I didn’t believe them.
Either way, as a 20 year old girl travelling alone I will exercise caution. After getting all these warnings and lectures, I’m also nervous as hell right now. I have friends of my fathers friend picking me up from the airport and housing with an American expat family organized, so at least that’s a starting point and I’ll figure it out from there, only time will tell. Let the adventure begin.

Advice to fellow travelers:

  1. Apply for visa as early as possible, hopefully you can wait to book your plane ticket until after you get your visa. If it’s not coming for some reason, go directly to the consulate, down to the basement and to window 2, and tell them you’re an idiot and hope they take pity on you.
  2. Go to Cox and Kings early. Walk in hours are between 9 am and noon Monday through Friday. They only accept a certain number of walk in appointments, so go around 7:30 am (at the absolute latest). You will see a lot of people lining up outside waiting for 9 am when the guard will escort small numbers upstairs.
  3. To pick up your visa the hours are between 3-6 pm (despite what it says on the website, learned this one the hard way.) Download a movie on your phone, bring a book and go for about 2:15 at the latest. Going early is way better than having to wait until they go through 50 people before you and then find out that they are closed and you have to go the next day. Fortunately it never happened to me but was a common horror story repeated in the Cox and Kings line up.
  4. Want to avoid all this hassle and just mail it in? Bad plan. Lots of people were saying their applications got lost (along with their passports!) when they had done this and missed their flights and their trips. It’s a lot of time but absolutely worth going in person. Think of it as your introduction to the lines and crowds you will be facing in India.
  5. When you are submitting your visa forms to Cox and Kings make sure the address you put on the forms as your current address is the same as the address that is on your proof identification. So submitting a drivers licence from your hometown and having your New York address on your forms isn’t going to fly, the identification address needs to match your current address. I brought a passport (no address), a lease and two utility bills. They prefer utility bills over a lease, so go for that if you have it. Note they do not accept Time Warner bills, it has to be a water, heat, electricity bill, etc.
  6. Fill out every single form listed on the Cox and Kings website. They’re going to take about half of them but apparently it just depends on the day, better to be prepared than have to go back.

4th Annual Emerging Scholars Symposium – India

The India China Institute recently wrapped up our 4th Annual Interdisciplinary Emerging Scholars Symposium at Panjab University in India. For those not able to attend, here are a few photos of the event.

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Tourist Prices: Dual Pricing for a Good Cause?

Dual Pricing

The first time, I encountered the concept of a “tourist price” in India was by coincidence. My wife and I went to buy a leather bag in one of the many leather stores in Mumbai. My wife is from Mumbai, which proved to be significant. After a short look on the tag, the vendor gave us a much lower price. “That price is just for tourists.” We probably still overpaid in the end, but the notion that tourists should pay more in India turned out to be a pervasive concept, even though it is enacted in quite different ways.

The next time I ran into the “tourist price” was in New Delhi, as we visited Humayun’s Tomb. At the entrance, it stated clearly a low Indian entry-fee and a significantly higher tourist fare (see photo). The same applies to the Taj Mahal in Agra and actually every official, public, state-run tourist site in India.

One can argue about the (non)sense of having a local and a tourist fee for public sites. I actually think it is only fair to enable cheap (or better free) access to cultural and heritage sites for the local residents, while the tourists end up paying for the upkeep of these sites. This system acknowledges on the one hand the resident’s ownership over these sites, and on the other hand the sites reflects the commercial capacity in terms of tourism. The dual pricing therefore expresses the dual existence of tourist sites.

The problem with this dual pricing is that it seemingly applies to everything in India and is by far not as lucid and clear as in the case of the entrance fees to tourist sites. A soft-drink on the street, a taxi ride in Delhi, a bag in the market or a souvenir in the bazaar – everything has two different prices, and mostly this difference is not made explicit.  One might say this is just the way things are done in India, as it is a bargaining economy at large. Every price is up for debate. The idea that one product has one price does not exist, and even locals constantly haggle and get hustled. But having flexible pricing is not the same as a dual pricing system. Tourists will (almost) never be able to get the price the locals pay, as they just don’t have the knowledge of what that price should be.

For the Indian travel industry, this pervasive dual pricing presents a significant issue. In my interviews with local travel agents and tour operators this lack of price clarity came up almost immediately, as my respondents claimed it creates a permanent uncertainty. To put it more clearly: Tourists supposedly feel constantly cheated as they experience India. Through their associations, the travel industry lobbies on the federal and state level for a stronger control of prices and commercial activities at least around the main tourist sites and cities.

In short: The Indian travel industry wants the government to eliminate the dual pricing system for tourists, at least in its unofficial capacity. The state should enforce a “fairer” treatment of tourists. This is quite ironic, as the state runs an official dual pricing scheme, which in part legitimates the actions of private individuals to copy this practice

Taj Mahal: Global Icon and Local Economies

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is stunning, beautiful and breathtaking. I chose a trip to this world-famous tomb, as it is India’s most recognizable tourist site, a true global icon and vivid part of the global imaginary.

The Taj Majal, situated in the city of Agra, the former Mogul seat of power just three train-hours outside of New Delhi, is the epicenter of the region’s economy. It is quite fascinating to weave through all the layers and flows of economic activity that are tied around this architectural masterpiece. From local beggars to global marketers, generations of craftsman to travel agencies in Queens – the Taj sits like a spider in its web of commercial activity.

Tourist sites are works of translation. Here a myriad of actors translate history, landscapes, traditions, infrastructure and the lives of thousands of people (past, present and future) into a commoditized space. The function of this space is to produce and facilitate consumption of various forms.

During my two days in Agra, I experienced and observed various networks evolving around the different practices of consumption one can find in a tourist destination. All these instances of consumption follow different rules that enable their reproduction over time with changing actors (tourists) as continuous relations of consumption, production and exchange that make-up the tourist site Taj Mahal.

As my research is focusing on the role of the state within the triangle of the tourist and private industry, I was quite surprised by the various forms, in which the state appears in these relations. One of the most interesting ones is probably how the state on the one hand closes off certain spaces, while it on the other hand creates and endorses other spaces for specific practices.

Taj certificate

The grounds of the Taj Mahal for example are off limits for the exchange of money. That does not mean that there is no economic activity going on. Photographers for example take pictures of tourists, which are then sold outside of the gates. These photographers are licensed by the state, even tough the final transaction of the relation to the tourist is removed from the inner circle of the tourist site.

Certain consumption spaces on the other hand are clearly endorsed by the state. A few craft shops for example are “state/government” shops. The local guides use these words often to create trust for the tourist. The attachment of the word “government” to a shop is supposed to make it a safe space for ‘fair’ exchange. Within the local structures of competition amongst craft shops, these “state/government” shops become privileged and dominant, creating an order that is not necessarily based on price and quality of goods, but the perception of trustworthiness.

These are just two specific arrangements of many, which I have sketched out here. They have ripple effects throughout Agra and if one follows the flows of people, goods and money that pass through these local economies, one will soon end up at intersections between them and could trace them to unexpected places far away. It is this interconnectivity that makes tourist sites such fascinating places to study. And it is also this interconnectivity that makes the actors closest to the site (and most dependent on it) the most vulnerable to changes within the network of relations.

The “Third World” Trope: Avoiding Undertones of Neocolonialism in International Advocacy Media

Advocacy media is an undeniably effective way to start a dialogue around issues of social inequality and discrimination, but has the potential for detrimental misrepresentation when done tactlessly. While effective media campaigns can raise awareness of issues on a global scale, the fear of falling into the “Sally Struthers” trope of dehumanizing your subjects is always a dangerous possibility, especially in the context on international work. Advocacy media that focuses too heavily on the direness of human circumstances often objectifies the people it intends to help in a way that is not only demeaning, but perpetuates harmful stereotypes that shape global perceptions. These misconceptions, along with the entire construction of the “third world” label, only serve to sustain Eurocentric hegemony and international class divides. Stereotypes such as these are dangerous, self-fulfilling, prophecies that can be detrimental to the development of communities facing systemic ethnic, racial, gender, or class based discrimination.

One of the most effective ways to create representations of people facing inequality without dehumanizing them as hapless victims is to promote the creation of advocacy media through self-representation. By empowering local activists and community members to begin to use media resources to tell their story to the world, rather than having outsiders portray their community through externally produced representation, we can promote reform and raise awareness without facilitating the neocolonial class divides and the trope of the “third world” victim. Similar to participatory design—a core practice of my program the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, the core goal of this form of media activism is to help people help themselves rather than build sympathy for the destitute “other.”

This is one of the core reasons I am so excited to be working with Nazdeek this summer in Delhi to help build frameworks for educating community members and activists on media documentation for advocacy. Nazdeek has noted the importance of media as part of the advocacy process that can shine light on abuse, highlight corruption, and aid in the process of legal empowerment.  With Nazdeek, we have an amazing opportunity to help disseminate knowledge of how and when to use media to document rights violations in cases of police brutality and wrongful eviction in Delhi slums—the project that Nazdeek will be focusing on this summer. Proper media documentation of these issues can be used not only as a way to expose corruption and rights violations, but also as a way to build strong visual evidence for the litigation process, helping to ensure that victims can pursue proper legal redress.

This form of grassroots media activism is a fundamental first step in ensuring underserved communities can develop self-sustaining agency and begin to benefit from the fundamental human rights they are entitled to. Rather than showing the world a group of underprivileged individuals with limited options, we will work mobilize a community to push for internal action in the hopes of combating these instances of systemic inequality in a sustainable manner.

I think this project is going to pose a lot of difficult challenges, especially as a white, male, western, outsider, who is only going to be there for a short amount of time. There is an issue of trust that I am sure will be a challenging hurdle to overcome when working with communities in some of the poorest areas in Delhi. These are already instances that I have begun to encounter just in the process of reaching out to advocacy groups—local activists seem to be wary of westerners who are interested in social change, as I am sure past instances of “advocacy” have been demeaning and generally exploitative. But I am so fortunate to have been connected to a passionate and impactful organization such as Nazdeek, and I hope that I can really benefit the work they do during my time in Delhi this summer.

State-Permeated Capitalism in China and India – Talk w/ Tobias ten Brink

Politics Talk: Tobias ten Brink

Tuesday, April 15 @ 6:00 pm

Wolff Conference Room
6 East 16th Street, Room 1103, New York

Tobias_ten_BrinkThe Politics Department at The New School for Social Research presents Tobias ten Brink, Heuss Lecturer Department of Politics, NSSR  and Senior Researcher Frankfurt University, who will deliver a talk entitled: “State-Permeated Capitalism in China and India: A Global Political Economy Perspective.”

Tobias ten Brink just earned his “Habilitation” on “Capitalist Development in China” from the Goethe-University Frankfurt. In 2012/13 he was a Visiting Scholar at the MIT, Cambridge (Department of Political Science), and at Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China. Since 2012 he has been a senior researcher at the DFG-project “A ‘BICS’-Variety of Capitalism? The Emergence of State-Permeated Market Economies in Large Emerging Countries.”

He belongs to a new generation of researchers who systematically use insights from the comparative and international study of capitalisms for the analysis of China and other large emerging economies. He also conducts research on questions of the transformation of the state and the state system.

His articles have appeared in Critical Asian Studies, dms – der moderne staat, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, China: An International Journal, Leviathan and Critique Internationale. His book Geopolitik, which he wrote at the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, has been awarded by the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in the category “Humanities international” in 2010.  Recent Books include Global Political Economy and the Modern State System, 2014, Leiden/Boston: Brill. Chinas Kapitalismus. Entstehung, Verlauf, Perspektiven [China’s Capitalism: Emergence, Trajectory, Paradoxes], 2013, Frankfurt/New York: Campus.

3rd Annual India China Conversations Symposium, April 14th

ES Feb2014  UpdatedThe Third Interdisciplinary Symposium for Emerging Scholars on India China Studies is part of the India China Institute’s continuing commitment to build a community of scholars who are engaged in research that focuses on new and innovative approaches to understanding India-China relations. The Emerging Scholars program also draws on The New School’s tradition of fostering horizontal and vertical knowledge sharing across disciplines and amongst scholars in different stages of their careers. read on

Anti-Corruption Movements in China and India (Video)

We had a great recent event featuring Dissent Magazine contributor Mehboob Jeelani, Dissent Magazine Editorial Member Jeff Wasserstrom, The New Yorker Contributor Jiayang Fan, and Jonathan Shainin, Web editor at The New Yorker. The event was moderated by ICI Academic Co-Director Mark Frazier. For anyone interested in issue of political change and transformation in China and India, especially as they relate to movements for transparency, accountability and social reform, there was lots of lively talk and exchange among the participants.

In case you missed the event, you can watch a recording of the talk and discussion below.

Sukhadeo Thorat discusses higher education in India

Thorat Sukhadeo eventThe India China Institute had the great fortune recently to host one of India’s premier education scholars in India, Sukhadeo Thorat. His areas of research include agricultural development, rural poverty, institution and economic growth, problems of marginalized groups, economics of caste system, caste discrimination and poverty, human development, education, the issue of slums, labor market discrimination, and the economic ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Professor Thorat is currently professor of Economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, both in New Delhi, India.

His talk focused on the state of higher education in India today, as well as some of the recent trends over the past two decades, with an emphais on how gender, caste, class background and geographic location impact access to and support for education. He also discussed some of the changes in the educational landscape, including the increase of private, English-language based universities, or what are called “deemed universities” in India.

For those interested, you can read his advanced discussion paper here (PDF).

In case you missed the event, don’t worry. You can listen to his talk below as an mp3.

Or if you prefer, you can watch the whole talk below on our YouTube channel.

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