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Rediff.com  » News » Why doesn't India stand up for rights of its Diaspora?

Why doesn't India stand up for rights of its Diaspora?

Last updated on: June 12, 2008 03:48 IST

Maya Nand had the misfortune to be on the wrong side of history three times. And so he died, shackled, untreated for diabetes, in a prison cell in Arizona, US.

Nand, a legal immigrant and green card holder, made the mistake of applying for United States citizenship. This was rejected on a technicality (a misdemeanour charge about domestic violence), and he fell into the Twilight Zone of the penal system.

Without recourse to due process, he was incarcerated and essentially, subjected to judicial murder in a privately-run prison.

This is startling because it seems like a huge miscarriage of justice, the sort legal immigrants to the most open and free society in the world should not be subjected to.

But there are several other aspects that stand out: one, that poor Maya Nand must have been especially cursed to be so violated by history three times over; two, that on the fringes of the legal system of the US there exist dark corners where people can become non-persons, to be brutalized at will; and three, that yet again, the Indian state pays no attention to the oppressed amongst its Diaspora.

Maya Nand has been the victim, so to speak, of globalization. His ancestors were indentured labourers from India, taken to work as near-slaves in the sugar-plantations of Fiji by the British.

Nand himself must have suffered serious discrimination from the indigenous Fijians, and therefore moved to the US as a refugee. Finally, with no opportunity to defend himself, he was killed, and that too in a prison run by a for-profit corporation -- and that is the unkindest cut of all.

Alarmingly, it appears that certain legal protections US citizens take for granted are not available to legal immigrant and residents. There are gray areas in the US judicial system that take away the fundamental rights of the individual, including habeas corpus, the right to a fair hearing in court, and the famous 'Miranda' rule, available to even hardened criminals, that gives you the right to remain silent, and the other equally important right to an attorney.

Nand, as a Green Card holder, was automatically entitled to these rights -- but he got none of them; instead, he was whisked away in cuffs to detention without trial.

The story of Maya Nand, and a related story about European visitors that was given prominent space in the May 15 edition of The New York Times, show there are constructs that put non-citizens into a Kafkaesque no-man's land where they are legally not on US soil even when they are physically present, and therefore normal laws, even those that can be availed by illegal immigrants, are not available to them.

Thus, they can be held indefinitely without being charged, and there is no way that anxious relatives can get reliable information about them, let alone access to them.

In a strange way, this is the mirror-image of the rationale for the post-9/11 terrorist holding facility in the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

That is another fiction where the base is not quite considered to be on US soil, and detainees are not considered either enemy combatants or prisoners of war, and therefore the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to them (let me hasten to add that I make no assumptions about the innocence or otherwise of those detained in Gitmo, I am merely observing the legal loophole used).

This also applies to other detention centres, for instance in Central Asia, where suspected terrorists have been interrogated and held. Even if there is some justification for the ill-treatment (including the infamous 'waterboarding' torture) of suspected armed terrorists, surely that does not apply to a law-abiding refugee and legal alien, who had obviously lived long enough in the US to qualify to apply for citizenship.

I was shocked when I first read of Maya Nand, and of the problems faced by European visitors. Accustomed as most of us are to the frequent proclamations about the US being the 'home of the free and the land of the brave', I could not believe such things could happen to holders of the coveted Green Card. (Although, in passing, I know some people who lied about their existing Communist Party affiliations -- a big no-no -- in their Green Card applications. I am sure they worry someone will bring this little subterfuge to the attention of those grim Homeland Security types.

Green Cards, and citizenship, can, and have been, revoked -- ask the Indian immigrants who were stripped of citizenship in the early 1900s for being Caucasian but not white).

To some extent, these excesses may be over-reactions to 9/11 and the real threat to America from terrorists abroad.

But there is a totalitarian streak in the country that explains how Japanese-Americans were put into concentration camps during World War II. There is also a tendency to apply the harshest methods to non-whites. But then, America has a violent history, including the genocide and cultural extermination of the Native American.

The latest example of this mean streak is the tough new measures applied to illegal aliens. Instead of being deported quickly to their home countries on civil charges as is the norm, 270 illegal immigrants picked up recently were charged with criminal offences and sent to jail for five months.

The New York Times in a May 24 story reported allegations of high-handedness and bullying, for instance in forcing the aliens to admit offenses and then plea-bargain. Apparently immigrants are being scapegoated for the economic troubles in the US. No wonder there is a 'reverse brain-drain' to emerging Asia.

But there is an even sorrier state of affairs in India. On the one hand, India treats its illegal immigrants -- even those accused of terrorism -- with kid gloves. They are certainly treated no worse than native-born and law-abiding Indian citizens.

On the other hand, India is only interested in its Diaspora in a crude and grasping manner: It remembers the 20-million-strong overseas Indian community only to beg them for their money. This is hypocritical and unbecoming.

Why does India not stand up for the rights of its Diaspora and demand that the record be set right on historical wrongs? Four years ago, Indian-origin Sikh priest Khem Singh, 72 years old and crippled, was starved to death in another American prison in Fresno, California. Before that, there was Charanjit Singh Aujla, shot to dead by plainclothes policemen in Jefferson, Mississippi. And Navroze Mody, who was beaten to death in Hoboken, New Jersey, by racists chanting 'dot-head'.

On a more global scale, there have been many incidents of oppression, religious and economic, against Indian-origin people in Fiji; they have had no option but to flee. There was violence against Indians in Uganda, Kenya, etc, in East Africa, again turning many into refugees; and even before that, Indians were ejected from Burma.

Indian citizens are routinely kidnapped and murdered in Afghanistan. In the Persian Gulf, there have been riots where unpaid and ill-treated Indian workers have had to resort to violence to get their wages. Indian-origin Tamils are continuously being brutalized in religious violence in Malaysia.

The Indian government has never raised its voice in support of its Diaspora in any of these cases. Perhaps that was acceptable when India was a starving banana republic, holding out a begging bowl for PL-480 corn flour and powdered milk.

But this is not acceptable when India aspires to be a major power. An Indian naval battle group steaming into the Straits of Malacca or appearing off the coast of Fiji would send a strong message: that India has the means and the will to punish bad behavior. But today, India is seen as the ultimate soft State.

Go back to an earlier time, and the event that showed Indians that the British imperialists were truly evil: April 13, 1919, Jallianwalla Bagh. The Indian government has never demanded even an apology from the British for this crime against humanity: 1,650 bullets, 1,579 casualties.

The husband of the British Queen, on a visit a few years ago, in fact harangued Indians that it was not possible that so many people could have died. He said he was told this by the son of General Dyer, the man who had ordered the shooting!

The Canadians recently decided to make a belated apology for the shameful Komagata Maru incident of 1914 when they denied Indian refugees succour. More such apologies must be demanded. The British have apologized, for instance, to Maoris, but why, pray, not to Indians? Reparations will also be accepted. A good example is China, which has extorted billions from Japan simply by shouting 'Rape of Nanking!' from every available forum at every available opportunity.

Indians must demand a government that is proud of its nation and its people, and leaves no stone unturned in protecting its citizens and its Diaspora. Only such a State deserves its citizens' loyalty. Only then will there be no more Maya Nands in future.

Rajeev Srinivasan considers San Francisco and Kerala his two homes.

Rajeev Srinivasan