Border and Belongingness: An Ethnographic Study of Afghan Refugees in India


Aparna Malaviya

PhD defended at: 

Departmenet of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay



Border and Belongingness: An Ethnographic Study of Afghan Refugees in India

The thesis is an ethnographic study of Afghan refugees living in the Delhi National Capital Region (henceforth Delhi NCR), India. The thesis focuses on the lives of forced migrants from Afghanistan who can be categorized as UNHCR1 refugees (UNHCR mandate refugees)2, asylum seekers3, newly arrived and old cohort of Afghans (who are not recognized by the UNHCR as refugees and staying in India for many years on extended or expired visas); all of whom belong to diverse ethno-regional, ethnic and religious groups of Afghanistan.

Afghans started arriving in India since the late 1970s, the period which coincides with the beginning of political disturbances in Afghanistan. Some Afghans came in the late 1970s and early 1980s while many came around early 1990s and are still coming to India in the hope of securing decent life, and be granted asylum and refuge. Among these forced Afghan migrants, a few have been naturalized4 as Indian citizens; some live as UNHCR refugees and asylum seekers while many are still in the waitlist and stay as unrecognized non-citizens. Unfortunately India does not have a well-defined refugee policy. Rather it follows the principle of non-refoulement5 and does not force people who have migrated to go back to their country of origin. India’s stand and institutional response towards different groups of refugees is often a calculated and measured response based on its geo-political and strategic interests. In this geo-political backdrop, Afghan refugees in India offer an interesting case to be studied in order to understand the life of non-camp refugees; where supports from the agents of the Indian nation-state and the UNHCR are not sufficient and the lacuna left by these institutions is filled by the refugees’ own ethnic organizations that cater to the diverse socio-cultural and political needs of the community.

The political status of many of the Afghan refugees is still uncertain but the Afghans have carved out a space for themselves in the socio-economic landscape of Delhi, in selected localities. This is evident in their everyday visibility in local neighbourhoods, their economic hold in the local markets, the material and symbolic visibility of their religious places- temple and gurudwaras and in the vibrant working of their community organizations.

The thesis explores the lives of the Afghan refugees in those settled neighborhoods in an attempt to comprehend how their lives are woven around their community, religion, the host society, the Indian nation-state and the UNHCR. The thesis explores how Afghans, a non-camp refugee community, created a liveable space in another nation-state without a well-defined refugee policy and in a situation where the UNHCR’s support is also based on objective markers of refugeeness, thereby making it available to only selected Afghans. The thesis shows that the refugees’ space creation in the host society is a continuous process of negotiation and contestation of ‘refugeeness’ that takes place on everyday basis in dealings with the agents of the Indian nation-state, with the UNHCR and with the host society. In doing so, the thesis brings out an interesting insight, which is that refugees contest “refugeeness” which itself is a reflection of a ‘bordered identity’. The bordered identity is an outcome of the institutional practices, policies and programs of the nation-state and the humanitarian organizations which aim at ‘managing’, ‘governing’ and ‘controlling’ the refugees as part of ‘geo-political border’ politics. The geo-political border becomes significant and reflected in— the policies and approach of the agents of the nation-state towards the refugees; in the way the host society receives and further treats them; and in the ‘rehabilitation programs’ of the humanitarian organizations that are offered and made available to the refugees. The bordered identity is reinforced by national and international institutions of refugee management and contested by the refugees which then leads to issues of belongingness. Refugees’ belongingness lies in the space created by them and builds up through contestation of this ‘bordered identity’ and ‘refugeeness’.

The study, deviating from both a simple historical documentation and a 'rights-centric' approach, provides a 'thick description' of the following: intricacies of community dynamics among the different ethno-regional and religious groups of Afghans; of the processes of ‘space creation’ through the establishment of community and religious organizations and of the refugees’ everyday negotiations with agents of the Indian nation-state, the UNHCR and members of the host society. The thesis thus provides anthropological insights about refugees and refugeeness by pursuing the following objectives. It seeks,

1. To explore the dynamics of community within and among different ethno-regional, ethnic and religious groups of Afghan refugees. And how it unfolds in the backdrop of refugee situation in other nation-state and host society.

2. To explore the micro and macro processes through which a refugee community creates space in another land.

3. To critically analyze the construction and production of 'refugees' and 'refugeeness' through policies, programs and practices of the India nation-state and the UNHCR. Further, to examine how refugees contest notions of 'refugee' and 'refugeeness'.

4. To locate refugees in the debates on postnationalism, global citizenship and cosmopolitanism and to examine what perspectives they provide to such conceptual postulates.

The focus of this study are refugees and asylum seekers— the people who are in another nation-state, without protection from their own ‘state’ and deprived of the power of the ‘paper’. The methods of data collection, for such a group of people, needs to be unobtrusive and least disturbing, assuring the informants that their need for security and privacy would be respected. This necessitated the use of ethnographic tools. The methods adopted allowed the refugees to speak their mind according to their will, convenience and preference. The ethnographic survey was conducted for over seventeen months in four different phases from March 2008 to March 2011. The study involved observations of everyday activities and routine interactions of the refugees in local markets, public places, various offices, community organizations and religious places. The study gained insights through participation in community programs, cultural and religious celebrations, and a religious pilgrimage. The study used open-ended interviews and conversation method with refugees, their neighbours and friends. In official settings, the study used conversation and semi-structured interviews with the officials of the UNHCR and its partner NGOs and the officials of various government departments of the Indian state that deal with refugees.

The thesis is organized into seven chapters including an introduction and a conclusion. The first introductory chapter summaries in a critical fashion the scholarships on refugees and underlines the gaps that exist in refugee studies. It also provides a brief discussion on refugees in South Asia and India and also discusses the journey of Afghan forced migrants from Afghanistan to India. It problematizes the ideas of 'refugee' and 'refugeeness' that pre-occupies the juridical-political and 'right-centric' understanding of refugees and argues for in-depth anthropological understanding of ‘refugees’ and ‘refugeeness’. It introduces key themes and an idea employed in the

thesis and locates refugees in the debates on global citizenship, postnationalism and cosmopolitanism. The chapter also discusses certain methodological concerns and challenges of doing fieldwork within a refugee community and finally gives a very brief summary of each of the following chapters of the thesis.

Chapter Two details the journey of Afghans from their homeland to their current refugee status in India and discusses their encounter with the agencies responsible for their settlement and rehabilitation. The chapter discusses the dynamics of community networks in their rebuilding of their economic and social lives in Delhi. Afghan refugees belong to diverse ethnic identities— religious, linguistic and regional. They are Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The Afghan Hindu and Sikh community is organized around different ethno-regional identities known as: Khosti, Kabuli, Chharakari, Laghmani, Ghaznichi and Kurmewal; while, Afghan Muslims are organized around their ethnic tribal identities of Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Baluchis. Such differentiations do not come to the fore when Afghans are categorized by the Indian nation-state and the UNHCR as ‘foreigners’, ‘asylum seekers’, and refugees. It is interesting to note that diverse ethno-regional and ethno-tribal identities do not disappear, even when people are living in ‘exile’. Very often it is difficult to distinguish the distinctiveness particularly when all the ethno-regional groups take on a national identity and the way they are assigned official identity of ‘refugee’. The chapter describes community structure and community dynamics within and amongst the different religious and ethno-regional groups of Afghan refugees. While describing these religious and ethno-regional heterogeneity within Afghan refugees I seek to understand how the idea of ‘community’ unfolds among the Afghan Muslim ethnic groups; and, how the idea of biradari6 among the Afghan Hindus and the Afghan Sikhs rotate around their regional and religious affinities. The questions that arises are:- on what occasions and for what purposes these ethno-regional and religious boundaries become either relevant or irrelevant?

The presence of Afghans in Delhi’s select localities and markets can be felt, experienced and encountered through the places inhabited by the Afghans, the built-in environment created by them and the non-physical spaces built through everyday interactions and communications. For understanding this presence, I am using the idea of ‘social environs’ that comprises of both physical and non-physical spaces of Afghans in the host society and which is built through and organized by everyday practices of the refugees. The processes of space creation take place through everyday processes of

interactions, communications and negotiations. These are the processes through which the refugee contest their ‘otherness’ and being ‘alien’. Interestingly, their location in an alien land and their ‘refugee status’ is enabling few individuals to deviate from the community norms and challenge its authority.

Chapter Three talks about exemplary, but exceptional cases of Afghan women refugees. This chapter is therefore an extension of the discussion about ‘community dynamics’ of Afghan refugees across different groups. Looking further at the ‘controlling and governing’ role of the community, chapter three discusses how the agency of the community is contested and negotiated by women refugees through the utilization of opportunities available to them as refugees. The chapter sketches the lives of Afghan women who are challenging and contesting the agency of the community and the traditional patriarchal structures and becoming exceptional and exemplary cases while carving out their distinct identity beyond their ‘refugeeness’. As exemplary cases of departure from the earlier cases of Afghan women refugees in camp situations discussed in other works (Boesen 1986; Dupree 1984, 1988, 1990, 1992; Khattak 2002, 2003, 2006; Saigol 2002), the non-camp women refugees discussed in this chapter are not silent aid receivers, survivors of war and mute spectators of change; rather they are active participant in the social and economic struggle for survival and existence in an alien urban socio-economic milieu. Their exposure to English language speaking course, basic computer learning and vocational courses through UNHCR and its partner NGOs enable them to achieve economic self-dependence. With the passing years, various negotiations done for their existence as ‘woman asylum seekers’ and ‘woman refugees’ are inducing definitive change in the underlying attitude of these women and redefining roles and power equations within and outside the community. The chapter attempts to bring out how the refugee status has translated itself into an ‘alternative space of functionality’ where women are (re)inventing and creating newer domains of identity and selfhood.

After having discussed different domains and dynamics of community life in the previous two chapters, chapter four focuses on the institution of religion- Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam and Christianity and religious places-Temple, Gurudwara, Mosque and Church. It analyzes, how far the institution of religion and religious places are significant for Afghan refugees and for what purposes? Religion connects people and religious spaces serve as a platform for the maintenance and assertion of a group’s identity. Anxious to preserve their identity, a thousand miles away from their homeland,

Afghan refugees recreate religious places, religious institutions and try to reinvent the community’s past. Afghan Sikhs and Hindus have also tried to preserve the footprints of their journey from Afghanistan to India, and this is reflected in the names of their community organizations. For example, Asa Mai temple in Faridabad is a replica of the Asa Mai cult in Afghanistan. The reinvention of community associations, such as the Khalsa Diwan Welfare Society (KDWS) and Chashma Sahib Sociey; continuation of a past cultural festival earlier held at Sultanpur (Afghanistan) in the form of Rakabganj (Delhi) festival are conscious acts at ‘creating home’ by carrying and institutionalizing the ‘memory of the past’ . In the case of Afghan refugees, community identity has been institutionalized through establishment of refugee places that maintain continuity through diasporic network spread across distant places where Afghans have migrated, viz., India, Germany, the Netherlands and the US. The establishments of religious places, restaurants and community organizations by Afghan refugees need to be understood as part of spatial strategies to claim and assert their identity in host society.

At another level the very existence of refugees’ organizations on ethnic grounds of community and religion leads us to question the very efficacy of humanitarian interventions. It asks: Why despite the presence of the UNHCR, which ‘exists to address refugees concerns’, do refugee communities need organizations based on ethnic identities? Is it to fill the gap that is left out by the absence or insufficient functions or inappropriate mechanisms of secular human rights regime or nation-states?

Chapter Five assesses the role of the UNHCR by analysing its structure, and the strategies and policies adopted by it for the ‘management’ of refugees. The organization’s approach towards Afghan refugee crisis and the practices it undertakes to ‘manage refugees’ from Afghanistan have implications for international care regime and the politics of ‘refugee care and protection’. Political categorization of refugees is based on the same conservative markers of ethnicity, territory and border, universally used by the nation-states, which eventually leads to the production of differential distribution of rights. Identification of the person in problem, assessment of the problem, establishing proof of vulnerability followed by categorization of people as asylum seekers and refugees all such practices are part of the ‘colossal care regime’ and are parcel of ‘politics of/over human conditions’.

Further, despite the UNHCRs international presence and its ‘global’ approach towards refugee problems, working mechanisms of this institution tend to strengthen the nation-state which is antithetical to the idea of global cosmopolitanism. At the global level, the

possibility of creating a mechanism that guarantees global citizenship which is inclusive of refugees needs to be thought out properly before floating such an idea. The possibility of developing cosmopolitanism is more convenient through everyday interactions and cultural exchanges than thrusting it at political level and through economic institutions. The current form of arguments around cosmopolitanism is insufficient to address the issues of refugees. Therefore, the idea of nation-state should be critically examined as this is the most important institution that secures citizenship and takes care of its people. This opens a plethora of doubts on the current transnational migration with reference to the theories of cosmopolitanism. One may wish to ask: are the countries ready to accommodate people from other nationalities, especially the refugees? How are we imagining global cosmopolitanism when countries cannot extend help to forced migrants who really need a global acceptance? Are the political arrangements sufficient that suffice forced mobilities? This chapter discusses how defining and institutionalizing categories of people as ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees’ restrict human conditions and circumstances within textual boundaries and objectify them in terms of appearance and expectations, that individuals would execute themselves in a certain manner.

Chapter Six looks at the issue of ‘citizenship’ which is always addressed with reference to ‘visa problems’ and ‘settlement in foreign countries’. In this chapter, I discuss how Afghan refugees look at the issue of citizenship, what are their imaginations of Afghanistan. What strategies do they adopt to contest the agents of host nation-state? And, given their restricted political voices and choices, how the idea of citizenship unfolds for them.

After analyzing the contexts in which references to ‘settlement in a foreign country’ are made, one can understand that ‘having citizenship’ or even having a ‘refugee certificate’ is always talked about in terms of access to certain rights. Analysis of the everyday desires of Afghans, their social and economic lives; their strategies for negotiating with UNHCR and partner NGOs, and aspirations to become citizens of a European country, or United States; all such trends are directed towards the centrality of citizenship for Afghans. Political status of a citizen is not merely a political identity but ensures access to certain basic rights to life. Is it just the necessity of a ‘secure stay’ and access to certain basic facilities that makes the nation-state still relevant to a non-citizen? Is the necessity of the nation- state and belongingness to a political territory for non-citizens need-based, circumstantial, and independent from other aspects of

belongingness--ethnic, religious or communitarian? Or, does political affiliation to a bounded territory has a wider connotation for a person’s belongingness?

The chapter looks at the nation state from the perspective of an asylum seeker and refugee, who are non-citizens. Its analysis problematizes recent normative challenges against the forms of territory-based citizenship, known as postnationalism (Jacobson 1996; Sassen 2002; Soysal 1994) or transnational citizenship (Fox 2005; Johnston 2001) and the much hyped recent discussions about ‘global citizenship’ and cosmopolitanism (Beck 2000, 2002) that invokes the earlier Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism and universal human rights (1964). It is interesting to note that none of these reworked adjectives have the intention to accommodate refugees and address their concerns. Acceptance and denial of visa and conferment of certain basic rights to a non-citizen are very much within the purview of the nation-state. One who does not belong to the demarcated area within the geo-political border is ascribed with labels such as foreigner, asylum seeker, refugee, and stateless. These labels invoke interrogation of the processes and sites where ‘otherization’ of non-citizens takes place through various official and administrative mechanisms adopted by agents of nation-state.

The case of Afghan refugees in India is positioned in the geo-political context of Third World in South-Asia where politics of/over border is not a thing of the past, nor has the unprecedented out migration (skilled, semi skilled and undocumented migration) of people from this region or presence of ‘non-citizens’ (refugees, asylum seekers and stateless) within different countries of this region led to ‘deterritorialization of rights’ and ‘denationalization of citizenship’ (Sassen 2002). The aforementioned ideas exclude cross-border mobilities of such people, similarly, localization or internalization of ‘global institutions’ is not happening as suggested by proponents of ‘global cosmopolitanism’ or cosmopolitans in the margins of society. ‘Universal human values’ have still not reached millions of exiled, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless subjects. Despite the presence of global institutions of rights and justice and despite the state’s moral commitment to such ethics, actual reach to these rights is very much determined by the politics of/on border. The decisions on whom to recognize, and whom to provide care; whom to deport and whom to ignore, come under the jurisdiction of the state. Refugees are forced to relinquish the ‘democratic’ space available at home, exclusive citizenship rights of their original nation-state gets snatched away, and they are forced to struggle in a world that seem to argue for

cosmopolitanism and world citizenship only for a selective group of people. While

granting political space to the refugees, the national and international agencies tend to

go back to trajectories of geo-political borders and calculations Borders matter most to

those who are deprived of them and recognized by them. The people who contest

border become the strongest reason to protect and securitize border— then, where arise

the question of a ‘borderless world’?


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1 UNHCR: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also known as the UNHCR is a UN organisation established by the special convention of the United Nations 1951, known as the 1951 UN convention for the protection and care for refugees. It was established in the wake of mass exoduses happened through World War-II. The organization was established with a purpose to provide humanitarian assistance and protection to the homeless population who were victim of violence due to war and persecution. Now this international organization is the only one organization that provides protection, care, rehabilitation and resettlement support to asylum seekers, refugees, stateless persons, and internally displaced persons across the world except the Palestine refugees who are supported by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Work Agency).

2 UNHCR refugees: Also known as UNHCR mandate refugees. Refugees who are granted the ‘refugee status’ by the UNHCR under the guidelines of 1951 UN convention are called as UNHCR refugees and also known as UNHCR mandate refugees. They are entitled for protection and rehabilitation assistance provided by the UN agency.

3 Asylum Seeker: An asylum seeker is an individual who is seeking international protection from any country or in Afghan’s case, from the UNHCR. In countries with individualized procedures, an

asylum-seeker is someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she has submitted it. Not every asylum- seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee in such countries is initially an asylum-seeker (UNHCR 2006: Master Glossary of Terms, Rev.1, pp 4, Retrieved April16, 2014 (

4 Naturalized: A person who has acquired the Indian citizenship through the legal procedures mentioned in 1953 Indian citizenship Act. A foreigner (not illegal migrant) can acquire Indian citizenship by naturalization if he or she – “ is ordinarily resident in India for Twelve years (throughout the period of twelve months immediately preceding the date of application and for eleven years in the aggregate in the Fourteen years preceding the twelve months) and other qualifications as specified in Third Schedule to the Act citizenship act 1953.”, (Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India).

5 Non-refoulement: This is a principle of customary international law and one of the most important principles of refugee and immigration law. The principle of non-refoulement prohibits the expulsion, deportation, return or extradition of an alien to his or her state of origin or another state where there is a risk that his life or freedom would be threatened for discriminatory reasons.

This law institute is often regarded as one of the most important principles of refugee and immigration law. where their lives or freedom may be threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, which is the cornerstone of international protection (in An Introduction to International Protection, UNHCR). It is embodied in Article 33 (1) of the 1951 Convention.

6 Biradari : Biradari is a term used to denote a community which is intact and attached by

kinship, clan and affinal relations. The Biradari is an endogamous group and has many kinship groups extended to one or more geographical regions. Biradari is a word which has its origin from the word ‘Biradar’ which means brother. Biradari members are associated with each other through kinship relations, clans, historical past and shared culture. They follow the unwritten code of conducts and dictates for marriage alliance, reputation and social and economic interdependency. Among Afghan Hindu and Sikh community there are communities from different Biradari of Kabuli, Khosti, Gaznichi, Gardezi, Laghmani, Kandhari, Kundoosi and Chharakari. They belong to respective regions in Afghanistan, such as Gardezi Hindus trace their belongingness to the Gardez region in Afghanistan.