Gandhi, Sarvodaya, and the Crisis of Refugees

Typography

Story of every person from Bihar who leaves home is different. Although their anguish, their sense of insecurity may be individual and personal, they all have one great thing in common: They share a common determination not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their new lives for the better. This applies equally to people who have migrated abroad or to another part of the country.

The call for them is to contribute to the upliftment of all (Sarvodaya) who belong to their roots.

On the occasion of the 147th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, here is a modified version of an article I contributed to a journal, Living Gandhi Today (Hamilton, Canada) on the subject.

The plight of the refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is the same.

Borrowing the terms originally from Sanskrit -- Sarva (all) and Udaya (uplift) -- Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) formulated a concept of ‘well-being for all’ or the ‘universal progress’ (Sarvodaya) that became the hallmark of his philosophy and also the ultimate objective of his socio-political movement.

Influenced by Unto This Last, a book written by English social thinker, John Ruskin, Gandhi tried to lay out a roadmap to improve the lot of everyone without interference from the public (government) and private (business) sectors. A voluntary generous effort at restructuring the “social economy” was to be undertaken by gifts, charities, non-profit, non-governmental organizations and cooperatives. The gift of villages to the landless (gramdaan) or voluntary labor (shrumdaan), for example, was the means to achieving Sarvodaya. Many followers of Gandhi continued the movement of Sarvodaya after his death.

Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Jaya Prakash Narayan.Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, Jaya Prakash Narayan.My personal first exposure to the Sarvodaya movement came about as a middle school student in the 60’s when I had once the rare fortune of holding the hand of Vinoba Bhave (1895-1982), the most eminent post-Gandhi Sarvodaya leader, during his long walk. He had camped at my school, M. L. Academy in Laheriasarai, Darbhanga with his volunteers, went out in the field securing lands as gifts (Bhudaan) for the landless and spread the message of Gandhi.

Upon the death of Vinoba Bhave, the Bhudaan part of the Sarvodaya movement by and large petered out or remained confined to very select spots in India and Sri Lanka. There were copious reasons for the failure: The appreciating value of land and its paucity dissuaded the big landlords from giving away their lands to the poor since land was their only security. The persistent threat of government legislation aiming at seizing land from the landlords beyond an undefined ceiling limit scared them into selling their land. The “Land Grab” movement initiated by the far Left political parties also created an atmosphere of hostility between the landlords and the landless. And to top it all, political and administrative corruption.

There were many Gandhians and followers of Vinoba Bhave like Jaya Prakash Narayan (1902 - 79) who subsequently re-defined the philosophy of Sarvodaya. In the modern context, JP re-emphasized self-sustenance and self-containment of every village to the extent that “every village could become a republic.” The concept of village cooperative and village treasury was suggested to meet the contingencies of the village. The village was to be the basic unit of development.

Seen from the Sarvodaya point of view of Gandhi, therefore, being refugees or management of refugees or problems arising out of IDPs would just be the antithesis to the concept of local self-abundance, self-sustenance or self-government. According to the Sarvodaya vision, the very basic unit of human organization -- a village or a county, for example -- would be so well governed and self-sufficient that there would be no compulsion for anyone to leave and take refuge anywhere. In the Gandhian Sarvodaya scheme, all the requirements of an individual or a society would be met locally, each would contribute to the society to the best of his or her ability and people will be so happy with the ‘governor-governed relationship’ that no one would ever be condemned to a refugee status.

Since the end of the Second World War or the death of Gandhi, however, the global crises because of refugees and IDPs have unfortunately gone unabated. The international community of nations had a commendable achievement when under the auspices of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention, they were able to jointly recognize and declare someone as a refugee who was “persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, [or] membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” Such people were granted “a right to seek asylum from persecution” as well.

The year 2015-16, according to the United Nations, witnessed the worst international migration (refugee) crisis since World War two where 21.3 million people met the Convention’s definition of refugee. Around the world, 65.3 million people (twice the population of Canada) have forcibly been displaced; half of them are estimated to be children. An additional 38 million people became displaced within their own country as a result of violence. This doesn’t take into account the number of people driven out of Bihar because of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and social punishment based on caste.

According to a startling report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one in every 113 people on earth was an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. As many as ten million people were stateless having been denied a nationality and all such basic rights as education, health care, political participation or freedom of movement. 33,972 people flee their homes every day.

Although the top three countries who contributed to the number of international refugees were Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million), masses of migrants and refugees from Iraq and Kosovo have also been trying to make their way through the Balkan countries to Western Europe.

Years of violence in Iraq and Syria had strained the capacities of neighboring countries like Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon to absorb the displaced. In Lebanon, refugees made up for about 20 percent of the population whereas in Jordan, unemployment doubled in the areas where refugees were settled. Turkey’s agreement with the West on providing shelter to the displaced had created internal domestic problems.

Other parts of the world have also been affected by the migrants and internally displaced. Hordes of Bangladeshis and ethnic minority of Myanmar, the Rohingya, fled from poverty and persecution to South East Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. Migrants from the African coast wanted to enter the European Union countries. War and poverty in countries like Libya, South Sudan, Eritrea and Nigeria had forced migrants to make the life-threatening journey across the Mediterranean Sea. European Commission had to be engaged in finding ways to accept reasonable quotas of refugees so that the burden of refugees on southern states like Italy and Greece was relieved.

Eastern Europe also had a share in global crisis of internally displaced. In Ukraine, for example, fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops led to the weakening of Ukrainian industries and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing to Russia. Ukrainians willing to migrate to Poland, Germany and Italy found resistance from European Union.

Whatever may be the compulsions of geo-politics and economics, the fact remains that the lives of refugees and IDPs are shattered beyond repair. The deep wound caused by the partition of the Indian subcontinent is still not healed up. So, what should be done in the present-day situation?

One sure step is for every member nation to open its door and heart to accommodate the displaced persons and their families. Canada has welcomed 28,449 refugees since November 2015.

There should be an international effort to persuade as many as 48 members of the United Nations (including the United States) to adopt the 1951 Refugee Convention in order for them to be able to recognize refugees as the Convention defines them and to honor commitments to asylum-seekers as 145 other countries do. The basic reason causing IDPs must be addressed.

In the end, however, societies or countries from where people flee because of socio-economic hardships, persecution or violence, political solutions will have to be found out by the parties showing perseverance and accommodation so that the refugees or the IDPs could go back home. Distinguished personalities working with the refugees have noted that the “deepest wish” of most of refugees and IDPs is to be able to return home.

The idealism of Gandhi’s Sarvodaya would also support an organic and multi-faceted growth of every part of the world in peace so that people never felt the need to leave home. If every village had become a republic of Gandhi’s recommendation, the villages of Bihar wouldn’t have looked the way they appear now: Most male members of earning age in every family have migrated from villages leaving the older and women behind. That makes them vulnerable to swindlers, cheaters and criminal politicians.

At the global level, migration from villages to metropolis and from metropolis to cities of the industrially advanced world will render the international society dangerously lopsided.


Dr. Binoy Shanker Prasad hails from Darbhanga and currently resides with his family in Dundas, Ontario (Canada). A former UGC teacher fellow (at JNU) in India and Fulbright scholar in the USA, he has taught politics and authored conference papers, articles and chapters on Bihar in previously published books in the United States, India, and Canada.

Dr. Prasad administers a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OverseasBihari and has sponsored “Aware Citizenship Campaign” at a micro-level in his home-town.

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