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Presenting a Paradox

Navnita Chadha Behera

By Pia Oberoi
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006, pp. 298, Rs. 595.00


The Indian subcontinent stepped into its independent nationhood amidst the greatest refugee crisis in the modern era, when an estimated fourteen million people migrated across the borders of India and Pakistan. And yet, a theoretical understanding of the refugee phenomenon has evolved much more recently in the1990s. This is especially true of the International Relations literature in the South Asian region that has been dominated by the neo-realist analyses. This genre of literature has not addressed the refugee question mainly because of their state-centric analysis and excessive focus on power-politics while the neo-liberal approach only addressed the managerial and governability dimensions of refugee problems. The last decade witnessed some critical changes in the discipline though they were largely in response to international developments. As the Cold War unravelled, the conventional categories of analysis became a poor fit to new and much more complex realities. With the eclipsing of the East-West confrontation, the IR scholars were forced to extend the conventional undertakings of security analysis to include matters of economics, migration, identity politics, resources, ecological factors and so on. In the theoretical domain, they were engaged in the third debate between rationalist approaches that included neo-realist and neo-liberal paradigms and reflectivist approaches such as constructivism, critical theories and postmodernism. Pia Oberoi’s volume on Exile and Belonging: Refugees and State Policy in South Asia belongs to this genre of literature.   Oberoi seeks to distance herself from the neo-realist framework by arguing that the state interests are not “primordially in existence . . . ‘given’ to the state by the material structure of the international system” and, instead adopts a constructivist approach whereby these interests are “themselves constructed through a process of social construction”. This study, accordingly, attempts “to determine why the states of South Asia construct a particular understanding of ‘a refugee’, and how they communicate this understanding in their policy behaviour.” The use of the constructivist approach in this volume, however, remains limited towards understanding the importance of factors such as ethnic affinities among communities cutting across the national borders and the cultural, societal as well as religious norms for explaining the rationale of South Asian states’ refugee policies. For instance, it is argued that Pakistan’s policies towards Afghan refugees were influenced by the traditions of Pashtunwali (the tribal honour code of the Pashtuns) including the concepts of milmastia (charity) and nanawati (asylum) and the Koranic injunctions of the Muslim faith ...

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