Baloch leader Brahamdagh Bugti’s request for asylum in India has prompted calls for a uniform and apolitical asylum law. That would be a mistake. Asylum has always been a diverse institution, resistant to homogeneity and friendly to political dissidents. Last winter, three asylum bills were introduced in Parliament, including one by Shashi Tharoor, but they miss the mark because they perpetuate a rigid European view of asylum.
None of the three bills would protect Mr. Bugti because he does not fulfil the conventional idea of a refugee.
If Mr. Bugti is accepted, it would not be the first time that Indian asylum has been politicised. The political repercussions of welcoming the Dalai Lama in 1959 continue to be felt. The Dalai Lama has never been officially recognised as a refugee; he remains an “honoured guest” — diplomatese for political asylee. On the other hand, India hosts refugees from Tibet and elsewhere who fled persecution and conflict. For refugees, a law will regularise their stay in India and guarantee essential freedoms. But the law need not be uniform. Indeed it should vary so that victims of targeted persecution are individually protected, large groups fleeing war are protected as a group, and people displaced by natural disasters are given transient protection. The same law can allow the government to grant asylum to anyone it pleases, irrespective of what that person has done or where in the world he or she is located.
The principle that governments have wide discretionary powers regarding foreigners is as old as the concept of sovereignty. It has been reiterated by the Supreme Court several times. It can be expressed in an asylum law without contradicting the duty to protect refugees. What India needs is a discretionary political asylum regime for people like Mr. Bugti as well as a mandatory refugee regime to ensure humanitarian protection.
Bhairav Acharya is a lawyer and policy specialist currently in Washington D.C.