India is becoming a disturbing party to the growing regional plight of the Rohingya, the Muslim minority being driven out of Myanmar by militant Buddhists with the help of the government.
Ashi Bibi, 46, is a distressing symbol. She now lives in a makeshift Rohingya settlement in the Indian capital city of New Delhi, having fled Myanmar 10 years ago. Her sparsely furnished, one-room tenement has barely enough space for her and her three young kids. But for now, this will have to do. The frail widow earns barely $150 per month toiling as a maid in neighbourhood homes for 12 hours daily.
Yet she prefers this to her life in Myanmar, where she and thousands of her fellowmen faced daily torture from officials, and those who stayed have come under growing pressure. Bibi says she worries that her freedom in India too, is now under threat. And that she might be packed off to her home country, a dreaded prospect as people in the Rakhine state suffer what the United Nations calls textbook genocide.
The Rohingya’s' persecution in Myanmar, as well as their existence in an appalling state, sans basic amenities like food and shelter, has been well-documented. This has led to tens of thousands of Rohingya fleeing to neigh boring countries, mostly Bangladesh. However, around 40,000 Rohingya have trickled into India over the past five to six years, settling mostly across northern Kashmir and a few other states.
While till some time back the Rohingya presence in India was largely inconspicuous, in August, the issue attracted nationwide attention when the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government suddenly asked the country's 29 states to identify illegal immigrants for deportation – including, the guidance said, Rohingya Muslims who had fled Myanmar.
"As per available estimates there are around 40,000 Rohingya living illegally in the country," India's junior home minister Kiren Rajaji told Parliament on August 9. "The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingya." In its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court last month, the Centre claimed that Rohingya refugees posed a "serious national security threat" and that their deportation was in the "larger interest" of the country. It also asked the court to "decline its interference" in the matter.
The government's abrupt announcement triggered strong reactions. This also led to a tug of war between the Indian establishment and activists/lawyers over the proposed deportation of Rohingya. India's official refusal to accommodate the Rohingya has also invited opprobrium from the UN agencies, which have dubbed this New Delhi’s insensitivity to a humanitarian crisis.
The government's stand is that the Rohingya must be deported as India is not a signatory to 1951 UN refugee convention obligating it to offer refuge. (The government decides asylum pleas on an ad hoc and case-to-case basis. Besides, he adds, immigrants are susceptible to recruitment by "terror" groups).
However, detractors point out that whether India has signed UN's refugee convention or not, the principle of “non-refoulement” is binding on all states. This law says that refugees cannot be forcibly returned to a place where they face persecution or threats to their life or freedom. The Supreme Court is also seeking to know why Rohingya have become targets for deportation when the country has for decades sheltered assorted migrants from many countries fleeing conflict and disaster.
Many suggest that the current apathy stems from the fact that the refugees are Muslims, an ethnic minority most susceptible to recruitment by terror groups. "These migrants not only pose a grave security threat, but also infringe on the rights of Indian citizens. Influx of migrants also leads to social, political and cultural frictions," a senior BJP leader told Asia Sentinel.
Meanwhile, the government's refusal to accommodate the Rohingya has led to questions from opposition leaders asking how India is better than China, a country with no scruples about human rights issues. They say this amounts to tacit support of Myanmarese persecution. There was a furor in political circles when Modi failed to bring up the Rohingya issue with his hosts on his recent visit to Myanmar. That has also led to the general perception that New Delhi prizes its relationship with Naypyidaw, critical to the success of its Look East policy, over support for a persecuted minority. As a diplomat told Asia Sentinels, "India has little to gain by annoying Myanmar and driving it into China's arms."
Many say the opposition to the Rohingya influx feeds perfectly into the wider Hindutva discourse and its polarizing politics. Significantly, a majority of these refugees have been in India over five years.
The government claims that “many among” the Rohingya refugees are radicalized, raising a “serious possibility of violence erupting against the Buddhists.”
Allegations of Rohingya with militant background being “very active” in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mewat; of engaging in hawala transactions, human trafficking and of acquiring fake/fabricated Indian identity documents have been submitted to the court. But there is no evidence, so far, to suggest that any Rohingya group or individual has carried out a terrorist attack in India.
Most have rubbished the government’s contention that the Rohingya constitutes a threat to national security. Senior Opposition leader Shashi Tharoor recently said the government has no proof that the refugees indulged in any terrorist activity.
“The Center’s portrayal of the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and not refugees is based on a flawed assessment. It could undermine India’s status on the global stage,” Tharoor said. Pointing out that India has provided asylum to refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, he alleged that the government had adopted a hostile approach to Rohingya because they are Muslims. There is no justification in the argument that a nation of 1.2 billion can’t accommodate 40,000 Rohingya, he added.
Some Rohingya lobby groups in India are also pressuring the government to let them stay. Currently, India's supreme court is considering a case brought on by a Rohingya migrant against deportation. Arguing on behalf of the Rohingya, senior advocate Fali S Nariman told the Supreme Court that the Center’s decision to deport all Rohingya refugees from India is absurd, as the Narendra Modi government in 2014 reiterated an earlier notification outlining the rights of refugees.
"While India may not have signed the refugee convention, it is party to many other international conventions, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which include the principle of non-refoulement, said High Court advocate Shalini Mathur.