Editor’s Note: SAV Contributor Ankit Rana wrote a response to this piece, approaching the issue from the national security perspective. His response can be found here.
With an estimated population of one million, Muslim Rohingyas are an essentially stateless population from Rakhine province in Myanmar. Under the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, the state revoked the citizenship rights of Rohingyas, thus making them ineligible to access fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and education. These actions were followed by military crackdowns against the group. The atrocities continued over years, which led the United Nations to describe Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
In light of a series of army crackdowns beginning in November 2016, the status of Rohingya refugees has again come to the forefront. Earlier this month, the government of Myanmar announced a military build-up in Rakhine, forcing thousands of Rohingyas to flee the country. According to independent reports, 400 people have been killed while other Rohingya community members have suffered gang rapes, military raids, and arson.
Consequently, there has been a massive influx of Rohingya refugees to neighboring countries, particularly Bangladesh and India. Nearly 150,000 Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh since October, out of which 90,000 have fled in the last week alone. In August, the government of India announced its decision to deport 40,000 Rohingya immigrants. In such desperate times, the least that is expected out of India is to refrain from deporting Rohingyas that have already settled within India’s borders.
India has a long tradition of welcoming refugees and providing a safe haven to persecuted populations as seen with East Bengali refugees during Partition in 1947 and Tibetan exiles in the 1960s. Yet, upon close examination, it is clear that India’s refugee policies have been rather discriminatory and in direct contradiction with India’s values of democracy and tolerance. There is a stark difference between the treatment of Chakma and Rohingya refugees, for example, and the aid afforded to Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees. Though the Indian government is set to grant citizenship to Chakma refugees, this group will continue to face considerable difficulties in accessing land rights in Arunachal Pradesh. While difficult to discern, India’s preferential policies may be attributable to vested political interests and historical connections with the refugees’ country of origin, perhaps enabling Indian politicians to decide which refugees are worthy of aid and which are not. In order to address the current need of the hour regarding Rohingya refugees in India, the government should take steps to create a sufficiently supportive legal framework for refugees and address growing intolerance against Muslim refugees.
An Insufficient Legal Framework
Current gaps in India’s legal framework throw refugees at the mercy of the state. Since India has not ratified the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees’ 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have any domestic laws regarding the status of refugees, there are no legal mechanisms in place to check the Indian government’s biased policies towards refugees. The line dividing the status of illegal immigrants and refugees is blurred, which has given the state an upper hand in dealing with the humanitarian crisis regarding refugees.
At times, courts have come to the rescue of refugee rights. For example, in Mithu v. State of Punjab in 1983, the Supreme Court of India reinforced the right to life and liberty guaranteed to refugees under Article 21 of the Constitution and observed “it is for the courts to decide whether the procedure prescribed by a law for depriving a person of his life or liberty is fair, just and reasonable.” However, judicial intervention can only fill the void temporarily. In the end, binding legislation alone can provide a permanent solution.
Wave of Intolerance
Apart from flaws in the legal framework, there is another aspect to this problem that has become a driving force behind India’s discriminatory refugee policies. It emanates from the right-wing, Hindu-nationalist discourse advanced by some members of such groups as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), widely considered the parent organization of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). These groups have engaged in such anti-Muslim activities as cow vigilantism and forced conversion (ghar vapsi) programs. Observers have also pointed to several pieces of legislation advanced by the BJP-led government that may have discriminatory implications for the Muslim community in India.
Seen in this light, the expulsion of Rohingyas is in line with the discriminatory trends described above, allowing hardline factions to depict this vulnerable population as a threat to the Hindutva project. A recent statement from India’s Home Ministry termed Rohingyas “illegal immigrants [that] not only infringe on the rights of Indian citizens but also pose grave security challenges,” furthering an, as of yet, unproven narrative that Rohingyas pose a national security threat.
It is true that any influx of immigrants will put a strain on a country’s resources and that is a valid concern. However, the discriminatory nature of the government’s approach towards Rohingyas cannot be ignored. This is especially the case given that far larger refugee communities—such as Sri Lankans and Tibetans—have not had to face similar threats of deportation and loss of livelihood, particularly at a time when their community is being brutally persecuted in their home country.
Need of the Hour
Refugees need to be looked at as humans first rather than as illegal immigrants. They are not the play toys of politicians or an inconvenient nuisance that can be “managed” at best and pushed aside at worst. They should be able to live a normal life without the sword of “deportation” hanging over their heads. India may not be a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it is bound by customary international law on non-refoulement, which prohibits countries from returning refugees to a country where they are likely to face persecution. If the government of India truly wants to sustain the democratic and humanitarian grounds that formed the basis of the Constitution in the country’s early days, it is imperative that it overcome the boundaries that divide nation states and welcome people in need. That is the India that our forefathers envisioned for us and that is the India we should seek to achieve.
Image 1: Andrew Mercer via Flickr.
Image 2: Narendra Modi via Flickr.