The Union Home Ministry’s effort to identify, arrest and finally deport 40,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled appallingly violent conditions in Myanmar to seek refuge in some Indian states, including Jammu region, Assam, Andhra Pradesh, UP, Kerala, West Bengal and Delhi, is reminiscent of government initiatives in the early and mid-1990s to “detect, delete, deport” Bangladeshi Muslim illegal immigrants.
In the past, deportations and physical “push backs” were carried out by the Border Security Force with little or no success before a few detention camps were set up in Assam to warehouse Bangladeshi immigrants, mostly Muslims. Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, who claimed to be persecuted, could settle in Assam, West Bengal and elsewhere across the country. They remained largely untouched.
Differential Grant of Refugee Status
Clearly, the Centre’s vision in dealing with Rohingya Muslim ‘refugees’, who have suffered extreme levels of violence and other privations in Myanmar, is not sufficiently based on classifying who should or should not be granted refugee/asylum status. After all, India has granted the same status to Afghans who fled the civil war in Afghanistan through the 1980s and 1990s, ethnic Kachins from Myanmar, Buddhist Chakmas and Sri Lankan Tamils.
What is worrisome is a 4 April report in The Times of India which used “statist” language to describe the Rohingyas as “illegal” migrants and that they followed “infiltration” routes to enter India. Forced migrants anywhere across the globe take to flight from their countries of origin when faced with dire situations of life and death.
They often cross borders after travelling great distances, not to seek a “better life” but to escape degradation or certain death. Surely, the governments of countries to which the forced migrants escape to have a duty towards protecting lives regardless of religious persuasions. The migrants are trying to piece together their lives in appalling conditions – a denial of human rights in itself.
The 1971 Refugee Inflow
As far back as 1971, when India was burdened by about 10 million “refugees” fleeing the fire and steel of a marauding Pakistan army, the Indira Gandhi regime of the time took a political decision to shelter the hapless humans – Muslims and Hindus – before the 1972 Mujib-Indira Pact was operationalised to “send” them back to an independent Bangladesh.
Even then, while the fleeing East Bengalis were granted the nominal status of refugees, India was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. It still isn’t. Besides, India is among very few countries in the world which neither has a national refugee protection framework nor an immigration policy. But it has, from time to time, allowed nationalities such as Afghans, ethnic Kachins, Sri Lankan Tamils and Buddhist Chakmas asylum purely on a selective basis.
Neither the Indira-Mujib treaty nor subsequent efforts by successive Indian governments to fence the 4,096-km-long India-Bangladesh border failed to stem the inflow of immigrants. While on paper and on the ground India’s border with neighbouring countries are highly militarised and restrictive, the absence of an immigration/refugee policy causes its security forces and the political parties in different border states to look the other way when dealing with the phenomenon of illegal or unauthorised migration, especially of Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh.
There is, of course, a political dimension to the selective entry of immigrants – depending on their religious affiliations, they serve an electoral interest for vote-maximising parties.
One reason why India has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention is that it does not make it an obligation on the part of the receiving State to protect and safeguard the lives of refugees, leaving it enough room to act selectively. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has, from time to time and from group to group, intervened with the government of the day to “modify” and “increase” its registration activities and conduct “refugee status determination for asylum seekers”. Besides, it also works to identify and map stateless groups whose precise numbers are not known.
Originally living in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the Rohingya Muslims, one of the worst persecuted minorities in the world, were forced to leave after the then Burmese military junta subjected them to mass expulsions in 1977 and 1992. They were “threatened by the State’s antagonistic policies towards their religion, their language and their culture.” This created a chronic refugee crisis in Bangladesh which subsequently tried to push back the Rohingya refugees from its soil.
The Rohingyas who returned to Myanmar were given limited rights to movement and employment, but thousands were faced with mass conscription to forced labour, arbitrary detention and other forms of maltreatment.
This was followed by their official statelessness (because the government then described them as having “nonindigenous ancestry”) in which the Myanmar State codified their legal exclusion.
Clearly, the Rohingyas qualified to be defined as refugees who have “well-founded fear of persecution due to his/her race, religion, nationality, member of a particular social group or political opinion and are unable or unwilling to return” to their home countries. The UNHCR emphasises that refugees “must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk.”
Not a Security Threat
And yet the Modi government has embarked on a controversial course to deport the hapless Rohingyas and push them across the border to likely depredation and violence.
It will be unwise for India to view the Rohingya Muslims on its territory as a security threat or even as a threat to its major societal values. Likewise, an explanation that the Rohingyas are an economic burden does not hold water because their numbers are minuscule.
An attempt to classify types of threats from immigrant or refugee groups runs into potentially dangerous distinctions between “real” and “perceived” threats or into “absurdly paranoid notions” of threats and anxieties.
It is therefore an imperative on the part of the Modi government to take a stand that while not dismissing fears, does not regard all anxieties over immigration and refugees as a justification for exclusion.
The Indian government cannot have two different yardsticks to measure – and find solutions to – the vexed issue of immigrants/refugees living on its territory. It will do good for the administration to realise that while conflicts create refugees, refugees can also potentially create conflicts.
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