By Dr.Smruti S.Pattanaik
The violence unleashed by the Myanmarese Security personnel in Rakhaine state has drawn the attention of the entire world to the plight of the Rohingyas – who are described as the “most persecuted minority group in the world”.
On August 25, foreign-trained militants of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) killed 11 security personnel in a revenge attack. The ensuing brutal military crackdown resulted in the exodus of nearly 370,000 Rohingyas to neighbouring Bangladesh, according to UNHCR.
However, this was not the first of its kind. In October last year, after an attack by the Rohingya Solidarity Organisation which killed 9 policemen in Maungdaw in Rakhine, the military unleashed extraordinary violence on the Rohingyas.
Since August last year, nearly 300,000 Rohingyas have sought refuge in Bangladesh prompting Dhaka to temporarily close its border with Myanmar. The refugees were allowed to settle in the isolated Thengar Char island (renamed as Bhasan Char).
Though most of the countries have out rightly condemned the violent action of the Myanmar government, which refers to the Rohingyas as Bengalis and considers them as ‘illegal immigrants’; India took an extremely cautious approach towards the refugee crisis.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Myanmar in the midst of this brewing crisis, did not refer to the violence perpetuated by the security forces. In his meeting with top officials including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Indian Prime Minister said: “We are partners in your concern over the loss of lives of security forces and innocent people due to the extremist violence in Rakhine State.”
Restricting the statement to extremist violence without mentioning a word about the exodus of Rahingyas from Myanmar, disappointed many, especially in Bangladesh, where there is an expectation that India will take up the issue with Naypyidaw.
Earlier, India had distanced itself from the Bali declaration which mentioned the Rohingya issue, saying that the agenda of the meeting was “sustainable development”.
The government of Bangladesh, which is saddled with a refugee crisis that is likely to put a huge socio-economic cost on that country, asked its High Commissioner in New Delhi to meet the Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to appraise him of Dhaka’s concerns.
Following this, on September 9, India issued another statement expressing deep concern about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and urged the Myanmar government to handle the situation in Rakhine State with “restraint and maturity”, and focus on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces.
India has now despatched essential food items under the codename ‘Operation Insaniyat’ to help Bangladesh tide over the crisis. Given the complexity of the Rohingya problem, New Delhi refrained from saying that the aid was meant for the Rohingyas.
It needs to be mentioned that it is not just Dhaka that has to handle the presence of 3 lakh Rohingyas but India also has Rohingya refugees estimated to be around 40,000.
Though the settlement of Rohingya refugees in Jammu has snowballed into a controversy, the remarks of Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, attracted severe criticism both at home and abroad.
Rijiju, who is aware of the delicate ethnic balance in the border states of India with a lopsided population growth and conflicts over land and identity, was quick to declare the Rohingyas ‘illegal immigrants’ announcing their deportation as per the law.
This prompted two Rohingya refugees to approach the Supreme Court of India to stop deportation.
India’s response towards Rohingyas was dictated primarily by security considerations. India has significant cooperation with the Myanmar Army in dealing with insurgent groups that often take shelter in the border areas of Myanmar. India does not want to upset the military in Myanmar that has dismantled bases of many insurgent groups that took shelter in Myanmar.
Moreover, Myanmar is an important link to South East Asia. In the future it would become a major outlet for exports from India’s North Eastern region once connectivity projects fructify. India continues to be wary of China’s close relationship with the Myanmar military. At the same time, Dhaka remains New Delhi’s partner for the same reasons.
While India must quietly convey to the government of Myanmar the larger implications of the incubation of militancy among Rohingya youth, it should also nudge Myanmar to resolve the problem internally and create a conducive atmosphere for their return.
The challenge that Rohingya militants pose to Bangladesh and India are several. Radicalisation of Rohingya youth is real. In the past, many Rohingyas fought along with the Taliban in Afghanistan, some of them believed to be associated with other militant organisations in Bangladesh. Some are involved in petty crimes. ARSA’s reported linkages to the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohamed in Pakistan, will have security implications for both India and Bangladesh
Rohingya youth have no access to education. Employment opportunities are almost nil. The Rohingyas continue to live in the most distressing situation..
India, which is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention, has been home to refugees from its neighbourhood. Tamil refugees continue to live in Tamil Nadu after the end of war in Sri Lanka. Afghan and Tibetan refugees are some of the larger refugee communities which have adopted India as their home.
Earlier, India had given refuge to the people of East Pakistan in 1971 and later the Chakma refugees following the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In both cases almost all the refugees returned home after the conflict was resolved.
It is also apparent that many of the persecuted minorities have found India as their home and this includes the Hindu minority from Pakistan.
It is therefore important that India develops a policy on how to deal with refugees, irrespective of their religious orientation. A firm refugee policy will help India keep a record of refugees, monitor their activities, and seek their return to their countries of origin.
While it is important for India to evolve a domestic policy to deal with refugees in general; it cannot dismiss the Rohingya refugees as ‘illegal immigrants’.
Moreover, can they be deported to a country where their life is under threat and a country that also does not recognise them as citizens? India’s aspiration to emerge as an important player in international politics will remain unfulfilled if it remains oblivious to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in its neighbourhood.
Pursuing strategic interests without a touch of humanity will raise several questions about India’s leadership in the region.
(The featured picture at the top shows a Rohingya man carrying his disabled mother all the way from Rakhine State in Myanmar to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh )