Preventing a Pogrom: Why Rohingya Lives matter ?

A huge humanitarian crisis seems to be unfolding on our north-eastern border. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas, who have been living in Myanmar since the pre-colonial days are leaving their homeland in search of refuge from the Government(read military) of Myanmar. The crisis is being described by several International agencies including the UN Secretary-General as a ‘textbook case of ethnic cleansing’. Several Rohingyas fleeing persecution of a horrifying nature have made it to India as well. The Indian Home Ministry terms them as ‘illegal migrants’ and what is more, if the statement of Kirren Rijjuji, Minister of State for Home Affairs is to be believed, the center is planning on deporting them. Who are these Rohingyas you may ask, and why should India shelter them? All of them are good questions, and  have a simplistic yet profound answer ‘Human Rights’. But given the wrath Human Rights organisations have been subjected to in this country in the recent past, a more nuanced answer will be required to drive home the point that the decision of driving home refugees fleeing persecution is one of utter inanity.

Rohingyas: The tale of unrelenting persecution

The word ‘Rohingya’ itself is one mired in controversy, so much so that Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s democratically elected leader refuses to refer to them as that. Some say Rohingyas are ethnically Bengalis whose origin can be traced from Chittagong. They speak Urdu which is spoken is Chittagong and are practitioners of the Muslim faith. In a Buddhist-majority Myanmar, they for a significant minority and are confined to the Rakhine state. The extent of their persecution is unimaginable and they have been termed as the most persecuted group in the world.

The beginning of their persecution can be traced back to the 1980s when a military-junta came to power in Myanmar ousting the democratically elected government. The citizenship of the Rohingyas was rescinded and they became the biggest stateless group in the world. Also commenced a movement of Buddhist radicalism (yes, even Buddhism apparently has bigots), which sought to obliterate the Rohingya Minority. The movement received backing from the military and thus started a tale of persecution, state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, rape and burning of villages, all of which culminated in the humanitarian and refugee crisis it has become today.

The present wave of persecution, which has resulted in the exodus was the result of retaliatory attacks by a militia formed by youth, who tired of the suffering, have taken up arms against the state.  Estimates suggest that 40 % of the Rohingyas today have fled the only home they have ever known towards Bangladesh and other neighbouring countries, who are not particularly welcoming. The newly appointed civilian government(which shares power with the military,  which calls the shots) has done absolutely nothing to alleviate the suffering.

Aung-san Suu Kyi’s deafening silence

Last year Aung-San Suu Kyi’s accession to the helm of the democratically elected government, of which she is the de-facto head, was supposed to be an event of great hope. Rohingya’s were hopeful that with a champion of human-rights at the helm of affairs, some respect for human rights would percolate down to them. But sadly this hasn’t happened. Aung-san Suu Kyi has remained tight-lipped about the persecution, even stopping short of referring to them as ‘Rohingyas’. What is more, her official social media profiles have let-out posts condemning the Rohingyas and justifying the rescission of their right to citizenship.

Myanmar has a complicated polity, which seems to have forced Suu Kyi into silence. Her powers are limited in matters of security and she seems to be trying to appease the Buddhist Nationalists, whose support she needs to keep her government afloat. Aung-San Suu Kyi’s pusillanimity is nevertheless, not justified, but plausible. The fall from grace of a great champion of human rights will be remembered in the annals of history as a sad event, despite the political realities.

Indian Government’s deleterious actions

Meanwhile, Indian Government has done anything but live up to its expectation of a regional leader. As mentioned above a minister of state has made a statement, saying deportation is the way out. The Prime Minister in his speech in Myanmar has condemned the ‘violence by militias in Rakhine’ while turning a blind eye to the egregious human rights violations by the Myanmar Security forces. BJP led North-Eastern states have stooped so low as to direct their police forces to border areas to stop entry of Rohingyas, whose arrival is anticipated. One wonders what Dalai Lama might be thinking of such inhumane actions, juxtaposed with the open welcome he and scores of Tibetans received on their arrival from Chinese annexed Tibet.

International Law and the Supreme Court

Given the executive has thrown up its hands, relief might just be expected from the Judiciary. Two Rohingya men have moved the Supreme Court to stop the deportation, with the help of Prashant Bhushan. The relief sought is based on Article 33 of the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which forbids repatriation of refugees. India hasn’t ratified the Act, but the convention has become customary international law and has been recognised by High Courts in Ktaer Abbas Habib Al Qutaifi v. Union of India (1998) and Dongh Lian Kham v. Union of India (2015), under the wide umbrella of Right to Life. The judiciary, if it agrees to the contention of the petitioners will render another landmark judgement recognising civil liberties.

Rohingyas: A security issue?

Several pertinent questions have been raised as to the security issues that might emanate from allowing the Rohingyas to stay on. For starters, outsiders have been viewed with suspicion in the North-East and the entry of Rohingyas into the equation might further complicate the North-East issues in Assam and in other Tribal areas. There is fear, and not altogether unwarranted that forces inside and from across the border will try to radicalise embittered Rohingya men, and turn them against the country.

These threats are real and plausible. However the idea that the Rohingyas coming from across the border, in search of shelter and food, fleeing persecution would turn against the very state which provides them refuge is preposterous. An insignificant portion of them may be radicalised, but don’t we run that risk either way. Radicalisation has nothing to do with the place one comes from, and Indians are as likely to be radicalised as Rohingyas. The trade-off here for saving a persecuted group is a small one which we should happily assent to.

The irritation in the North-East has been an issue, but given the increasing stability in the region, one might safely assume that using north-east as a conduit to allow refugees won’t be a big issue. If the groups in power in Assam along with the BJP, who unleashed the last wave of anti-outsider movement could be kept in check by the central government, then there will be little reason to fear.

India’s history of refugees

As clichéd as the term might be Atithi Devo Bhava has been a mantra we have sworn by. We welcomed Tibetan refugees with open arms in the 1960s, all of whom have settled amicably all over the country, including the place the writer belongs from. During, before and after the Bangladesh War we sheltered scores of refugees coming in from Bangladesh. We have paid host to Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka. One sees no reason why we should selectively forbid Rohingyas. If it is on the basis of their faith, then there is a serious threat to the tapestry of pluralism of this country.

Double-standards of the Government

The government has recently made it easy for minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to acquire citizenship of India. A Citizenship Amendment Bill which seeks to provide membership to all illegal migrants from these minority communities is being vetted. The minority in the aforementioned cases will of course never include Muslims. That effectively means Hazaras who still form a persecuted section of Muslims, in Afghanistan cannot avail the benefits of this Act.

Similarly, in this case, the selective denial of refuge to Rohingyas speaks quite a bit about the deep-rooted suspicion the government might have about members of a particular community.

Diversity Dividend

In the end, it must be said that India isn’t doing enough to deal with this major humanitarian crisis which has befallen the subcontinent. By accepting refugees and by allowing existing migrants to stay over, immense diversity dividend can be reaped. It has been established by social sciences and economics, that the creative disruption migrants bring in help the economy develop manifold. At the end, it boils down to respect for human rights, which India should help foster if it is ready to take on its role as a regional and a world leader.


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