In an interesting development, the Supreme Court of India has refrained from interfering in the deportation of seven Rohingya Muslims to Myanmar this week. This is the first time that these refugees have been sent back to Myanmar from India. This was done despite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on racism flagging concerns.The deportation move is in line with the ruling BJP’s policy on illegal migrants.
Who are Rohingyas and why are they being deported? They are an ethnic minority in neighbouring Myanmar, predominantly living in Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Although they have lived in Myanmar since the 8th century, they are denied citizenship rights under their 1982 citizenship law. About 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh to escape a brutal suppression by Myanmar’s military last year. Much of the Rohingya trouble began with their demand for self-rule and a separate homeland within Myanmar. The United Nations (UN) has described the violence against the Rohingya community as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
An estimated 40,000 Rohingyas have taken refuge in India, mostly living in Hyderabad, Jammu and Delhi. One doesn’t know how many of these 40,000 have terrorist links. Here, the ruling party’s idea of nationalism has overtaken humanitarian concerns.The government feels illegal migrants are “ infringing on the rights of Indian citizens” and are more “vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organisations.” The Union Home Ministry’s September 2015 notification under the Passports Act and the Foreigners Act exempts from usual entry and residential procedures “Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis and Buddhists” facing persecution in neighbouring countries – but not Muslims.
Secondly, the Modi government might be having foreign policy and strategic and security concerns. The government is concerned about the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar, economic connectivity to ASEAN markets, and insurgencies in Northeast. Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia, a focus area of India’s foreign policy. Its strong backing of the current regime is because of the Myanmarese government’s cooperation in containing insurgencies in the northeast as well as its importance in Modi’s ‘Act East policy.’ The earlier Congress governments had consciously embraced the authoritarian military leaders in the early nineties and the Modi government has merely taken it forward.
Thirdly and more importantly, the BJP and its mentor RSS oppose giving asylum to Rohingya Muslims, who they consider illegal migrants. In line with the party and the RSS the government says the Rohingya are ‘illegal immigrants’ since they have not applied for refugee status. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said at a rally last month: “We have been facing the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and now Rohingyas have infiltrated into our country. Any decision regarding Rohingya should be made keeping in mind the threat to national security.” Echoing similar concerns, the BJP chief Amit Shah has recently warned, “Our government will identify each and every infiltrator and ensure they are out of the voters` list. In fact, we have started the process to deport the Rohingya immigrants to Myanmar from Thursday itself.”
The issue is naturally becoming political ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Already opposition parties are opposing the government line. At the Congress Plenary in March, the party’s resolution said, “Considering that both Bangladesh and Myanmar are important neighbours and friends, India must play a constructive role for the resolution of Rohingya refugee crisis and should not be seen as indifferent or partisan.” West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s tweet endorsing the UN appeal to help Rohingyas and noting that “not all commoners are terrorists” has shown the political divide in this regard. On the other hand, in response to the Home Ministry directions, the BJP governments in Assam and Manipur have issued “alerts to mount extra vigil in the border areas.”
At the back of all these is the lack of a well-defined refugee policy. So far, India has not turned its back on refugees though it has been done on a case- to -case basis. India has always abided by the Refugee Convention despite not signing it, and over the past 70 years accepted successive influx of thousands of refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Tibetan refugees were given Registration and identity certificates. The Sri Lankan Tamils were classified as “camp” and “non-camp refugees”. The others – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians – from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are on Long Term Visas.
It is nobody’s case that refugees should be encouraged at the cost of Indian citizens. What is needed is a proper policy. Parliament has to apply its mind in this regard. The Congress leader Shashi Tharoor had introduced a Private Member’s Bill titled the Asylum Bill, in 2015 in the Lok Sabha. But, the Bill has not yet been taken up for consideration. It is time that there is a political consensus on refugee issue.