Print edition : October 27, 2017

At the Rohingya refugee camp at Kalindi Kunj in New Delhi. Photo: V. Sudershan

Rohingya refugees receive aid materials, distributed by an NGO, at a refugee camp in Dargah Balapura village near Hyderabad on September 19. Photo: PTI

Rohingya Muslim children attend a temporary school, run by a non-governmental organisation, in a slum in New Delhi on August 16. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Rohingya refugees offering prayers at a camp at Kelambakkam in Chennai on September 17. Photo: PTI

The fate of the Rohingya refugees in India hangs in the balance as the Narendra Modi government sees them as a threat to national security although police verification of refugees camping in Jammu has proved to the contrary.

INDIA has a choice to make. It can either deport the Rohingya to Myanmar and participate in a genocide or accept them as refugees and show some moral fortitude as Bangladesh has done. If it chooses the first option, the risks of international condemnation and loss of face are real. The second option will be consistent with India’s policies on refugees from Sri Lanka, Tibet and other countries. While India does not have a law on refugees, it has issued long-term visas to the Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar. Around 16,500 Rohingya have also been issued United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identity cards, recognising them as refugees after proper verification.

Already, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has criticised the Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju for his comment on deportation of the Rohingya. In his opening statement at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Al Hussein said: “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country. The Minister of State for Home Affairs has reportedly said that because India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the country can dispense with international law on the matter, together with basic human compassion. However, by virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement, India cannot carry out collective expulsions or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.”

Given the severity of the situation, providing shelter to the Rohingya would not only be good in law but also cement India’s image as a morally upright nation. However, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be moving away from well-established procedures and practices of international diplomacy.

Modi’s visit to Myanmar during the thick of the genocide left nobody in doubt about the government’s stand on the issue. He joined the de facto leader of that country, Aung San Suu Kyi, in condemning the “terrorists” and did not mention the violence faced by thousands of the Rohingya fleeing the crackdown in Rakhine State. Back home, his government argued in the Supreme Court that the Rohingya were a security threat with links to Pakistan-based terror groups and the Islamic State (I.S.). This claim has been rubbished by lawyers, and the Jammu and Kashmir government and the State police. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announced in the State Assembly that while 17 first information reports (FIRs) were registered against 38 Rohingya, none of them was found to have engaged in any anti-national or subversive activity. Her People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that State.

Colin Gonsalves, senior advocate in the Supreme Court who is representing 7,000 Rohingya sheltered in 23 camps in Jammu, conducted a verification drive in collaboration with the Jammu police and reportedly said that no case of terrorism was found against any of them. But some media outlets repeatedly claimed the Rohingya were security threats. “Media reports may be fake and baseless. But they are dangerous. We are scared that in order to prove these claims some Rohingya could be arrested under false pretexts and deliberately linked with terrorism. Such fabrications are not unheard of, especially against Muslim youths,” said an activist.

The activist failed to understand what Modi gained by joining hands with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was criticised internationally for overseeing what the U.N. described as “ethnic cleansing”. With calls for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize getting louder, St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University, London, from where Aung San Suu Kyi graduated in 1967, removed her portrait from the entrance to the college building since 1999. All the goodwill she earned for being subjected to political house arrest under the junta was slowly eroding. It was not unusual that Modi was joining hands with her at this juncture. The stand taken by the BJP on Muslims and Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand on the Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslims, seemed to be converging. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) thinks the Rohingya are no less than terrorists. At the RSS’ annual Dasara rally in Nagpur, its chief Mohan Bhagwat said the Rohingya were being driven out of Myanmar mainly because of their continuous violent and criminal separatist activities and linkages with terrorist groups. “We have been facing the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and now the Rohingya have infiltrated into our country. Any decision regarding the Rohingya should be taken by keeping in mind the threat to national security,” he said.

Atmosphere of hatred

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and senior BJP leader L.K. Advani were present on the occasion. The government’s stand on the Rohingya was in line with the current atmosphere of hatred towards the Muslim minority in the country, some of whom had been lynched by Hindu mobs publicly on various pretexts. In most of the cases, the police stood by and watched. In many cases, the perpetrators received bail and were roaming freely.

Despite the political climate of branding Muslims as terrorists, BJP politicians have started speaking up against the government’s policy. Feroze Varun Gandhi, Member of Parliament from Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in an editorial in Navbharat Times went against his party’s stated position and advocated asylum for the Rohingya. He called for treating them humanely rather than deporting them. He immediately came under fire and was trolled on Twitter. (His mother, Maneka Gandhi, is a Union Minister.) Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir termed Varun Gandhi’s comments as “against the national interest”.

Varun Gandhi was forced to clarify his comments. He said his comments “focussed primarily on defining India’s asylum policy, with clear demarcations on how we would accept refugees. As for Rohingyas, I’ve called for empathy, leading potentially to asylum, while vetting each applicant for national security concerns.”

In 2016, Varun Gandhi had explained his views on the refugee issue in general in an article in The Hindu. “It remains the duty of a state, especially one with a democratic ethos like India’s, to keep its doors open for people in distress. Any refugee, whose grant of asylum has been approved, should be given a formal recognition of his/her asylum status along with an identity document and a travel document. They should be able to apply for residence permits, and be able to choose their place of residence across India. Their documents must also enable them to seek employment in the private sector. Primary education, a powerful enabler, should be offered on no-charge basis in government schools, while primary healthcare services available to Indian citizens should be offered as well.” He called for upgrading policy instruments and putting in place a well-defined asylum law.

He displayed a deep understanding of the Rohingya issue when he said: “The Rohingya, an ethnic group from Rakhine State in Myanmar, are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Over 13,000 Rohingya refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India, with about 600-700 living in Kalindi Kunj, JJ Colony and Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. They live in thatched huts with plastic tarps and straw roofs in Nangli camp in Mewat district, Haryana. They have no access to safe water or sanitation, while any waste is simply thrown away into the streets. Open defecation is rife as sanitation is found lacking, while their children cannot get admitted in schools due to lack of requisite documentation. Most men serve as daily wage labourers.”

He was joined by Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, in criticising the government’s stand on the issue. Tharoor said: “The Centre’s portrayal of the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and not refugees is based on a flawed assessment. It could undermine India’s status on the global stage.” He added that the Rohingya issue should not be seen as a communal issue but one with a bearing on the nation’s future. Pointing out that India had provided asylum to refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, he accused the government of adopting a hostile approach to the Rohingya because they were Muslims. There was no justification in the argument that a nation of 1,200 million people could not accommodate 40,000 Rohingya, he said.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Army said it discovered a mass grave with bodies of 28 Hindus, suspected to be killed by a Rohingya armed group in Rakhine State. James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South-East Asia and the Pacific, called the reports deeply disturbing and asked for immediate and independent investigation into it. “They underscore the need for independent investigators to access the area. To this end, the Myanmar government should allow the U.N. Fact Finding Mission full access into and within the country. The people of Myanmar—and international community as a whole—deserve to know the truth about what is happening in Rakhine State,” he said.

The Myanmar government has blocked all international access to Rakhine State. It allowed the U.N. to visit Maungdaw, the site of violence against the Rohingya, for a day after tremendous international pressure. But the Rohingya dismiss the efficacy of such a state-controlled visit. “I doubt the team would have been able to talk freely to people there. How can a victim express his or her suffering in front of the perpetrators, knowing fully well that they might face violence the moment the U.N. team leaves? There have been precedents where people were killed for speaking to such teams,” said Ali Johar.

According to reports quoting Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, Myanmar proposed to take back 500,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh following the military crackdown. Both the countries reportedly agreed to a “joint working group” to start the process. But the Rohingya remain sceptical. “It could be more dangerous if people are sent without proper monitoring systems or international teams such as the U.N. and without long-term solutions in place. Earlier too, when they took back people, the people faced the same atrocities and had to leave without an option,” said Ali Johar. It could also be a plan to stall international pressure, he said. Maung Abdul Khan of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) said they would not be able to protest if India decided to deport the Rohingya. But, the deportation should happen only with certain securities and guarantees in place. “Burma [Myanmar] should first give us full-fledged citizenship rights and then we can go back. In fact, we would be happy to go back,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya continued to flee Myanmar and enter Bangladesh. According to some sources, the number of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar had reached 600,000. The RHRI urged the international community to undertake concerted efforts to prevent any further escalation and seek a holistic solution to the issue. Sabber of the RHRI, whose family is trapped in Myanmar, spelt out the demands of the Rohingya: “Urgently stop continuous killing, slaughtering and burning; immediately send aid to those Rohingya who are trapped in the mountains and are dying without shelter, food, and emergency medical care; send ration for those villages that are not yet burnt down; and stop the propaganda by the Myanmar government.”

Appealing to the international community, Ali Johar said: “Do you even know how it feels to live far away from your homeland? Without basic needs, friends, family and happiness? No one flees their beloved home and homeland unless home is the mouth of a shark, and no one puts their children in an unequipped boat unless the water is safer than the land.”