Around 400,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled violence in Myanmar by crossing borders in huge numbers following a military crackdown. Before this ethnic cleansing took place, there were over a million Rohingyas in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. But the question that arises in most minds is:
Who are these Rohingyas?
Many of them have been living in Myanmar for generations but were stripped of their citizenship and are considered to be illegal immigrants among the Buddhist majority. They are usually referred to as persecuted minority in the word. Around 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims have been squeezed into the north-west stated of Rakhine in Buddhist Burma bordering Bangladesh’s Muslim inhabited area. They are stateless and unwanted. Neither of the country is ready to provide them with a citizenship overlooking the fact their families’ roots in modern-day Rakhine which was once called Arakan can be traced back to the Eight Century.
Why are the Rohingyas hated in Myanmar? This can be termed as a classic case of atrocities against the religious minority or what we call ‘persecuted minority’. Buddhism happens to be the prevailing religion in the majority Myanmar. Muslim influence, however, can be traced back to the Fifteenth Century. However, the problem lies in the complicated origin of the Rohingyas. They were brought into western Myanmar by the British colonial government when took over Burma in 1824 to work as farm laborers. Most them belong to Chittagong (Bangladesh). The wavelength at which Rohingyas entered Arakan (present day Rakhine) had caused a lot of stir among the local population then because of which developed a strong sense of nationalism thinking of these Rohingyas as someone alien to them. After World War II the British departed and communal clashes began between the local Buddhist population and Muslims who stayed back. Over the time the Rohingyas acquired the status of foreigners who were demonized by the Buddhist majority.
Analyzing the recent politics around the issue we that the western media has majorly focused on the role of the military and the de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has played. She holds the Noble Peace Prize and her actions are being widely questioned thus. Her not explicitly condemning the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims has raised quite a few eyebrows. But there remain issues that haven’t been touched upon yet. It is important that we look beyond the religious and ethnic differences towards other causes of persecution.
Looking at India’s refugee laws we find that India has been hosting large numbers of refugees without any specific law in place since 1971 when a massive influx of immigrants coming from war-torn Bangladesh was witnessed. Then the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recommendations were relied upon. According to the UN data India is home to approximately two million refugees. Even though India doesn’t have a domestic refugee law it has since the time of its independence provided refuge to people of various ethnicities and religions. Recently, however, to counter such inflow of people from the across the borders the Indian government has developed a new strategy. It has amended the Citizenship Act of 1955. In July, last year the Union government had put forward the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. The Bill obtained accommodation for illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who had fled religious persecution. This was mainly done to save these immigrants from imprisonment or deportation. However, the Bill did not extend to Muslims nor did it include immigrants from Nepal, Myanmar or Sri Lanka. The new Bill benefitted the people belonging to Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian and Sikh faith who are minority religions in the country of their origin but not Muslims persecuted in their countries of origin such as Burmese Rohingyas. This was perhaps the first hint of government’s stand on the 40,000 illegal Rohingya Muslims in the country. The stand became crystal clear a month before PM’s visit to Myanmar when the Kiren Rijju directed the state governments to conduct surveys to detect and deport Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar. His subsequent clarification that he only wanted them ‘pushed back’ and not thrown into the ocean or shot belies India’s image as a benevolent host. The stand has been justified on the grounds that they are susceptible to recruitment by terror groups and they not only infringe on the rights of Indian Citizens but also pose a security threat. The choice of words such as ‘illegal immigrants’ over ‘refugees’ by Rijju appears to be in conformity with the BJP’s long-held ideological stand on immigrants: They are illegal immigrants till Muslim and refugees if Hindus. If you take up the recently discussed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill its clearly illustrates bias towards Muslims.
A significant incident in the timeline is that of ‘Guru ka Langar’. Three days after the Sikh volunteers from Khalsa Aid (India) arrived in Bangladesh Myanmar border to begging relief work for Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar finally received a go from the Bangladesh government to start the Guru ka Langar (community kitchen). The langar sewa started at a spot on Shahpuri Island where refugees from Myanmar land after traveling through the waters in rickety boats. This shows how the Sikh community has not forgotten yet what happens when a religious majority which is in power turns against the minorities. The current Rohingya crisis probably reminds them of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India.
There is an underlying principle in the customary International Law that no refugees may be pushed back to their place of origin in case there is any apprehension that they will be subjected to very suffering from which they fled. India has formally accepted this in her ratification of various international declarations including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, when the Home Ministry issued directives or orders to the state governments to detect and deport the Rohingya Muslims shouldn’t the Ministry keep in mind that the Supreme Court has ordained that as “India is a responsible member of the international community…the court must adopt an interpretation which abides by the international commitments made by the country, particularly where its constitutional and statutory mandates indicate no deviation? Recent August 24, 2017, Supreme Court judgment in the right to privacy case (Justice Puttuswamy’s case) that “Constitutional provisions must be read and interpreted in a manner which would enhance their conformity with the global human rights regime.”
Coming to more Supreme Court verdicts which disallow the Indian government from arbitrarily deporting refugees from its territory we see that even traditionally the rights of refugees facing deportation or forced eviction in different contexts have been upheld by Indian courts by taking recourse to what is called the ‘canon of construction’ or ‘shadow of refugee law’. For instance, the Right to Life under Article 21 of Indian constitution has been so interpreted by the Supreme Court that it can be extended to anyone living in India irrespective of their nationality. Moreover, the Supreme Court have made clear, in their 1996 judgement in NHRC v/s Arunachal Pradesh, that the expression “any person” applies not only to bona fide Indian citizens but anyone for the moment residing in India, Indian or not: “the State”, the court has decreed, “is bound to protect the life and liberty of every human being, be he a citizen or otherwise.” In another landmark judgment only last year in Dong Lian Kham, the Delhi High Court held that the principle of non-refoulement “is required to be taken as a part of the guarantee (to life and liberty) under Article 21 of the Constitution”. The court added that this “would be in keeping with the golden traditions of this country in respecting international comity and according to good treatment to refugees”.
As we enter a new millennium, we need powerful international laws and bodies that can prevent such atrocities and punish those who lead their people into wars and genocides, We should apply criminal laws to heads of nation-states and governments and not just individuals – citizens or not. Since Narendra Modi became the prime minister, nobody talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, which happened when he was the chief minister of the state. It’s a well-documented case study of sectarian violence and systematic injustice, also abuse and misuse of power for vote-bank politics. The Congress leaders responsible for the 1984 pogrom haven’t been brought to justice either. The tradition of guaranteeing political or diplomatic protection and immunity, and not going after (former) head of states – whether to investigate and to expose their lies, crimes or wrong dealings – is a global malaise. Today, people are shocked and disappointed to find out that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won’t speak up for the Rohingyas. Every political commentator is baffled and infuriated by her denial of what is happening in her country even when her reasons for doing so are quite understandable. Politicians will never speak against the popular narrative. Take Shashi Tharoor for example. He is a media celebrity in his own right as much as Aung San Suu Kyi was before her current fall from grace. When you watch Tharoor’s Al Jazeera interview with Mehdi Hassan, his cautious take on Kashmir reveals a lot about the political compromises and cost one must bear to serve the people, including misleading them. When you compare Tharoor’s watered-down, everything-is-normal version of what’s happening in Kashmir with Aung San Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak up for the rights of Rohingyas, or appeal to the junta to stop any excesses or atrocities, you see an uncanny resemblance between the Indian state and the Burmese. One understands how it would be political suicide for Tharoor to go out and defend Kashmiris, or articulate their demand for autonomy or independence. The RSS-led BJP government’s tacit support of Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta’s campaign against a Muslim minority is a political calculation that may or may not prevent Myanmar from getting in bed with China, or improve the BJP’s chances of retaining seats and returning to power. What is clear for now is that the BJP is following in the footsteps of the Congress during the Sikh riots by standing mute in the face of the ongoing violence in Myanmar. The Sikh volunteers’ arrival in the Rohingya refugee camps on Myanmar-Bangladesh border should serve as a wake-up call for Indian leaders.