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Rohingya situation shows strategic shift in India’s foreign policy

opinionRohingya situation shows strategic shift in India’s foreign policy

While the Rohingya crisis of 2017, particularly the massive exodus of minority Muslims from the Rakhine state in Myanmar to neighbouring countries, has increasingly created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and has dominated international politics, surprisingly, it has made India face worldwide criticism for its handling of the issue and has once again fuelled the debate on national interest and humane concerns. According to the United Nations, around 40,000 Rohingyas have settled in India, mostly in refugee settlements in Jammu, and 18,000 have received refugee documentation. Nevertheless, Government of India is showing increasing unwillingness to accommodate Rohingya refugees any longer. On 8 August 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a letter to the Chief Secretaries of all the state governments/union territories, advising them to sensitise all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps and initiate deportation process, thus apparently disrespecting the idea of human rights and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

India’s policy on refugees suggests that the country has been a haven for recognised refugees living in an unauthorized manner. So far, India has received an overwhelming flow of refugees from Pakistan, nearly more than 10 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh, Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. India has provided them with peace and freedom within its borders. Following an idealist policy based on humanitarian concerns, India has had its fair share of refugees, even without being formally bound by any significant international laws and agreements protecting the rights of refugees. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been more realistic and concerned about national interests, putting emphasis on deporting the Rohingya refugees and ensuring the security of its people first, rather than serving the illegal migrants. After Prime Minister Modi’s first bilateral visit to Myanmar in September 2017, the government emphasised that it wanted to deport all Rohingya refugees who had left Myanmar in the previous years. Consequently, it drew flak from human rights bodies such as UNHCR, Human Rights Watch, and the entire international community which includes the Bangladesh government, as well as some Indian political parties that have been putting pressure on GoI to accommodate Rohingya refugees and follow the international law on refugees. In response to this, the former junior Home Minister Kiren Rijiju stated that all Rohingyas in India would be sent back, suggesting to the international community that whether Rohingyas were registered with the UN Human Rights Commission or not, they were illegal immigrants in India. He further argued that India was not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol—the key legal document on refugee protection and human rights—and does not have a national refugee protection legislation either. So, it can dispense with any international law on the matter. Taking a firm stand on the criticism of the government’s handling of the issue, Rijiju asserted that nobody should give lessons to India on the matter as globally, the nation had already absorbed the maximum number of refugees. He told the international community that the Indian government was vested with powers to detect and deport any illegal foreign national under Section 32-C of the Foreigner’s Act 1946.

This, undeniably, was the very first time in the history of India’s policy on refugees that the Indian state adopted a realistic approach and the Centre instructed all state governments to start the process of deportation. Nevertheless, at the same time, it did not forget its tradition of helping those in need worldwide. Under “Operation Insaniyat”, India sent 700 tonnes of relief material including food, water, clothes and shelter building supplies to the large influx of refugees in Bangladesh, but did not agree to accept more Rohingya refugees in India because of several reasons.

First, the rise of terrorism has become a grim security threat for India in the last few decades, primarily through illegal migrants who are more vulnerable to getting recruited by terrorist organizations. Thus, so far as India’s security is concerned, the Rohingyas are seen as a severe threat to national security and integrity since many refugees seem to have had close connections with terrorist groups such Al Qaeda. In 2018, Amnesty International revealed that the Rohingya armed group, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), massacred up to 99 Hindu women, men, and children and abducted Hindu villagers in August 2017 in the Rakhine state, spreading fear among Hindus and other ethnic communities. India being a Hindu majority country, the threat has to be seen in the context of the lives of India’s own people. They cannot be put in danger in order to protect “others”, especially those who have been fighting against their security forces and government for decades.

Second, it is quite evident that illegal migrants settle permanently in Indian territory, infringe on the rights of Indian citizens and may lead to grave security challenges. Furthermore, they pose enormous problems for the nation, particularly to the Northeast, putting excessive stress on the limited resources and job opportunities, and notably, increasing the crime rate in the region. Likewise, illegal Rohingya migrants, in the longer run, may demand civilian and political rights in India and a share in resources. As noted earlier, many Rohingya immigrants are trained by extremist groups and have the support of Al Qaeda. They may even lead a war against the Indian state in case of any negligence. They have already been fighting against their own government and security forces and can be a threat to India in the future. In addition, India is already an overpopulated nation, which has been struggling with problems of poverty, economic growth and unemployment.

Lastly, as Myanmar holds relative strategic significance, New Delhi cannot afford to deteriorate its relationship with Naypyidaw. Besides this, China has emerged as a major threat to India on many fronts, including economic and geopolitics, and presents considerable rivalry supported by Pakistan; thus, upsetting the Myanmar regime can be a massive strategic mistake for India. The Government of Myanmar has already cleared their stand on Rohingyas, characterising them as terrorist groups. Any criticism of the Myanmar government’s action or assistance to Rohingya refugees by New Delhi can be taken with great offence, affecting not only the bilateral relations but the security of India, too. 

Many question the government on why it has started treating migrants in a hostile manner  These critics fail to understand that India, which has been a host to migrants from neighbouring countries, has gone from idealism to realism. As such, New Delhi is not interested in hosting a people with dubious connections in the name of human rights. That said, it would not be wrong to say that India’s humanitarian policy on refugees in the past added to the global image of India, and has been an important tool of its “soft power”. No wonder, this strategic decision has impacted the image of India globally. But the government chose India’s security over international image.

Of course it is not correct to say that all Rohingya refugees are terrorists or belong to Al-Qaeda or ISIS. The human rights of the victims of war between the Myanmar government and ARSA need to be protected, but without making them a burden on a single country, such as India. India is already struggling with issues of overpopulation, scarcity of resources, and domestic challenges posed by jihadis and separatists. Instead, the international community should come together and collectively take the “responsibility to protect” the Rohingyas. As such, the UN, UNHCR and other related agencies should come forward to conduct an independent investigation which can be collaborated with India, distinguishing between innocent victims and perpetrators of war crimes, and then expect India to provide for a safe place to genuinely deprived persons to live a secure and healthy life. Expecting any state to act solely on humanitarian grounds, while sacrificing its national interest is not realistic. Accordingly, it would be unfair to force India to accommodate Rohingya refugees without identifying and distinguishing the risky ones.

Renu Keer, PhD, is Senior Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, Delhi

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