The Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, is looking for a round of applause for not driving the Rohingya refugees in India into the sea or shooting them; all that he wants is their deportation. It is, however, doubtful whether the process of exiling them will be uncomplicated since it is bound to raise humanitarian concerns in India and elsewhere. It is not easy to harshly deny shelter to a group which has had to leave their own country, viz, Myanmar, in dire circumstances.
Rijiju probably believes that branding them as potential terrorists since they are Muslims will be persuasive enough. But it is not an argument which will be readily accepted. Moreover, the issue of deportation has been complicated by, first, Myanmar’s reluctance to accept them and, secondly, by the unwillingness of the emigrants themselves to return to a “home” which they no longer consider safe in view of the recent army actions against them.
Even if the Myanmar army was targeting the insurgents among the Rohingyas, the fact remains that the victims were innocent men, women and children as is usually the case. Because of the conflict between the army and the rebels, the ordinary civilians had no option but to flee.
A contributory cause for their flight is the fact that their legitimacy as citizens of Myanmar has for long been under a cloud. Described as the most friendless people in the world, the Rohingyas are virtually strangers in their own country because the law in Myanmar does not recognise them as one of the country’s ethnic communities.
The reason is that the Rohingyas migrated over the centuries from what is now Bangladesh to Rakhine, previously Arakan, and continue to speak a patois of the Bengali language. However, notwithstanding their presence in Rakhine from way back in the 15th century and earlier, they are still regarded as aliens by the Myanmar government and have faced repeated army crackdowns.
Even the ascent to power of the Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who herself faced persecution from the military regime, has made little difference to the condition of the Rohingyas. She has blamed the terrorists for the “huge iceberg of misinformation” about the community which has begun to attract the attention of the world, and has promised to protect everyone, whether they are citizens or not. But the trek to Bangladesh of an estimated 164,000 Rohingyas and Malayasia’s assurance that it is ready to provide shelter to those travelling by boat to the country show that the world is waking up to the unfolding horror in Myanmar.
For all practical purposes, Myanmar can be said to have dumped its problem on its reluctant neighbours. But how long the latter can play host to this unassimilated group is open to question. There are already stirrings of unease in Bangladesh, which is bearing the brunt of the exodus from Myanmar.
That the Rohingyas will head for Bangladesh is understandable as it is their ancient homeland. But Dhaka is now trying to seek international assistance to settle some of the refugees on an uninhabited island in the Bay of Bengal since Bangladesh itself is overcrowded and some of its citizens are known to infiltrate into India. Since the problem is bound to persist for some time, India cannot afford to appear unsympathetic about the tragedy.
It may not join Israel in assisting the army in Myanmar unlike the European Union which has an arms embargo in place lest the weaponry is used for “internal repression”. But for India to be in favour of the summary expulsion of the refugees amounts to being cold and uncaring.
The lack of compassion can seem all the more strange since India has traditionally opened its doors to persecuted minorities, starting from the Parsis in the 8th century to the Tibetans, the “East Pakistanis” in 1971, the Sri Lankan Tamils and others. In contrast to this benevolence, the gruff rejection of the calls for temporary accommodation of the Rohingyas is patently unfeeling and brings little credit to the country. The argument about the presence of terrorists is unconvincing since such elements cannot but constitute a tiny fraction of the total number of refugees. It is unfair and illogical to brand an entire community as terrorist.
What is apparently more to the point is the Hindutva lobby’s mistrust of the Muslims in general. But even if the government comprises people who subscribe to the Hindutva worldview, it should endeavour to raise itself above such ideological considerations in view of the oath of allegiance to a non-partisan constitution and look at an issue without any sectarian bias. Such an absence of prejudice may be difficult for the Hindutva hardliners who still regard the Muslims in India as children of the 12th century invaders. But the government has to be far more open-minded.
By Amulya Ganguli