India’s Aboutface on the Rohingya

Some protesters got injured in Pretoria on Friday, as police fired stun grenades to disperse protesters at the Burmese Embassy. PHOTO: ANA Reporter

It has been more than three weeks since an alleged terror attack on the Burmese army by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) which triggered retaliation against the Rohingyas resulting in thousands of deaths and an exodus of over 400,000 refugees to neighboring Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohinga cluster at their border to escape murderous death squads. This crisis has greatly embarrassed Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, compelling her to cancel her proposed visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

Despite being criticized by the media and Western countries for what has been described by human rights groups as “text book” ethnic cleansing, Aung San Suu Kyi, has got support from two Asian giants, China and India. When Indian PM Narendra Modi, visited Yangon earlier this month, he was expected to speak on the Rohingya issue  – especially about his government’s decision to deport them out of the country, but there was nothing in the joint declaration to suggest that. India, though, made it clear what it thought of the alleged attack by the ARSA at Burmese army bases- though the majority who were killed in the exchange of fire were Rohingyas. 

India supported the armed forces against them, which fit the narrative that Delhi has been trying to build for a while– refugees constitute a threat to national security and hence they need to be subjected to refoulement. 

Unknown Intelligence reports have been presented as a source of this menacing threat from refugees. Media probes subsequently revealed that not a single complaint on terror links had been filed against any of the 40,000 refugees living in India. Earlier this year, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehmooda Mufti, stated categorically that there were no allegations against the refugees staying in her state.

The Indian government was not fazed by the media investigation that debunked those dodgy intelligence reports that reportedly associated the refugees with proscribed extremist organizations in Pakistan like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).   Instead they decided to throw out 40,000 Rohingya refugees residing in different parts of India. 

Before they could give meaning to this decision, which was also challenged by human rights activists in India’s Supreme Court, the crisis in Burma erupted again with more refugees streaming into Bangladesh and Indian borders. As reports of death squads armed with machetes burning villages, hacking men and raping and killing women began to occupy headlines in the media, India found itself in a serious moral dilemma: how do you send harassed and displaced people back to their country where they are bound to be hacked too. 

Besides, its attitude was also causing enormous domestic stress to its ally Bangladesh, which was not only facing an avalanche of refugees, but also discontent at home on how Muslim brethren were being treated by a neighbor as well as India’s hands-off attitude. 

Bangladesh beseeched India to re-look at its refugee policy and soften its stance towards the Rohingyas. Realizing the implications of antagonizing an ally, Bangladesh, whose PM courageously announced that it would feed Rohingya refugees as they feed their own, India was forced to finesse its position towards them. It sent humanitarian supplies to refugees living in camps in Bangladesh and also demanded from the Burmese government that it should try to end the violence. 

India’s strategy is still evolving due to its domestic compulsions as the ruling BJP’s right wing constituency relishes the idea of also ousting all refugees and illegal Muslim immigrants from India. It’s partymen and some ministers in the government have questioned the identity of Rohingyas and insisted that they are Bangladeshis who are using the violence in Burma to sneak into India. 

Aung San Suu Kyi’s government also calls Rohingyas Bengalis, and refuses to recognize them as indigenous people. She is under pressure to end the violence quickly, but people who know how the country is administered recognize that it is the army that decides on security issues. The State Counselor also realized rather early in her political career that this minority- barely 1 million- does not count for much in a Buddhist majority country that has had historical misgivings about Islam. 

During the national elections, Suu Kyi was generally silent on the persecution of minorities- a strategy that gave her ample electoral dividends even if it did not endear her to civil society. Her attempts to mollify this international constituency by getting former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to give his recommendations to solve the Rohingya issue, seemed to have been derailed by the latest crisis that many claim has acquired genocidal proportions.

Annan recommended improving their living conditions, generating jobs and sorting out their citizenship issue at the earliest to end the conflict. As the ongoing savagery prevented her from sorting out this contentious issue, the unrelenting attack by international NGOs and the Western media may be driving her closer to the Therawada Buddhist clergy that never conceals its abhorrence for the Muslim minority. 

Buddhist groups have taken to social media to show that the Rohingyas are not so innocent and also the atrocities against them are overblown. Media outlets close to them have blamed Pakistan and its terror network for aggravating the problem. The AR Salvation Army has categorically denied any relationship with any Pakistan based extremist outfits, but there is some “evidence” going around in the public domain to suggest the contrary. Some members of the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC)  have criticized the way the Rohingya crisis has been handled. Both Burma and India have drawn their ire. The Indian government sources have hit back by pointing out the hypocrisy of the OIC by saying that it does not criticize the happenings in Yemen where thousands have been killed.  

That said, the Rohingya crisis has challenged some of the time tested beliefs about Buddhism being the religion of peace, and India not turning its back on refugees whatever their religious denomination. India has been compelled to tweak its stand on this issue when it discovered that China is backing the Burmese government in this crisis. Since then New Delhi is working hard to ensure that both Bangladesh and Burma do not get enticed by the flexibility of China’s foreign policy and jettison them. In these times, it is a tough task. 

Sanjay Kapoor is Independent Media’s stringer based in Delhi. He is also the Editor of the publication in India “Hard News.”