The Indian government’s stance on the Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar is from a security point of view, imprudent; from a historical point of view, myopic; and from a moral point of view, untenable. In its legal and political statements, the Indian government has, for all practical purposes, declared the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants not refugees, threatened their deportation and has declared them to be a security threat. These claims have rickety foundations.
The current debate in India is being constructed as one between humanitarian obligations and national security. Those advocating a more accommodative stance towards the Rohingya are being cast as bleeding-heart moralists with no concern for India’s security. This way of constructing our choices is an intellectual mistake and already loads the dice in favour of the Indian government’s stance. No sensible person will deny that India has to, first and foremost, look after its own security. But treating the Rohingya as illegal migrants will diminish rather than enhance India’s security for a number of reasons.
It is clear that the Rohingya are being subjected to something that is moving closer to ethnic cleansing. The Myanmar government has been using a hugely exaggerated pretext of radicalisation to unleash violence and expulsion on a whole ethnic group. If there is one thing we know from recent history it is this. Radicalisation grows when three conditions obtain: Groups are subjected to political violence and marginalisation, not democratic incorporation. States lose control over territory partly because their own repression destroys the normal fabric of civil society. And other states that side with the repressing state also evoke resentment and become a target.
Even in Europe, the Bosnian wars were a trigger of radicalisation in other parts of the world. By basically condoning the Myanmar government’s actions, by not securing assistance for stateless people, India, in effect, might help create the conditions for greater radicalisation. By also declaring a whole refugee community as a national security threat, largely on communal lines, it is also aligning itself with the states that are deepening communal conflict.
India has also implicitly put all its eggs in the basket of the Myanmar government. This is a mistake. It is increasingly clear that states do not find it easy to control territories in the aftermath of deep violent conflict. We are relying on Myanmar’s promise to rehabilitate the refugees, when it is precisely that government’s policies that are, in substantial part, creating the push factor in the first place. It is not clear that the Myanmar government will have the ability to deliver stability in our border areas since it has allowed the situation to fester in the first place. We will not be able to contain the spillovers across our porous borders if we have alienated communities living on our borders. So, pinning all hopes in a government that may not be able to control the situation is imprudent from a security point of view.
Finally, there is a talk of radicalisation amongst the Rohingya; they are also being linked to terrorist threats. Let us for a moment suppose that there is some possibility of small sections being tempted in that direction. It is precisely to isolate them that you need a more imaginative refugee policy. Such a policy in all likelihood will ensure that their numbers will not grow. A proper system of identification, rehabilitation, and possibly reporting in India, which might allow you to actually understand the dynamics within the community, will be better than pushing them to a wall, where they are crushed between two states.
There is this rather curious matter of how a group of Rohingya refugees ended up in Jammu in the first place. This has now become an issue in domestic politics.; and the government often gives the sense that the policy is more about catering to its core ideological constituency than it is about addressing a serious problem. If we actually had a proper asylum law, and better processing mechanisms for refugees, even this situation could have been avoided. In short, there are prudent security reasons, for treating the Rohingya with more dignity and political finesse than our security mandarins seem to muster.
Our stance is historically myopic, since of all countries, India understands the dynamics of ethnic conflict more deeply. India has been exemplary in the way it accommodated refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is right to say that the West should not lecture us. But India aspires to be a great power. Its biggest asset is the way it has been the significant open society of the region. In the larger scheme of things, India had escaped radicalisation in large part because of its success in democratic incorporation, and it was not identified with persecutory ideologies of the state or of other states. The political construct we have put around the Rohingya weakens the ideological projection that has been India’s greatest security strength. India is, in a sense, betraying its own historical heritage.
Finally, our stance is morally obtuse. As Devirupa Mitra of The Wire pointed out, India has now changed its stance on an important moral principle: The principle of non-refoulement. This principle stops nations from returning people to a country where they might be at risk of severe persecution. Even if India is not a signatory to International Refugee Conventions, it takes a very pinched up moral imagination to forcibly send back people who will in all likelihood face persecution. There is something disquieting about a country that wants others to have open borders for its rich and privileged, but will not help those who show up at its door because of palpable threats to their lives. In humanitarian terms also, Indian policy is a pittance. To put it somewhat rhetorically, a few sacks of rice to Bangladesh is now what passes of as a humanitarian strategy.
The problem with our current strategy is not that it is placing security over humanitarianism. It is that it is doing so in a way that is imprudent and likely to be self-defeating.