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Embrace the Rohingya

Both morally and legally, India cannot deport refugees facing a grave threat in Myanmar.

Written by Deepak K Singh | Updated: September 13, 2017 8:21 am
Rohingya, Rohingya muslim, Rohingya flee border, myanmar bangladesh Rohingya, kiren rijiju, Rohingya refugee, indian express, opinion What makes the purported deportation of the Rohingya from India legally untenable is that the Indian government, like any other in the world, is bound by customary international law to respect the principle of non-refoulement. Illustration by C R Sasikumar

The recent statement by Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju that the Indian government will detect and deport the Rohingya back to Myanmar marks a low in India’s otherwise long-recognised impeccable track record in hosting asylum-seekers. His subsequent clarification that he merely wanted them “pushed back” — not thrown into the ocean or shot — further belies India’s image as a benevolent host. While such assurances from the minister might have come as a huge relief to the 40,000-odd beleaguered Rohingya currently in India, it does not portend well for an aspiring “major power”.

Rijiju’s wrath against all “illegal immigrants” — including 14,000 Rohingya who have been issued valid registration certificates by the UNHCR, New Delhi — is sought to be justified on the grounds that they are “susceptible” to recruitment by “terror” groups, and that they “not only infringe on the rights of Indian citizens but also pose grave security challenges”. Also, the junior minister forcefully argued that the Rohingya must be deported “to ensure the demographic pattern of India is not disturbed”. The minister’s avowed threat to do so notwithstanding, any proposal to deport them would not only be legally untenable and morally indefensible but also politically inexpedient.

The choice of the expression — “illegal immigrants” over “refugees” — by Rijiju appears deliberate and also in sync with the BJP’s long-held ideological stance on immigrants: They are illegal immigrants if Muslims and refugees when Hindus. For example, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, whereby all groups of persecuted non-Muslim minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians — from neighbouring countries would be more than welcome to their “natural home”, clearly illustrates this bias towards Muslims.

What makes the purported deportation of the Rohingya from India legally untenable is that the Indian government, like any other in the world, is bound by customary international law to respect the principle of non-refoulement. No government, as per this law, can forcibly push back asylum-seekers to the country they have fled to escape violence, as it might endanger their very survival. Not being a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol is no excuse to abdicate India’s responsibility to provide much-needed succour to people under duress and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

India has for too long abstained from being a party to the 1951 international convention, despite the fact that the context has dramatically changed in the aftermath of the recent refugee crisis in Europe. Whether or not India chooses to ratify the 1951 convention, there are several Supreme Court verdicts which disallow the Indian government from arbitrarily and summarily deporting refugees from its territory. The courts in India have traditionally upheld the rights of refugees facing deportation or forced eviction in different contexts by taking recourse to what is called the “canon of construction” or a “shadow of refugee law”. For example, the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution has been so interpreted by the SC that it can be extended to anyone living in India irrespective of her nationality.

The apex court is scheduled to hear a petition on the Rohingya issue on September 18. It is unlikely to deviate from its own precedent.

On a moral plane, the Indian government can hardly hope to defend its stand given the fact that the Rohingya face an imminent threat to their lives in the wake of the ongoing “ethnic-cleansing” drives in the Rakhine State, Myanmar. The flight of nearly 3,00,000 Rohingya to neighbouring Bangladesh is a testimony to the wretchedness of their condition. Various reports — by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch etc — point to the Rohingya undergoing gross human rights violations at the hands of Myanmar’s armed forces in the name of counter-insurgency operations. These suggest a genocide. Such operations are being carried out under the rubric of “Lockdown Zones” and “Clearance Operations”. Penny Green, a professor of law at Queen Mary University, London, concluded after a 12-month long investigation in the Rakhine State that since October 9, 2016, “the Rohingya are facing a terrifying new phase in the genocide: Mass killings, rapes, village clearings and the razing of whole communities, committed with impunity by the Myanmar military and security forces”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to underplay the impending refugee crisis by choosing instead to express solidarity with Myanmar’s “extremist concerns” on his maiden visit there could only be described as politically naïve. This is further evidenced by India’s refusal to sign the subsequent “Bali Declaration” which unequivocally condemned the unfolding refugee crisis in the Rakhine State. The preference for a studied silence by Asia’s most experienced democracy in the wake of a fast deteriorating humanitarian crisis does not bode well for the future of human rights in the region. It might only embolden the Myanmarese security forces to further intensify the crackdown on the hapless Rohingya. Further, this was clearly not the moment for PM Modi to give priority to trade ties with Naypyidaw in order to counter the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar. It is time India rises to the occasion by transcending the politics of pragmatism and embraces the Rohingya refugees.

The writer teaches at the department of political science, Panjab University, Chandigarh and is the author of ‘Stateless in South Asia: The Chakmas between Bangladesh and India’ (Sage Publications, 2010)

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  1. M
    mani
    Oct 13, 2017 at 9:38 pm
    provide all help to Rohingyas. But there is no question of letting them stay in India. India, the most populated ( there is no point in saying we are second most populated) country in the world with maximum people in the world living below the poverty level and one of the lowest per capita income CANNOT be expected to accept even a single refugee. Even the good human beings among them can only be given moral and material support and not permitted to stay in India. we are too heavily populated and too poor to open our doors to any refugees. even if they are no threat to our national security we cannot accept a single person from any religion.
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    1. G
      Gary
      Sep 16, 2017 at 8:50 pm
      All these authors, muslims were of the opinion that islam is in danger in india are now demanding india to get rohingyas to india...irony of india...whatelse....
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      1. N
        Nikhil Rajput
        Sep 15, 2017 at 10:17 am
        if it is matter of my security i will stand with govt. India should change their at ude towards a hi devo bhava, We should learn from past, What happen when we welcome mogul they rule us for 800 years. what happen when we allow british people they rule us for 200 years. now we should change our policy toward this types of inveders. Please deport them asap. Jai Bharat
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        1. S
          Saurabh
          Sep 21, 2017 at 11:39 am
          Where have u studied your history Nikhil? 'We' Allowed Mughals? 'We' Allowed British? Mughals invaded a part of India, British came were allowed for interests of kings themselves. How do you compare this to Rohingya situation? They aren't coming to invade the land, aren't coming for business. Reason behind is cution in their homeland. Ask yourself, if u were cuted in your home, what'd you do? Change your religion? Get cuted because some other people of your religion are violent? Surrender your survival instincts? The biggest shame in India today is a complete subjugation of simple, plain logic and thought before anything that the govt./BJP/Modi says. Govt. is supposed to be checked, not surrendered to. National security? Why are Sikhs roaming free when we know that a big Khalistan movt. (Babbar Khalsa) is operating in foreign lands? Sikhs could b involved. Reason is that not every sikh may be involved. How does dat logic nt apply here? Only cuz u've surrendered it!
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        2. R
          Raj
          Sep 14, 2017 at 11:49 pm
          This CLOWN thinks India is his father's property to "give away" to Rohingya or any other people he wants. NEWS FLASH - Its not. The REASON Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs are allowed from Pakistan and Bangladesh to settle in India as their "natural home" is due this small thing called PAR ION - perhaps in "Panjab University" they taught you that ? Also, principle of "nonrefoulment" is meaningless - the UNHCR itself has prevented refugees from leaving many regions where they were facing dangers. And these Rohingya came to India FROM BANGLADESH - not Myanmar!
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          1. S
            Saurabh
            Sep 21, 2017 at 11:45 am
            1. Really? P-a-r-t-i-t-i-on? When did Tibet divide from India n go to China? If not why are Tibetans welcome and settled here? Oh and when was Afghanistan a part of British India? Surely, African countries were not. Explain these refugee populations then- Afghans, Somalians? 2. Who said it his father's prop.. If it were he wouldn't need to write here, he could've just done what he saying. But unless something is my father's prop., I can't say anything about it? In that case, how r u talking about who should be in India n who shouldn't? It's your father's prop.? Why r u supporting Sikhs, Hindu refugees? It's ur father's prop.? Everyone simply surrenders logic when it comes to Muslims or perhaps National Security. A big boon to the "Nationalist" govt. to have people like you surely. Can be manipulated whenever they want!!
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          2. R
            Raj
            Sep 14, 2017 at 11:45 pm
            dim witted liberal barking about things he has no clue about. The right to life exists for all people in India - but how does the "right to life" in India become the "right to stay" or the "right to refuge" ? That's bogus. And the JUDICIARY has ZERO authority to impose refugees on Indians - foreign policy and immigration is the decision of the executive - NOT the judiciary.
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            1. S
              Saurabh
              Sep 21, 2017 at 11:51 am
              Dude, simply say you don't agree with him cuz he's going against Modi/BJP against whom you can't listen to a word. You see, you get exposed when you come to giving logic!! How does Rt. to Life become Rt. to stay? Because THE PLACE WHERE THEY'LL BE DEPORTED TO HAS REASONABLE CHANCES N EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE OF THEM BEING CUTED/KILLED/RAPED. That's how!! I'm very interested to know, what else is right to life for u? Just something to be written n shown off in some cultural conferences? When moment of implementation comes, you run away so stupidly n timidly? Judiciary has in the past too given such decisions. No such hue n cry then? Or are u against them too? Why is govt. implementing what Judiciary directed in other cases then? Just because they weren't muslims?
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