Updated: March 23, 2021 8:12:55 am
India’s foreign policy is set in Delhi, and not in a state capital, but the developments in Mizoram have underlined that the Ministry of External Affairs cannot ignore the impact of developments in neighbouring countries on India’s border states. India has not yet taken a position on its relations with the junta that has seized power in Myanmar. When the coup took place, India expressed concern that the democratic transition had been interrupted. Later, as pro-democracy protestors were being gunned down, India endorsed a UN Security Council statement asking the military to show restraint. But as Delhi has put off the inconvenient question, Mizoram chief minister Zoramthanga has indicated that he does not have that luxury. India and Myanmar share a 1,600-km long border and Mizoram alone has a 500-km long exposure to the eastern neighbour along the Chin state. Alleging atrocities by the junta, some 500 people have crossed over into Mizoram seeking refuge. Mizoram and the Chin state have shared ethnicities. India wants to deport these people, and has closed the border. However, Zoramthanga has held a virtual meeting with Zin Mar Aung, the “foreign minister” of the National League for Democracy’s government-in-exile, in which he expressed solidarity with the people of Myanmar.
This unusual “confrontation” has highlighted several issues. Though India has been the strongest democracy in South Asia and has provided a safe haven for people fleeing persecution from as close as Sri Lanka and far as Iran, it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not have its own asylum policy, and is uneven in its treatment of people seeking refuge. Over the years, Tamils, Tibetans and Afghans have been welcomed. But with no toolkit to distinguish political or humanitarian refugees from economic migrants, the government has started to discriminate between refuge seekers along religious lines, like in the case of the Rohingya. Under the Citizenship Amendment Act, only Hindus fleeing Islamic countries in the neighbourhood will be welcomed. Confusingly, India has also spoken up for non-refoulement, the principle of not sending refugees back to their home countries if it is likely that they will face persecution. For a country that prides itself as a member of a democratic quadrilateral and borders several politically unstable countries, India needs a better and more even-handed framework on refugees.
For now, Delhi needs to listen to the urgent voices from Mizoram. True, India has much at stake in Myanmar, in security and strategic terms. But if the Northeast is key to India’s Look East policy, the Centre cannot afford to simply brush aside the concerns of a chief minister of an important border state. If the situation in Myanmar does not improve, what is happening today in Mizoram, could well spread to Manipur and the other states as well.