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Posted at: Sep 14, 2017, 12:38 AM; last updated: Sep 14, 2017, 12:38 AM (IST)

A foot in the door

KC Singh
Time for a refugee law above faith and ethnicity
A foot in the door
Homeless: India must open its heart and provide an alternative narrrative in Asia.

KC Singh

MUSLIMS in Ludhiana demonstrated their support to the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, driven from their homes and villages by the army carrying out ethnic cleansing on the pretext of counter-terrorism. It should not be a sectarian issue in India as since Independence, India has given refuge to diverse groups facing persecution in their homelands. This was done despite India not signing the 1951 Refugee Convention, perhaps worried about continued movement of people across the new boundaries and barbed-wire fences. India was willing to look at humanitarian concerns but not at the cost of perennial churning caused by new refugees entering settled populations, reopening wounds of the Partition. 

The two notable examples of India giving refuge are: the 14th Dalai Lama and his Tibetan followers in 1959 after the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation; and the 1971 ingress by people, mostly Hindus, fleeing East Pakistan to escape ethnic cleansing by the Pakistani army and its collaborators. The former act continues to rile the Chinese as they have been unable to render the Dalai Lama irrelevant in the temporal and spiritual lives of Tibetans. 

The 1971 episode constituted a mass exodus, numbering nearly 10 million, which swamped the states surrounding today’s Bangladesh. The primary load was borne by West Bengal. The Hindu population of erstwhile East Bengal was 28 per cent of the total at the time of the Partition. It fell to 22 per cent by the time of the 1951 census. There was gradual slide till 1961 when it numbered 18.5 per cent. But after the 1971 purge, it fell drastically in 1974 to 13.5 per cent, indicating that a lot of refugees never returned from India. Porous borders, absence of a universal identification system for citizens and expediency of political parties wooing vulnerable vote-banks were the principal factors for an ad hoc, or even tacit, refugee policy. 

Despite developed nations and major democracies signing the Refugee Convention, in practice,  domestic politics determines national choices. Take the 2015 Syrian refugee issue, which caused a major backlash in most European countries and enabled the rise in the US of Donald Trump, employing identity politics to conflate in popular mind Syrian refugees and radical Islam. German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the other hand, after dithering, finally admitted nearly 3,00,000 of the 4,06,000 refugees given asylum in Europe in 2016. As The Economist explains, her ‘decision mixed concern for public opinion, demographic considerations (an ageing society needs immigrants) and deep conviction (growing behind the Berlin Wall taught her the evil of sealed borders)’. 

The US has in the past gone through phases of being refugee friendly or paranoid racist. Even a great President like Franklin D Roosevelt went along with popular US opinion on not admitting Jews being exterminated by Nazi Germany. In 1939, 67 per cent of Americans opposed admission of 10,000 refugee children, probably mostly Jews. In 1938, despite pleas to Roosevelt, which he ignored, to club the next three years of  German quota and bring it forward, which could have enabled, in combination with Britain pressed to take a like amount as holder of the Palestine Mandate, to get most of the Jews out of Germany. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his stopover visit to Myanmar last week joined Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate now a prisoner of realpolitik, in maintaining silence on the Rohingya crisis. At the strategic level it made sense not to offend Myanmar when it is facing global denunciation, as the Chinese and even Russians would probably protect it in the UN Security Council. The government probably feels that India needs to balance the Chinese influence and obtain Myanmari army’s cooperation in eliminating sanctuaries for non-state actors from India’s Northeast involved in terrorism. India also needs Myanmar’s cooperation for the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project to link the Kolkata port via Sittwe in Myanmar to Mizoram. This coincidently would traverse the disturbed Rakhine region. 

Should India then bow to this larger reality and discard humanitarian concerns about the treatment of Rohingyas, more than 40,000 of whom are already in India via Bangladesh? Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina is meanwhile getting riled over statements by India that the refugees would be deported. Obviously, India cannot ship them back to Myanmar as that would violate the time-honoured principle of refoulement which forbids handing over of refugees to entities that would endanger their life or liberty. 

The BJP, on television, is adopting the Trumpian method of demonising all refugees as actual or potential terrorists. Accounts of the fleeing Rohingyas seeing their girls raped, young men shot and homes burned, besides stories, like of a nine-year-old girl carrying her one-year-old brother, wring one’s heart. India, in fact, needs a refugee law urgently that is blind to faith, colour or ethnicity of the refuge seeker. Of course, the government would always weigh all considerations while granting refuge. 

The Merkel approach seems sensible for India. India should document all those already here. This would be easier if the threat of deportation is abandoned. Next India needs to work with Bangladesh, including giving financial and material help to set up camps in Bangladesh, closer to the Rakhine border, to stem further flow to India. Finally, privately India needs to take its gloves off to convey firmly to Myanmar that realpolitik would not bind Indian hands beyond a limit. 

India, to be a great power, must provide an alternative narrative in Asia that is in line with its historical and cultural traditions to shelter those escaping danger to their life and liberty. People of all faiths have in the past, especially Zoroastrians and Jews, been welcomed to live in India and follow their own belief systems. It was done as Hinduism accepted that the path to salvation lay through multiple and variegated routes. The Bhakti Movement was allowed by the mainstream to spread peacefully, seen as more reform than apostasy and rebellion. The BJP government has thus to choose between the inclusive Indian tradition, rich in humanism, and its current devotion to more restrictive Hindutva that sees Islam through the window of Indian subjugation to Muslim rulers for centuries and terrorism.


 The writer is a former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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