No Rohingya is a refugee by choice. India must learn from history — and Vajpayee

A secular nation should see 'no' religion.

 |  5-minute read |   10-10-2017
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The face of “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” in the 20th century was Anne Frank, a 16-year old victim of the Holocaust, who could have led a full life and would have been in her eighties today had the United States not denied her and the rest of the Frank family visas. Refugee (not) Anne Frank died in one of the concentration camps in Germany.

A young writer’s dreams and aspirations were brought to an end because some in power (Adolf Hitler) didn’t think she deserved to live and some others (Roosevelt administration) didn’t think her life was precious enough to save. Even as millions across the world are desperately seeking refuge in safer countries, one should remember that it is not by choice, but out of necessity.

So, various administrations formulating their "refugee policy" by adding colour, religion and race to differentiate between who should be welcomed and who should be left out is regressive to say the least. Not to say that host nations today are facing far greater levels of stress economically as well as, most unfortunately, politically and in matters of security.

Humanity versus security

Let's talk about the Rohingya refugee crisis India faces today. Firstly, let us decide if it is a case of "humanitarian crisis" or "security threat". Every nation has a right to decide what comprises national security and the prerogative to protect one’s homeland lies with the government of the day. But, it is also the duty of every nation to protect every citizen/national/resident (refugees/asylum seekers) living on its soil.

khalsa-aid-690_09161_101017030839.jpgA Khalsa Aid volunteer helps a rescued Rohingya child with some water. Photo: Khalsa Aid

The Rohingyas are an ethnic minority who were stripped of their citizenship more than two decades ago. Today, they are being driven out of their own, resource-rich but least developed lands where they were anyway treated like foreigners. The UN has called it a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" that the state of Myanmar is indulging in — which is leading to the large influx of Rohingyas into the bordering countries of Bangladesh and India because of the long and porous borders.

The government’s biggest reason to deport Rohingyas who have entered Indian territory illegally are security concerns —there is enough evidence that some of the Rohingya Muslims have links with terrorist networks based out of Pakistan.

But, it still begs the question: are all Rohingyas a security threat? If not, how and why should innocents pay for what some from their community are doing. Also, not a single attack till now has had any direct link to the Rohingyas taking shelter in India.

Bangladesh, which has absorbed more than a million of these refugees, has categorically said that there are no signs of the “radicalisation” of the Rohingyas, at the same time warning that if this crisis continues, they could fall prey to such nefarious elements.

India and the refugee convention

There is a reason why India is one of the few liberal democracies that has neither signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, despite being the nation that hosts the largest refugee population in South Asia — which, undeniably, has been a tinderbox waiting to explode.

It will be bound by law not to repatriate a single refugee against their will — known as the non-refoulement principle, this forbids forcible repatriation. But, India has repatriated illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as well as Sri Lankan Tamils after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

If anything, the UPA was more determined not to partake in this UN convention than the BJP. In fact, under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's administration, India — on principle — accepted "Bangkok Declaration 1967" for protection of human rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, including non-refoulement and non-rejection of refugees at the frontier.

What should India do?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee had shown the way and it is time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take the lead in South Asia. India has shown the strength of taking in refugees, ranging from Buddhist Chakmas from the Chittagong Hill tracts of Bangladesh, to the Bhutanese from Nepal, Muslim Rohinygas from Myanmar and small populations from Somalia, Sudan and other sub-Saharan African countries. Add to that, two older populations of Tibetans and Sri Lankan Tamils.

Some have quoted former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi when she was dealing with the huge influx of refugees from Bangladesh. She had, in no uncertain terms, said that “they will have to go back” and that India couldn’t continue to take the “burden”, which was costing India economically and politically. But she had also added: “We are willing to keep them while their homes and lives are in danger.”

India’s security agencies have to diligently differentiate the ones who are a threat to national security from the innocents and set an example for Myanmar, the country whose responsibility it was to do this in the first place.

India has played a positive role in understanding its neighbour’s concerns regarding security, and terrorism issues emanating from the Rakhine state. Now, it is time India took some positive steps by helping Myanmar bring down fundamentalist terror groups and ensuring that the Aung Sung Suu Kyi administration makes the territory safe for the refugees to return home.

Past governments have been accused of playing (Muslim) vote bank politics and it is being reined in. Good. It’s time to end religious appeasement once and for all.

A secular nation should see "no" religion. And this could be the current dispensation’s opportunity to send back illegal immigrants, as well as be the beacon of hope for those who have lost everything, and allow them temporary shelter without looking at which faith they follow.

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." — Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth.

Also read: The real story behind Sikhs rushing to aid of Rohingya refugees


Geeta Mohan Geeta Mohan @geeta_mohan

The writer is the Foreign Affairs Editor at IndiaToday

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