The Issue of Rohingyas
The opposition parties and the habitual critics of the Modi government have now made the presence of about 40000 Rohingyas in India a political issue. With the usual and unthinking support of the human rights activists and the National Human rights Commission, the issue has now become communal. In fact, now there are demands that seem to suggest that legal status have to be accorded to these Rohingyas of Myanmar as they happen to be Muslims! In other words, there is now the wider realisation among the Modi government’s critics that former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s thesis is right that minorities in general and Muslims in particular have got the “first rights” over India’s resources that include land and jobs. They want to thwart through the Supreme Court the government’s move to deport these Rohingyas back to Myanmar, which, if Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is to be believed, that country is prepared to accept.
But then there is another dimension to the Rohingya-issue in India. Since almost all of them happen to be Muslims, Indian Muslims are almost unanimous in welcoming more and more of them. It may be noted in this context that for these Rohingyas, many Indian Muslims had not hesitated to bring the whole of Mumbai to a halt on August 11, 2012. The protest rally at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on that day turned into riots, resulting in two deaths and injuries to 54 people including 45 policemen. According to the Mumbai police, the riots caused a loss of Rs. 2.74 crore in damages to public and private property.
The point that emerges from the above is that a section of the Indians, which happens to consist of the followers of a global religion, thinks in terms of its religion rather than national interests. It is true that there are genuine problems of the Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar. But then the fact remains that the genesis of the problem there lies in the demands of the Rohingya Muslims to break away and form an independent state(earlier their leaders wanted to merge with the then East Pakistan). It was not until 1954 that the Myanmar army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon that captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border. The rebellion was eventually ended through ceasefires in 1961 and defeat of remaining groups, leaving only small-scale armed resistance and banditry.
However, in 1974, inspired by the rise of pan-Islamist movements in the world, the Rohingya Patriotic Front armed group was formed; subsequently it split into several factions such as the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and the Arakan Rohingya Islamic Front (ARIF) splinter. In 1998, these two groups formed a loose alliance, the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation.
According to an investigation by the “International Crisis Group” that was published in last December, the Rohingya insurgency is being supported by wealthy individuals in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The Rohingya militancy is now described as Harakah al-Yaqin, an Arabic term for “faith movement.” It is being led by a group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Asra) and supported with money and weapons through groups of Rohingya expatriates living in the Persian Gulf and Bangladesh. The Pakistani ISI is also playing a big role here. In fact, the ISI angle is more obvious when the fleeing Rohingyas into India through Bangladesh cross the borders of West Bengal, interweave the entire East and North to settle in the Hindu-majority Jammu and then skip the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley to reach the Buddhist –majority Ladakh. It appears to be a well-planned out scheme to change the demographic composition in the non-Muslim areas of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. That some of the Rohingyas have been arrested for the possession of illegal arms, drugs and contrabands, thus, is relatively a lesser issue.
Be that as it may, let us face some hard facts. These Rohingyas are illegal immigrants, not refugees. And this at a time when the question of immigration, whether legal or illegal, is a controversial topic in almost every country. German chancellor Angela Merkel has paid dearly this week for her warm embrace to the Syrian refugees last year, given her party’s sharp decline in the national elections, whose results came early this week. It is always difficult to agree on the subject – whether the immigrants are assets or liabilities to the host-states. On the one hand, economic change and demand for labour in the host state attract immigrants. Often, the immigrants, particularly unskilled and lowly-skilled, do the types of jobs that normal citizens of the host country avoid doing. On the other hand, complications arise in the host-state while dealing with the “rights” of the immigrants and the way they adjust, integrate or assimilate into their new environment. Here, ethnicity of the immigrant-community is an important factor. Questions become all the more complex when the immigrants become eligible, after prolonged stay, to be “naturalised citizens” of the host country in accordance with its own laws.
Then there are serious security issues – the rasdicalised and fundamentalists among the refugees often indulge in terrorist activities as soldiers for “Global Jihad”; they are, in fact, guided by hostile intelligence agencies of the neighbouring countries. Besides, when there is a massive influx of immigrants, it cannot be easily absorbed by the receiving country or parts of it, threatening its very existence culturally and economically. This is particularly true for a developing country like India when jobs are in a short supply. Majority of the locals perceive that immigrants damage their chances in the job market and do more harm than good in every respect.
Of course, for India, immigration is not a new development. Historically speaking, waves of immigrants from Central Asia and West Asia did come to India and settled down for good. That is how various religions – Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity – came to the Indian subcontinent. Culturally, all these immigrants and their ideas, including religions, not only coexisted but also prospered in India. The Indian culture got enriched in the process. There have been gives and takes between the immigrant cultures and that of the indigenous ones, reflected in food habits, dress, language, art and architecture. “Unity in diversity” became India’s strength.
Though India was a British colony for years and the country was partitioned on communal lines at the time of independence in 1947, the Indian constitution is secular and promotes the culture of pluralism. “Unity in diversity” continues to be the guiding principle. Talking specifically of immigration, the Indian Constitution does not discriminate between the citizens and immigrants in the social sphere. The immigrants, when accorded citizen status, enjoy the same political rights with others without compromising their cultural and religious values. However, immigration, per se, is not an issue in Indian politics. The issue is illegal immigration, with politics coming to assume a role in either promoting the phenomenon or in protesting it because of electoral and economic factors.
The 2001 census in India revealed that more than 6 million residents were born outside the country (including Indian citizens born abroad), but almost all (5.7 million) were from the neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal; Sri Lanka and Burma accounted for another 243,000. Only 227,000 individuals were born outside of the region: 28 per cent of them in Africa, 25 per cent in the Middle East, and only 20 per cent in Northern America, Europe, and Oceania combined. However, anecdotal evidence from Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore suggests that the real number of non-South Asian foreigners in India is significantly higher.
Of these immigrants, some of them are refugees. India has traditionally treated refugees well even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Most famously, India granted refuge to the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet in 1959 and permitted him to set up a government-in-exile in Dharamshala in the state of Himachal Pradesh. The Indian government allows the Central Tibetan Administration autonomy in public education, for example, but does not officially recognize it as a government.
Today, about 150,000 Tibetans live in India according to the government reports. Approximately 80,000 Tibetans who arrived in the first and largest wave received resident permits and were offered low-paying public works jobs by the Indian government. However, more recent Tibetan refugees have not been as welcome, with many denied residence permits.
India is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol and does not have a national refugee protection framework. However, it continues to grant asylum to a large number of refugees from neighbouring States and respects the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) mandate for other nationals, mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar. The Government of India’s approach to refugee issues results in different standards of protection and assistance among refugee groups. Tibetans and Sri Lankan refugees are protected and assisted by the Government, while UNHCR is directly involved with groups arriving from other countries (notably Afghanistan and Myanmar). Holders of documentation provided by UNHCR are able to obtain temporary residence permits from the authorities.
India has seen an increase in the number of foreigners seeking asylum in the last few years, mainly from troubled neighbouring countries. Of the 7,300 asylum seekers registered with the UNHCR in New Delhi, a majority of them are from Afghanistan and Myanmar. An estimated 60,000 Afghans fled to India after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Thousands more came when the Taliban took power in 1992. Similarly, since the suppression of democracy in Myanmar in 1990, more than 5000 refugees have crossed the border into India. The UNHCR reports also suggest that about 300 Somali and 100 Palestine refugees reside in India.
Nepalese and Bhutanese citizens have been permitted to move freely across the Indian border. An open border between India and Nepal and India and Bhutan is provided for by a treaty between the respective states. The Nepalese and Bhutanese have the right to residence, study, and work in India. Nepal’s 2001 census reported 584,000 persons born in India of which only 100,000 were registered as Indian citizens.
Ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka began fleeing to India in response to the civil war that broke out in 1983 between the government and the Tamil Tigers, who wanted an independent Tamil state on the island. As of late 2008, about 73,000 Sri Lankan refugees were living in 117 camps across southern India, mainly in Tamil Nadu. Of course, now that the LTTE has been defeated by the Sri Lankan armed forces, some of them must have gone back. But the issue remains potent given the fact that the Sri Lankan government has not been able to arrive at a comprehensive political settlement with the Tamils as such and the fact that the Tamil Nadu politics is very sensitive to the Sri Lankan matters.
However, the most sensitive issue of immigration to India is that of those from Bangladesh. And almost all of them enter India illegally. These immigrants, at least 20 million in number, generally find work as cheap labour in the informal sector, often as domestic helpers, construction labourers, rickshaw pullers, and rag pickers. The Bangladeshi government does not officially recognize those migrants and thus does not provide help or support. In 2003, Bangladesh’s foreign minister was quoted as saying that not a single unauthorized Bangladeshi resided in India.
Whatever the reasons behind the huge number of Bangladeshi nationals in India, observers say that their overall presence in the country, and the east and northeast regions in particular, is shattering of the socio-economic balance in the region. Illegal immigrants not only occupy char areas in the riverine belt, but also lead to the growth of unauthorised settlements in Government lands, agricultural lands, grazing reserves and forest areas. They compete with genuine Indians for jobs, thereby worsening the already serious unemployment problem. Moreover, by managing to enter their names in the electoral rolls in their zeal to remain within the country, illegal Bangladeshi settlers have already become major vote banks – at least in Assam and West Bengal.
It may be noted that illegal infiltration from Bangladesh into India is one of the contentious issues between India and Bangladesh, the recent improvements in the bilateral ties notwithstanding. Indian intelligence officials have often complained that Pakistan has fished in the troubled water in the sense that it, with active grassroots- support of Harakat ul-Jihad-I-Islami-Bangladesh (HUJI-B), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad (all are notorious fundamentalist terrorist outfits in South Asia), it has used its “agents” in the guise of immigrants to exacerbate the communal disharmony between the Hindus and Muslims in parts of the country and promote secessionist- terrorist activities. Besides, many of these immigrants have indulged in smuggling, trafficking, drug peddling, illegal cow smuggling and trans-border gang robbery.
In sum, the issue of the illegal Rohingya immigrants in India needs to be seen in the above framework that has got electoral, economic, ethnic and security implications. The great principles of pluralism or multiculturalism in our country cannot be overstretched or abused while dealing with these implications.
By Prakash Nanda