Pro-Rohingya protesters in New Delhi on September 21. Photo: Hindustan Times
Pro-Rohingya protesters in New Delhi on September 21. Photo: Hindustan Times

The massive influx of Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine state into Bangladesh and then India has been met with a contradictory response from New Delhi.

Contrary to the central government’s previously inclusive approach, the present Hindu nationalist regime in India, noted for its aversion to Muslims, has announced a policy reversal in terms of the intended deportation of Rohingya refugees. The proposed policy, however, may be difficult to implement.

During his visit to Myanmar in early September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed support for the Myanmar regime’s fight against “extremist violence” perpetrated by the Rohingya rebels but failed to mention the suffering inflicted on innocent Rohingya civilians who have been subjected to violence, including torture and rape, and displacement by the Myanmar security forces in the course of their clearance operations against extremists.

While supporting the Myanmar regime, Chinese government officials are reportedly concerned about the persecution of the Rohingya, but that feeling does not appear to be shared by their counterparts in New Delhi.

The Rohingya Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar has suffered decades of discrimination and violence at the hands of the Buddhist majority and security forces in Myanmar. However, the magnitude of the recent violence against them is unprecedented. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and UN Human Rights Council chief Zeid ra’ad al-Husein have described the August attacks on Rohingya villages as a systematic effort amounting to “ethnic cleansing.” Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch on September 19 showed massive swathes of scorched landscape and the near total destruction of 214 villages.

A report by the Arakan Project said the attacks drove nearly all Rohingya out of one of the three northern Rakhine townships where the ethnic group is concentrated in Myanmar (population: 60 million).

Robin McDowell reported (The Indian Express, September 20) that an estimated 421,000 Rohingya had fled in less than a month to Bangladesh as their villages burned and hundreds were killed.

The Rohingya have lived for centuries in Rakhine state. However, they have been denied Myanmar citizenship because they allegedly arrived as ‘illegal immigrants’ from Bangladesh during colonial times

The Rohingya have lived for centuries in Rakhine state. However, they have been denied Myanmar citizenship because they allegedly arrived as “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh during colonial times. The denial of citizenship makes the Rohingya one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world today. There are said to be 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar.

Resistance and repression 

In October 2016, the newly emerged Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked three border guard posts. In response, the Myanmar army (known as the Tatmadaw) raped, killed and displaced hundreds of Rohingya.

On August 25, the rebel Rohingya army attacked three police posts and an army base. The security forces cracked down on the wider population and indulged in an orgy of violence, burning villages, raping women and shooting civilians from helicopters. More than 410, 000 Rohingya, including hundreds of Hindus, are reported to have fled to Bangladesh. Others including Buddhists were displaced. The human rights scenario in Rakhine state deteriorated dramatically.

Role of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, claimed that the “great majority” of Muslims in the conflict zone had chosen to remain and that “more than 5o% of the villages were intact.”

Her global image has been badly tarnished since Rohingya insurgents attacked Myanmar security forces on August 25, forcing Rohingya civilians to flee following the village-torching military crackdown that followed. The government blamed the Rohingya themselves but members of the persecuted community insisted that soldiers and Buddhist mobs attacked them.

On September 19, Suu Kyi’s first-ever address to the nation since the violence erupted came after she cancelled plans to attend the UN General Assembly meeting. She said anyone found to have broken the law would be punished, and those who fled to Bangladesh would be allowed to return if they passed a “verification process.” Though fires continued to burn in Rakhine state, she said there were no armed clashes or clearance operations in the previous two weeks.

 Bangladeshi and Indian response  

Bangladesh, the country most directly affected by the refugee influx, has handled the situation with as much finesse as it can muster. About 410, 000 refugees have been sheltered in the border region between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

India is said to have received over 40,000 Rohingya refugees. A Bangladeshi diplomatic initiative persuaded India to issue a statement acknowledging the Rohingya refugee crisis and deploy  aid.

India’s hyper-nationalist Home Minister Rajnath Singh said on September 18  that the Muslim Rohingya who had entered India through the porous Bangladesh border were illegal entrants and would be deported.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) responded to a public interest litigation against possible deportation filed by two Rohingya refugees by submitting an affidavit in the Supreme Court of India which said they were illegal entrants and that the government of India had a right to deport them.

The MHA argued that India was not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and was therefore not bound by the principle of “non-refoulment.”   Non-refoulment, a principle in international law, stops a country from returning refugees to a place where they could be at risk of persecution. The Supreme Court’s judgment in the case is expected on October 3.

India’s MHA, however, forgot that this is a diplomatic issue and that the relevant ministry, namely the Ministry of External Affairs, had accepted and practiced the principle over a period of time despite India having not signed and ratified the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

On September 19, the Indian media pointed out that the MHA’s affidavit in the Supreme Court contradicted a statement made in July 2017 by the Ministry of External Affairs in a discussion on refugees at the UN Human Rights Council (Nirupama Subramanian, Indian Express, Chandigarh, September, 19, p. 1).

During this discussion on July 10, Indian official Anil K Rai from the Permanent Mission of India, Geneva,  supported the concept of burden sharing, including the relocation of refugees on a case by case basis with the consent of the refugees. The official added that while doing so, it was necessary not to open the path for redefining the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol nor dilute its principle of ‘”non-refoulment.”

Such an endorsement of the principle of non-refoulment was not new. India has repeatedly asserted that it stood by this principle, despite not having been a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.

In 2001, Indian diplomat RN Prasad said at a UNHCR meeting that the Indian judiciary had taken care of the rights of refugees. He added that with regard to refugees’ access to courts and the justice system, the courts in India had laid down certain markers for refugees based on the principle of the right to life and liberty of all persons residing in the national territory (see Devirupa Mitra, “Modi Government’s Affidavit on Rohingya Refugees Reverses Long-held Stand on Refoulment” in 

Against that backdrop, India had, at the earlier meeting of the UNHCR’s standing committee on June 26, 2012, sought to stress the fundamental principle of non-refoulment and insisted that any return of refugees has to be voluntary. It added that “the principle of non-refoulment was pivotal for the safety and security of the international protection regime for the well-being of refugees.”

Despite not having signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, Indian delegations have claimed that the country had always carried out “successful repatriation of a large number of refugees through bilateral arrangements without any multilateral assistance.”

However, in the case of the Rohingya refugees in India, it may be difficult for the government to repatriate them to Myanmar through a bilateral arrangement since that country has denied citizenship to the Rohingya.

In an interconnected world, India must immediately sign and ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. Former Indian foreign minister Salman Khurshi has stressed (The Statesman, September 22) the urgency of India’s ratification of the Convention and Protocol.

India has not so far signed and ratified the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees and the 1967 Protocol arguing that the Convention had been tailored to suit post-war European conditions not applicable to regions of massive population movement such as the Indian subcontinent. This argument is no longer relevant.

It may be relevant to note here that India must also promote better utilization of the mechanism of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in discussing regional cooperation in addressing conceptual and operational refugee issues in South Asia.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.