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India should stand by ally Sheikh Hasina on the Rohingya crisis

New Delhi should use its influence to quietly engage Suu Kyi and the generals to enable the return of some refugees from Bangladesh and the restoration of an initial peace

analysis Updated: Oct 17, 2017 09:43 IST
Sanjoy Hazarika
Sanjoy Hazarika
Rohingya refugees walk back after collecting health and sanitation aid at the Balukhali refugee camp in the Bangladeshi district of Ukhia, October 14. Bangladesh's home minister said on October 12 he will travel to Myanmar on October 23 for talks on the crisis that has seen more than half a million Rohingya refugees cross into his country in just six weeks. (AFP)

Few in India seem to understand the scale of the Rohingya crisis that has overwhelmed Bangladesh.

In the space of six weeks, half a million people, men, women and children, have fled Myanmar to seek shelter across the choppy waters of the Naf River which marks the borders between the two countries. Top UN officials say that the crisis is continuing with people “fleeing for their lives and requiring immediate support” in the world’s fastest developing refugee situation.

The refugees come struggling ashore, climbing uncertainly down from country boats and settle usually on a small spit of land on the river bank before they are taken to makeshift shelters where they often stand in rain and in muddy slush waiting for food.

The issue is front page news every day in Bangladesh in Bangla and the English media, the top anchors and talk shows are all about this. When Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister, returned to Dhaka recently from a long visit to the United Nations and London, she was welcomed with banners with proclaimed her as “Mother of Humanity”. She had campaigned for the Rohingya, for Myanmar to end its devastating assault and urged international support to meet the pressures on Bangladesh.

The view from Dhaka is very different to that in Delhi and the feeling one gained from an intense visit was that many in the country, not least Sheikh Hasina, were stunned by India’s position on the crisis. While there may be understanding of the assertion by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Aung San Suu Kyi to fight terrorism, especially after the coordinated attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on the Myanmar army and police positions, it has also been strongly felt that New Delhi should have counselled restraint to Myanmar.

A former diplomat familiar with the Rohingya situation spoke of how overreach, credible accounts of brutality and collateral damage by security forces in the Arakan could create a new security threat to Eastern South Asia: such violence and prejudice could be a magnet for jihadi elements from different parts of the world, who were being tossed out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. People in Myanmar who are knowledgeable of the situation say that this patch of land along the Bay of Bengal is where the Pakistani ISI is already involved, supporting ARSA.

Apart from the proximity to Bangladesh, where there has been a surge in violent extremism, one cannot forget that the area abuts parts of the North-east. There is growing communal tension in Assam on a range of issues. The BJP-led alliance there cannot ignore this visible trend and yet appears to be either unwilling or unable to counter it. Wisdom should inform political leaders that relentless discrimination and abuse of minority groups will push the latter to the wall and lead to radicalisation. Should that happen, then the ease of connectivity can enable collaboration with elements in Bangladesh and Myanmar, making eastern South Asia potentially unstable. The Act East Policy would be adversely affected.

That is why India’s support to Sheikh Hasina is critical at this juncture. At talk shows and commentaries, her party leaders as also panelists known to be pro-India are pointedly asked – “You gave transit, what did you get in return?” “You gave the information gateway, what did you get in return?” “You haven’t got a drop of Teesta waters”. On the Rohingyas, where India is seen to have supported Suu Kyi and the army crackdown, Bangladesh is portrayed as helplessly trying to cope with the massive influx.

Sheikh Hasina is seen as overdependent on India. This is an especially sensitive issue with a year to go for the general elections where her Awami League will be contesting against the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jamaat-i-Islami. Despite handicaps and the criticism of the vast power concentrated in her hands, she remains the only credible popular choice which India must continue to back. She has taken enormous political risks to go the extra mile with India — opening economic and transport routes, including access to Chittagong port, handing over top insurgent leaders, providing an information gateway and helping Modi clinch the border agreement.

There are two issues where India’s help is critical: First, Teesta water sharing for the dry winter months, without which Bangladeshi farmers face disaster. This should not be done closer to the elections — it would be regarded as an election gimmick. Second, use its influence to quietly engage Suu Kyi and the generals to enable the return of some refugees and the restoration of an initial peace. Discussions with ARSA are probably some time away: there are reports that Bangladesh intelligence may be connected to some ARSA leaders, part of the usual South Asian game of stealth and power, as earlier with ULFA and other groups.

Sanjoy Hazarika is Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 16, 2017 14:15 IST