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Five reasons why India is cagey about Rohingya violence, refugees

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken in support of Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is under immense international pressure over her government’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2017 16:33 IST
Jayanth Jacob
A Rohingya refugee woman cries after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Tuesday .  Around 125,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the last two weeks.
A Rohingya refugee woman cries after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border by boat through the Bay of Bengal in Teknaf, Bangladesh, on Tuesday . Around 125,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar’s Rakhine state in the last two weeks.(Reuters photo )

The Indian government seems firm on sending back Rohingya Muslims who have fled the violence they are facing in Myanmar.

A day after the Supreme Court asked the Centre to explain why it wanted the deportation, minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju said on Tuesday, “Rohingya are illegal immigrants and they need to be deported as per law.”

On a two-day visit to Myanmar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday came out in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is under intense international pressure over 125,000 Rohingya who have fled the military crackdown in the north-western Rakhine state.

“Your leadership in Myanmar’s peace process is commendable, we understand your challenges,” Modi said after talks with Suu Kyi in the capital Nay Pyi Daw, adding the two countries would jointly fight terror.

A look at the knotty Rohingya refugee issue:

1. Is India bound to take in Rohingya refugees?

There are 40,000 Rohingya Muslims in India. Of them, 16,500 carry United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards. These cards should ideally prevent them from being arbitrarily arrested, detained or deported.

Whether countries are bound to take in refugees is a complex question with moral, legal and political dimensions.

To begin with, the principle of non-refoulement, or not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to the country they fled, is part of a customary international law that is binding on all states.

Legally, the government can argue against it, as India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.

The convention has 140 signatories and India is the only exception among liberal democracies in the world. Despite not signing the pact, India hosts a diverse community of refugees -- Tibetans, the Chakmas from Bangladesh, Sri Lankan Tamils and Afghans among others.

2.Why is India wary of UNHCR

The UN body did play an important role during the refugee crisis of 1971, when around nine million people came to India to escape the violence in the then East Pakistan, which was liberated the same year as independent nation of Bangladesh.

But the UNHCR ‘s insisted on repatriation of refugees in June of the same year even as New Delhi pointed to the violence unleashed against them by Pakistani forces.

India was also miffed when chief of the refugee agency Sadruddin Agha Khan visited East Pakistan on the invitation of Pakistani president Yahya Khan, a visit ostensibly aimed at showing that everything was normal.

3. Balancing act

Ethnic groups account for 35% of Myanmar’s population and are seeking greater political representation, which is a point of friction between the powerful army, which ruled the country from 1962 to 2011, and Suu Kyi’s government.

The ethnic groups are also pushing for a federal structure to give them a bigger play in parliament but the army, which has 25% seats reserved in the House, worries it could be at its cost.

For tactical reasons, India has to strike a balance between the army and the government.

4. The security angle

Myanmar’s constitution recognises 135 ethnic groups but not the Rohingya, described as the most persecuted people in the world.

They are regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even when their families have lived in Myanmar for generations. They often live in camps and are denied access to healthcare and education.

The Rohingya are demanding they be recognised as an ethnic group but it will be tough because other groups don’t agree.

The Indian government has little incentive to get involved as Myanmar denies them citizenship.

There are protests against their presence in India that have the backing of the groups that support the government. “They are illegal immigrants in India and as per law, they stand to be deported,” Rijiju told media after a briefing of the North East Democratic Alliance, a grouping of the BJP and its allies in Northeast.

India shares 1,600km boundary with Myanmar. Many of the insurgents group operating in the Northeast are in hiding in Myanmar, where they have set up training camps.

New Delhi is unlikely to give into pressure from the West considering its security concerns.

5. The refugee question

South Asian countries are wary of refugees on two counts -- security concerns and demographic balance. For instance, the presence of a large number of Rohingya Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir is a concern for the Indian security establishment.

The BJP has for years raised the issue of Bangladeshi migrants in Assam, accusing the Congress of changing the demography of the northeastern state for political gains. Sending back illegal migrants was one of its main poll promises in the 2016 election that saw the party sweep to power in the state for the first time.

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