Rohingya, Refoulement and Retrograde

Geopolitical expediency has long been Indian state policy, and India’s stance on the exodus of the Rohingya from the Rakhine state of Myanmar, or lack thereof, belies a darker religious and military dynamic. The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Myanmar, widely anticipated as a point of potential resolution, has come to trivial consequence.An opportunity for bilateral settlement, and a greater role in establishing peace and stability in the region was passed up for unctuous rhetoric on the shared concern of “extremist violence against the Myanmar state”, effectively buttressing its flimsy position on allegations of genocide, arson and rape against its military personnel and local law enforcement perpetrated against the Rohingya. Capitalizing on Beijing’s silence on the matter, promises for investment in infrastructure were made, including projects based in the restive Rakhine state, leveraging Indian sympathy for a diplomatically isolated Myanmar. This is yet another instance in which the Indian state has pursued a policy of appeasement toward a hostile or illegitimate administration (the other being its acceptance of the pro-Soviet Najibullah government in Afghanistan in the 80’s), and in so doing, assumed a complicity in the violence against, and ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.

Mainstream India media has presented an antinomic narrative which posits the violence against the Rohingya by Buddhist nationalist entities and the armed forces, as rational retribution for the militant activities of Rohingya fringe groups. Whereas images of mass graves, villages and people burnt, and stories of rape and the deplorable condition of camps in Bangladesh housing the Rohingya are commonplace in the electronic medium, the Indian media continues to pursue an unfeeling Lutyen’s culture in its representation of these events. On the question of resolving the conflict, there have been candid reiterations of the Modi delegation’s “economic mandate” in Myanmar, even as 125,000 odd Rohingya refugees flocked to neighbouring Bangladesh in a span of two weeks alone, in the wake of fresh violence.

The Rohingya are a stateless entity, dismissed by the Burmese state as Bengali migrants brought by British colonists as farm labour to western Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), or attributed to refugee influxes from erstwhile East Pakistan during the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971. The Rohingya are a heterogeneous construct, with several Muslim factions coalescing under its larger banner. However, the terms ‘Rohang’ and ‘gya’ derive from the words ‘Arakan’ and ‘from’ in the Rohingya dialect, and are thought to be an etymological basis (albeit disputed) for the legitimacy of the Rohingya people as Burmese nationals. While the Rohingya are abjectly different in ethnolinguistic terms, the fundamental distinction relative to the majority Buddhist population of Myanmar is their adherence to Islam, which has become a criterion for judgment in the international domain. Those seen to sympathize with the Rohingya, such as Turkey or Pakistan do so in religious interest, not humanitarian consideration, a charge which places them on par with those who are entirely indifferent toward the suffering of the Rohingya, such as India and China, since the disenfranchisement of the Rohingya within Myanmar transcends mere religious proportions. It is an affront to their ethnic identity and their dignity as a minority community (not recognized as such by the Myanmar state). Even the European Union which placed sanctions upon Myanmar for its inhumane policies under the military junta assumed a somewhat disingenuous position when sanctions were lifted (during Myanmar’s transition to quasi-civilian status) in what was seen as a bid to exploit Myanmar’s wealth of natural resources and its strategic position between India and China.

Moral and humanitarian qualms aside, the Indian position is dubitable, even in geopolitical terms. Much of the commendation it earned for the mature resolution of the Doklam stand-off at the triple point between Bhutan, India, and China has been reduced to naught in the light of New Delhi’s decision to deport 40,000 odd Rohingya refugees from India (including those with UNHCR registration cards) in the interest of “national security”. While it is yet to determine the course of action it intends to take in trilateral agreement with the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar, international opposition to the infringement upon the inalienable rights of the Rohingya, and disregard for the international policy of nonrefoulement, (irrespective of its non-signatory status in the Refugee Convention, 1951) are met with peevish opposition from such figures as Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Home Affairs who has deemed India’s accommodation of refugees in the past as “commendable”.

The threat to national security, however, merits earnest examination. Several media reports have indicated an Al Qaeda presence, among others, within the Rohingya community, attempting to channel their grievances to fuel unrest in Myanmar and other neighbouring countries. Fresh intelligence reports have emerged, indicating the involvement of Pakistan-based terror outfits allegedly seeking to induct maladjusted Rohingya youth to plot attacks in Myanmar, India, Thailand, Bangladesh etc. A petition in the Supreme Court against the government’s decision of deporting 40,000 odd Rohingya refugees (and the provision of amenities that the refugees might lead dignified lives) is scheduled to be heard on the 18th of September. The alleged threat to national security, as aforementioned, as well as concerns of the Rohingya (those illegally settled in the state of Jammu and Kashmir) conspiring with Kashmiri separatists,  are thought to feature principally in the Centre’s affidavit defending its position on the deportation of the Rohingya. While determining the legitimacy of either claim is left to wise judgement, the undeniable plight of the Rohingya is yet to be fully addressed. The state narrative, thought to be rational in the light of said intelligence, continues to be rigged with communal undercurrents. Even in the circumstance of a decisive victory for the State, the deportation of the illegally settled will not resolve the underlying problem; in fact, it will likely exacerbate the present situation and direct Rohingya aggression against India.

As the turmoil in Myanmar unfolds, the Indian state’s indifference in the face of gross injustice, and its defiant support of the Myanmar state have only served to alienate it in international circles, and have lent credence to the notion that India is far from coveted super-power status, for its failure to act in the course of the greater good. As heart-rending images of Sikh volunteers feeding impoverished Rohingya children at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border inundate social media, there is a renewed faith in the Indian citizen, who has the potential to rise above mere state policy and mindless realpolitik in the spirit of empathy and humanity.

About the Author


Aalaap is presently pursuing a BE Hons. in Mechanical Engineering at BITS Pilani. An ardent nihilist with a propensity for needless absolutism, he takes inspiration from figures such as the late Christopher Hitchens and Shashi Tharoor on their unapologetic manner.

1 thought on “Rohingya, Refoulement and Retrograde”

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