The controversy over the Rohingyas needs to be understood in its historical perspective. They are an ethnic group living in Arakan, now known as Rakhine, in Myanmar. When the British captured what was then called Burma, they moved a large number of Rohingyas from East Bengal to work as labourers in the rubber and tea plantations of that country. The British policy of divide and rule was played out in Burma also. During India’s partition, Rohingyas wanted Arakan to be part of East Pakistan. The Burmese government reacted vehemently by ostracising the Rohingyas, who were not recognised as one of the 135 official ethnic groups. Action and reaction followed. The Rohingyas took up arms and declared jihad.
In 2012, there was rioting between the Rohingyas and Rakhine Buddhists, who apprehended being reduced to a minority in their home state. More than 100 people were killed, mostly Rohingyas. On August 25, 2017, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, the main insurgent group of the Rohingyas, launched simultaneous attacks on 30 police stations and one army post. The outfit is said to be led by a Saudi-based committee of Rohingya emigres. The Myanmar armed forces there upon launched a crackdown on the insurgents. This is what has triggered the present crisis with Rohingyas fleeing their habitat in thousands and moving into the neighboring countries, particularly Bangladesh and India.
About 40,000 Rohingyas are estimated have moved into India during the last five years. Government of India, according to Minister of State for Home Kiran Rijiju, has set up a task force to identify them in different parts of the country with a view to deporting them. The UN High Commissioner for Human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, has criticised India for its plan to expel the Rohingyas and said, “India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or risk other serious violations.” The Human Rights Watch has urged India to follow the international principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits sending refugees back to a place where their lives could be in danger.
India’s stand has been that the Rohingyas pose a big security threat as many of them have links with terror organisations, including the Islamic State and Lashkar-e Taiba, and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Besides, if allowed to stay, the government argued, Rohingyas would exhaust the natural resources meant for Indians and lead to social tensions, and law and order problems. “Any indulgence shown by the highest court of the country would encourage the illegal influx of illegal migrants into the country and thereby deprive the citizens of India of their fundamental and basic human rights,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in an affidavit to the Supreme Court. The Rohingyas were also, according to intelligence agencies, indulging in illegal/anti-national activities like mobilisation of funds through hawala/hundi channels, procuring fake/fabricated Indian identity documents and also indulging in human trafficking. Government took the stand that the plan to deport Rohingyas was a policy decision and that the court should not interfere in the executive domain.
It has been said that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. India’s pusillanimous approach contributed to Bangladeshis moving in hundreds of thousands into the country. The Godbole Committee estimated their total number to be 150 lakh in the year 2000. The figure gradually, according to conservative estimates, went up to two crore in the following decade. We have seen how this influx has changed the demography in several states, particularly Assam, West Bengal and the north-eastern states, disturbed the political equilibrium in the region, and contributed to sharpening of the communal divide. The Rohingyas may be deserving of sympathy, but all such groups, in the long run, are an economic burden and a political threat. Security considerations cannot be brushed aside. They will have to override humanitarian considerations.
India should prevail upon the Myanmar government to follow a more inclusive policy, recognise Rohingyas as an ethnic group, accept them back in its territory, and extend all possible help to Bangladesh in rehabilitating the Rohingyas who have taken shelter in that country while pursuing its own plan to repatriate the illegal immigrant Rohingyas.