A thread of questions and debates on citizenship and justice connects Myanmar, India and The Gambia.
The primary purpose of the United Nations is the maintenance of peace and security through collective action as necessary for “the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace...” Between 7 April and 15 July 1994, a genocidal war took place in Rwanda. The global community ignored evidence of planning and early warning indicators. In the aftermath of the slaughter, policymakers and scholars agonised over their failure to prevent the genocide from taking place.
These deliberations over sovereignty, collective security and humanitarian intervention led to the articulation of a doctrine called “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). In 2005, the UN World Summit endorsed this idea that states are responsible for protecting their people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and should they fail to do so, then the global community would collectively intervene through diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, and if those do not work, other means as the UN Charter allows. In other words, we are, each of us, the keepers of our brothers and sisters.
Human rights groups and observers have long been reporting a programme of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, as a result of which over 10 lakh Rohingyas have been displaced; 90% of them have left Myanmar, mostly for Bangladesh which hosts the maximum number of Rohingya refugees. In 2018, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar concluded its policies towards Rohingyas had genocidal intent, based on seven indicators, one of which was widespread sexual violence against women and girls during its army’s “clearances operations”. Women and girls were subjected to rape, gang-rape and forced nudity, and in addition to the trauma of this violence and of displacement, were also stigmatised by their communities.
In November 2019, The Gambia filed a suit in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing Myanmar of acts of genocide against the Rohingyas. Even as Indians witnessed the speedy passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in early December, the ICJ heard the case against Myanmar. The Gambia asked that the genocidal campaign be stopped; that those displaced should be able to return safely and with citizenship rights; and that violators be punished. Myanmar argued there was no genocide, merely a counter-insurgency operation in which some human rights violations may have occurred. In her closing argument, Aung San Suu Kyi suggested that the case might be inimical to Myanmar’s efforts to resolve the issue. The ICJ will now deliberate.
The Rohingya crisis has been to Asia what the Syrian refugee crisis was to Europe, forcing governments, civil society and the public to reflect on foundational issues. Nations in the neighbourhood have been reluctant to take in these desperate people. Their anxieties include resource shortages, security concerns and upsetting the fragile demographics of border regions. In India’s Northeast, Rohingya refugees complicate pre-existing political questions about authentic belonging, political rights and representation. The National Register of Citizens, operationalised in Assam as a response to these anxieties, has created new ones. Countless Indians find themselves excluded despite other evidence of citizenship including military service. Now, the CAA will raise questions about those who were left out and are Muslims. It will also make it harder to shelter communities like the Rohingyas. India has said clearly that Rohingya refugees are not welcome but this will not stop desperate refugees from crossing the border. As Warsan Shire wrote, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
At the core of the Rohingya crisis is the question of belonging, one expression of which is citizenship. Who are the Rohingyas and do they belong in Myanmar? The Myanmar state does not think they belong and maintains they are recent migrants from Bengal or further west. Muslims in a predominantly Buddhist society, it is easy to link them to terror groups and bar their entry on security grounds, in these Islamophobic times. For the many human rights activists who visit Rohingya refugee camps, though, there is just a humanitarian tragedy with miserable women, men and children that stares them in the eye. It was such a visit that moved the government of The Gambia to file their suit.
Relate this to India’s current citizenship debate: Who is Indian? What will be the measure of Indian-ness? How will this Indian-ness be enforced? Who will be welcome in India and who will not? The NRC in Assam has proven to be a seriously flawed solution and its imperfections are compounded by the detention of those who have found themselves excluded. The main purpose of the CAA seems to have been to clarify exclusions. We must brace for the creation of massive numbers of citizenship detenus, internally displaced persons and refugees, remembering these may include any of us.
In multi-nation states like India—that is, countries where many nations of people, with distinct but connected histories and cultures live together—to align citizenship along cultural or community markers is to exclude. Never definitive or final, the lines between us keep shifting. Sometimes we belong and sometimes we do not. Can anyone have the moral authority to make this determination? The only democratic definition of citizenship is an inclusive one, accommodating everyone on the same basis. The consequences of exclusion are too dire for “We, the People” to mean anything less than all of us, the people, looking out for each other, with the responsibility to protect each other.
Political scientist and a member of the Women’s Regional Network