Dhaka: Almost any conversation here brings up the Rohingya issue upfront. It is easy to see why. Bangladesh is much smaller than half a dozen Indian states; it is a little smaller than Odisha, though its population density is four times greater. With half a million refugees pouring in, the country is on an edge. Some say that some Rohingya are being trained by gunmen, though across the border in Myanmar itself. Others charge that Islamist NGOs are radicalising the refugees in Bangladesh.
The UN Commissioner for Human Rights has lent its voice to the charge that Myanmar forces are conducting an ethnic cleansing of the Rakhine state. The Myanmar authorities’ claim, that they responded to attacks by extremists on Myanmar police posts, does not quite sound authentic nor the charge that Hindus have been singled out and killed which actually seems to be a crude strategy to inflame passions in India where the Rohingya refugee issue is with the Supreme Court.
In a recent meeting with the US ambassador, the Myanmar army chief said Rohingyas were not natives of Myanmar and the numbers of those displaced are exaggerated. Myanmar argues that Rohingya are actually Bengali who were brought into their country by the bad colonialists and so implicitly there is nothing wrong in forcing them back to the place of their origin. In actual fact, the Burman-dominated Myanmar army has problems with almost all its substantial minorities, having conducted genocidal campaigns against all of them at one time or the other. In the 1960s, they expelled 3,00,000 Indians expropriating their property.
Myanmar has told Bangladeshi officials that it is willing to take back people who have national registration cards and other documents to prove their statehood. The problem is that many Rohingya were refused documents in the first place because registration was not open to people claiming Rohingya ethnicity. Indeed, many had their registration withdrawn through one pretext or the other. Besides, many of those displaced who fled after their villages were burnt would hardly have bothered to worry about carrying their ID cards into exile.
In 1971, the 10 million Bangla refugees pouring into India was a significant factor in our decision to make war on Pakistan. Bangladesh lacks the state capacity or the ability to do the same with its neighbour. In any case it says it wants to resolve things through diplomacy. But if the situation is not dealt with, things could change.
None of this has India in a happy place. In the world view of the ruling party, Rohingya are potential terrorists since they happen to be Muslim. Tens of millions of Bangladeshis, presumably mostly Muslims, have been living in India illegally for decades, but how come there has been no terrorist wave featuring them? As for deportation, in the past two decades, India has probably not managed to send back more than 50,000 Bangladeshi illegals. In the case of the Rohingya there is another problem – just where will they be deported to? Myanmar denies they are its nationals.
The evolving situation has the makings of a first class crisis which could put India between a rock and a hard place. Myanmar which borders four Indian states and Bangladesh which borders five are crucial neighbours. Both are important for our security, though Bangladesh’s centrality to eastern and northeastern India is difficult to ignore.
There is also the matter of the dragon in the room – China. Given our bad bilateral ties, our relations with third countries like Myanmar and Bangladesh become zero-sum games. Beijing is already a major investor and supplier of military equipment to both Bangladesh and Myanmar. It has the virtue of not being too concerned over human rights issues anyway.
Given just how important the region is for India, New Delhi needs to shape a vigorous and integrated response to the situation, rather than fulminating about deportation. It’s time to stop talking about becoming a leading power, and behaving like one instead. Common sense would suggest that when your neighbour’s house is on fire, it’s in your own interest to help put it out.