Facing the Rohingya challenge

What is important is the fact that the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s high-level meeting with Chief Ministers of five North-Eastern States
A Rohingya woman cries after being stopped by Bangladeshi border guards at a makeshift shelter at Ghumdhum, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Sunday, Aug.27, 2017. Several hundred Rohingya trying to flee Myanmar got stuck in a “no man’s land” at one border point barred from moving farther by Bangladeshi border guards. (AP Photo/Mushfiqul Alam)

India is spot on in its approach of tightening borders controls to handle the influx of Rohingya Muslims. However, unless New Delhi takes the North-Eastern States, who have been encouraging illegal immigration, on board, there can be no headway

It is not surprising that New Delhi is stepping up its efforts to deal with the inflow of thousands of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to India by tightening border control. This is in tune with the policies of the Narendra Modi Government as the BJP has always been against illegal immigrants from across the border, holding that Hindu refugees are welcome but Muslims are not.

What is important is the fact that the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s high-level meeting with Chief Ministers of five North-Eastern States, including West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Mizoram last week. The Centre is seeking their cooperation in checking illegal migrants. The meeting had decided to setup a border protection grid on the lines of Unified Command in insurgency-hit States to check illegal infiltration. India shares a 4,096 km-long border with Bangladesh of which 2,217 km falls in West Bengal, 262 km in Assam, 443 km in Meghalaya, 856 km in Tripura and 180 km in Mizoram.

Who are the Rohignyas and why is India concerned? They are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority living in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. The Myanmar Government has recognised only about 40,000 of them as its citizens, rejecting the rest 10 lakh as illegal Bengalis coming from neighboring Bangladesh. Unfortunately, since August this year, refugee outflow has increased following military ‘clearance operations’ targeting a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.

While Bangladesh has borne the brunt of it, India is affected by this inflow of refugees both internally and externally. The Modi Government considers Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants and not refugees. Even before the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, the Prime Minister had talked about checking illegal immigration from Bangladesh. The time has now come to implement the parry’s policy.

The Modi Government is convinced that the Rohingyas are a security threat to the country. Of the 40, 000 Rohingyas, who have settled in the country, 7,096 are in Jammu & Kashmir, the highest number, followed by Hyderabad with 3,059 of them. According to intelligence agencies, several Rohingya Muslims have moved towards Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

In September, New Delhi threatened to deport the 40,000 registered Rohingya refugees. The Union Home Ministry responded to the security challenge by empowering the States on August 8, to identify and deport illegal migrants. “The Rohingya issue is a complicated one. Our policy is to push them back and not arrest them,” claimed KK Sharma, the Director General of the Border Security Force.

When two refugees — Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir — filed a petition before the Supreme Court, the Centre maintained its right to deport the Rohingyas. In an affidavit on September 18, the Government said “authentic material indicating linkages of some of the unauthorised Rohingya immigrants with Pakistan-based terror organisations” were available and “that many of the Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of the Inter-Services Intelligence/Islamic State and other extremist groups.” The main areas through which the Rohingyas are entering are the India-Bangladesh border and also the Indo-Myanmar border. Strict vigil has been ordered along these border areas.

Human rights activists argue that India should not deport the refugees on humanitarian grounds. Although the country is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and doesn’t have a formal asylum policy, it hosts about 300,000 refugees, returnees, Stateless people and asylum seekers, according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. New Delhi has refused to bend to international pressure, asserting that it would not compromise with security concerns of the country.

Externally, harmonious ties with both Bangladesh and Myanmar are crucial for New Delhi as both countries have strategic importance and have helped in curbing insurgency in the North-East. Over the last three years, the Modi Government has invested huge political capital in deepening engagement with Myanmar, which is India’s gateway to South East Asia and also important for the Prime Minister’s Act East policy. Therefore, it is not surprising that India recently abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution, condemning human rights violations in Myanmar, particularly against Rohingya Muslims. But the Bangladesh-backed resolution was passed as 33 countries voted in favour.

As for Bangladesh, relations have improved vastly since Modi took over and even the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement was passed in Parliament after a wait of 41 years. Bilateral trade has more than doubled, and diplomatic relations have been highlighted by high-level visits and from exchanging of exclaves to throwing out anti-India insurgents in Bangladesh. Elections are round the corner in Bangladesh and the Rohingya issue would be an election issue for the Opposition.

Truing to balance the relations with both countries, Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar put it diplomatically while giving a lecture recently, “ Our objective will be to see how they can go back to their place of origin” and stressed the need for “a sober, sensitive and locally sensitive approach.”

The important thing is that New Delhi has to find ways of getting cooperation from the North-Eastern Border States. West Bengal has been encouraging illegal immigration for vote-bank politics, first by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Government and now by Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee. Unless the States come on board, the Rohingya policy would run into rough weather. This is where the role of regional satraps comes in having a larger vision.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)