Politics Now

Reflections on the Rohingya Crisis

A boat with Rohingya migrants.
A boat with Rohingya migrants.

When we were born, we were automatically granted Indian citizenship by the principle of jus sanguinis, as is derived from Act 57 of the Constitution of India. The issue of citizenship is so quotidian to us that we hardly think of it. Being an Indian citizen entitles us to a lot of privileges and rights, apart from State duties (that we fail to observe, mostly). But for the time being, let us keep that out of our scope here. Imagine being denied citizenship status by the State where you breathed your first, imagine being shunned by local ethnic communities and sects, imagine being rejected by neighbouring South Asian nations, imagine being homeless in the post-modern twenty-first-century world: and you call yourself a Rohingya.

The Rohingyas are essentially people of Indo-Aryan descent who are denied recognition under the Myanmar Nationality Law. Mostly concentrated in the North Western Province of Rakhine, the Rohingya population has always faced systematic discrimination at the hands of the government and the Burmese people at large, over the decades. However, to fully comprehend the real nature behind their statelessness, a look at the history pages is indispensable.

British Colonialism and Post-Independence Politics

The British began their conquest in Burma as early as 1824, starting with a series of conflicts and wars against the established. As was the practice in India, Colonial interests encouraged migrant labour in order to increase rice cultivation and profits. As part of requirements and policies, many Rohingya entered Burma during this phase of the seventeenth century. Between 1871 and 1911, the Muslim population tripled, as per available statistics from the Census Records. The British also promised the Rohingya separate land – a “Muslim National Area” – in exchange for support. During the Second World War, the Rohingyas supported the British, while the nationalists sided with the Japanese intruders. Customary to tradition, the Rohingyas were rewarded well with prestigious governmental posts. However, the promise of a free state was denied to them.

Right after independence in 1948, the Rohingya population started clamouring for the autonomous province they were promised, but officials rarely showed interest. Branding them foreigners, they were denied citizenship- and thus started the decades-long denial and oppression of the Rohingyas in present-day Myanmar. Other groups and nationalists had only hatred and contempt for the Rohingyas as the latter had enjoyed the patronage of the outgoing colonialists. Such built-up anger only contributed to growing fiery sentiments that were evidently anti-Rohingya. In 1950, some Rohingyas staged a protest against the government, demanding rights of citizenship and recognition, apart from their promised land- the Muslim National Area. The Army took over and in essence crushed all opposition from the Rohingyas- thus, silencing them for the upcoming decades. In 1977, when the Army launched a drive to register citizens, the Rohingyas were deemed as illegal immigrants.

Present Day Crisis and Mass Exodus

The first series of violence against Rohingyas were noted in early 2012. The immediate trigger was the gang rape and killing of a Burmese woman by some Rohingyas, as well as killing of ten Burmese women by the Rakhines. Since then, riots and bloodbath have become common sights, the ground zero being volatile for most of the time. Countless number of pictures have shown how Rohingya villages were burnt and their property being destroyed. At present count, more than 500,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmarese territory into safe lands- primarily Bangladesh, which has taken in approximately 480,000 refugees until August 2017. This figure shows only the refugee input in the latest series of clashes. Coupled with earlier numbers, Bangladesh is brimming with Rohingya population, struggling to balance its economy and handicapped by humanitarian concerns- it harbours 700,000 plus refugees by a rough estimate.

A Rohingya makeshift camp in Bangladesh.
A Rohingya makeshift camp in Bangladesh. (Credits: The Guardian)

When the present crisis exploded beyond proportions, all major news outlets carried photos reminiscent of the Syrian migrant crisis that plagued the world last year. It is probably imbued in the governmental system to not take notice of and/or apprehend crises in the foreseeable future. It was clear that the Myanmarese Army had intentions poles apart from what the civilised world would expect, yet no one bothered to engage diplomatic measures to take stock of the growing tensions. When the riots finally began, so did the exodus, and it remains a terrible sight till day- people of all ages cramped in a boat, huddling for an uncertain future amidst the roaring waves of fate. For the Rohingyas, the blue sky isn’t blue anymore- it must have assumed a greyish character beyond compare.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees opened up to International Human Rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the army had beheaded men, raped their women, carried out armed attacks and facilitated a state of ‘controllable chaos’- if I can put it that way. When the United Nations defined the Rohingyas as the most persecuted ethnic group in the world, they were right- being butchered in their own soil and having an identity crisis in the foreign lands. In May 2017, the Myanmar Army rejected and vehemently denied allegations of human rights abuses in the Rakhine state during a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. On paper, the crackdown was initiated so as to ensure that Rohingya insurgents who attacked border guard posts were flushed. In practice, and this is my firm conviction, the Army wanted to cleanse the region of the taint of a single Rohingya Muslim.

How India Gets Involved

As already discussed, Bangladesh is beyond the point of recovery: the refugee influx being so heavy that it is an actual threat to the Bangladeshi economy. As such, it is inevitable that the Government of Bangladesh, under Sheikh Hasina, will take steps to send back a significant chunk of refugees. Such a drastic step will meet with ramifications that can, and will, affect the Indian Union. Pushing refugees out of Bangladesh compulsively would only result in the refugees trying to enter India. It is a known fact that at several points, due to geographical and contour inaccessibility, the borders remain open and porous. At present count, India is already hosting forty thousand (40,000) Rohingya refugees. The Central Government has taken a stand to figuratively deny each of the registered Rohingya refugees dwelling in India any further leniency. In an affidavit submitted before the apex court, the Government said that it had sufficient inputs from Intelligence Agencies to ascertain that there were security threats among the Rohingya population in India. Many of such threats were spread across metropolitans.

As a regional power, it is only fair to expect New Delhi to shoulder its quota of responsibility, which it has done in a lot many ways. It has agreed to provide sufficient remuneration and aid to Bangladesh which would then forward it on to the refugee camps. Moreover, it has also upped the ante against Myanmar on diplomatic levels to immediately stop further persecution (although it has had little effect). However, to say that hosting refugees would be the ultimate test of governmental morality is a myth in itself and to be crude, utter rubbish.

On further research, Politics Now has found concrete evidence that the premier Pakistani Intelligence agency, the ISI- is involved in training and recruiting young Rohingyas and subsequently radicalising them with anti-India propaganda apart from the jihadi doctrines. In 2012, two terrorists (Noor-ul-Amin and Ali Ahmed aka Abu Jibral) were arrested in Bangladesh, who confirmed ISI’s support in training and financial assistance to Rohingyas. Furthermore, Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence intercepted three long duration calls between Hafiz Tohar, leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Inter-Services Agency (ISI)- before ARSA attacked the Myanmar army posts at the border. Currently, twenty percent of the Rohingya population is concentrated in Jammu. Any further shift could escalate dramatic tensions and give rise to sectarian confrontations in the already volatile state. As such, it is understandable that the government wants to take a no-risk policy: a direct deportation would end any chance of a further headache in the future.

The Way Forward

The Rohingya crisis is a perfect example of an ethnic cleansing, a humanitarian crisis that has spiralled beyond all presumptions and has evolved into a mess that cannot be downplayed at any platform. Keeping terse South Asian geopolitics in mind is essential in order to carve out a possible solution, but then again this cannot be implemented without wholehearted acceptance of the masses.

  • (a)  Protecting and Promoting Freedom of Religion: State restrictions on practising religion can turn to violent extremism after a point. An initiative to promote freedom of religion and free practice of it, therefore, can lead to an equitable situation which has the potential to restore normalcy. This should be a policy priority as the status quo otherwise threatens global security. All the more, enhanced religious freedom would also help to contain or minimize the spread of violent extremism, and in some cases, radical ideology. The President, including high dignitaries like the State Councillor, should take the lead in promoting the concept of religious tolerance and non-discrimination of the Rohingya sect.
  • (b) Granting citizenship status to the Rohingyas: A permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis would be to grant citizenship rights to Rohingyas. Decades of injustice can hence be reversed with a single master move. While promotion of free practice of religion would be a most welcome initiative, it is temporal in nature. The Rohingyas should be integrated into the society with full and equal access to basic, fundamental rights that include education, safety, property, and employment, among others.

Thus, if Myanmar can adopt such progressive moves at the earliest, it would only help facilitate a bright future for itself. The Government, along with the Army control, must understand that facilitating a smooth transition to democracy instead of a roller-coaster ride to a state of partial democracy is of utmost importance. Transition to democracy must be smooth,  or otherwise armed transitions can destabilize the entire region. And as Desmond Tutu, the famous anti-Apartheid activist recently observed in the context of Myanmar,

“You don’t have to contend with sanctions, you don’t have to spend resources keeping people under lock and key, you can participate in international business and sport, you can attract tourists. And the most important thing … is that this is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter.”

India and the Nukes

Modi’s love affair with Japan seems to know no boundaries. In his second State visit to Japan in under two years, he has managed to ink a civilian nuclear power deal with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe. However, as expected, there were instances of domestic resistance in both the countries: a people’s movement against nuclear plant establishment in India, while a general sentiment that nuclear deals should not be made with non-NPT (Nuclear Proliferation Treaty) states prevailed in Japan.

Although the former is a concern that can be tackled with the count of years, the latter is something to contemplate upon. Would the public opinion in Japan be more disposed to India’s cause if India were a member of the Nuclear Supplier’s Group? Is it not valid to speculate that Japan would have unilaterally decided to permit such a deal had India been a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Bilateral Nuclear Deals

The nuclear deal with Japan has come at a cost that can have dynamic ramifications. In a first of its type, India has explicitly highlighted that it would not conduct nuclear tests in the future. As per media reports, American firms dealing in nuclear technology have significant relationships with Japanese establishments of the same nature.  Commentators have brought out the fact that this bilateral agreement bears many resemblances to the 2005 nuclear deal under the Bush administration. The Indo-US deal was hailed as a game changer in the diplomatic circles, whereby India was not only implicitly recognized as a responsible nuclear state, but also transformed India’s image in the international sphere from a nuclear pariah to a partner. The Bush administration, as per opinions, broke the ice by finding a modus vivendi with India. However, an exception cannot be made everywhere.

The Japanese, on the other hand, also have strategic interests in concluding the agreement. The Sino-Japanese rivalry has only heated up in the last few years, whose credit primarily goes to heightened tensions over the South China Sea dispute. Even if we are to move past the nuclear deal, there are a thousand other ventures where Tokyo would like to cooperate with New Delhi. Take for instance the bullet train, a field where Japan is keen and enthusiastic to invest. All of this essentially boils down to an advantage for India, as it can now effectively snub Chinese attempts of regional ascendancy.

India’s desire to get into the NSG

It must be noted that India has been desperately trying to get into the exclusive NSG club, wherein it would have untold benefits as far as nuclear commerce is concerned. As mentioned earlier, an important consideration of this consortium is that the members must be a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. India has not signed the treaty for it considers it discriminatory, and rightly so. At this juncture, there is a vital consideration. Should India up the ante to get into the NSG despite opposition from global players? If the answer to that is affirmative, there are perils attached to it.

India’s entry into the NSG as an independent exception cannot bear expected results from the Indian point of view. This is mainly because Pakistan, too, seeks a place in the association: and an unbiased exception is incredibly difficult to justify. China would then pester and lobby for Pakistan’s admission: and thus India’s cardinal intent of joining the NSG would be nullified. Geopolitical tensions are always a top concern in South Asia. A recent development in the form of Parrikar’s personal musings about how India should abandon the “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy would only act as yet another deterrent.

The Last Say

As of now, it seems unlikely that India would get a stamp of approval to enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Henceforth, it would be worthwhile to ensure that India lives up responsibly to its image of a peaceful nuclear country. It would be demoralizing on a diplomatic level to vigorously canvas for India’s entry into the exclusive club and then get an outright rejection. Moreover, regardless of any inherent lack of logic, China would always play the rhetoric of “no exceptions”: for India would not sign the NPT in the foreseeable future.  In my opinion, the world would definitely watch how India shapes its strategy as far as the India-Pakistan strains are concerned, as a litmus test for India’s commitment to international conventions.  Thus, the only feasible way to get out of this tangible mess of affairs is to exercise careful restraint in actions on an international level.

The Trump Card

The Big Brother of the World has a new captain in the form of Donald J. Trump. In a sweeping and unanticipated win, Trump has been elected the forty-fifth president of the United States of America.  Claiming the Presidential seat has been a rather tumultuous ride for Trump- or for that matter, Republicans themselves- with the former having to battle a string of sexual assault allegations from women weeks before the elections, apart from the regular outrageous racial comments that provoked criticism from all quarters.

Critics have pondered over whether the world is preferring a transition from the unadventurous and hackneyed politics to choosing extremist politics whose very pillars lie on frustration and anger. Tapping into the subconscious fear has for long been a good way to convince people. The Trump campaign, based on the cornerstone of ‘Make America Great Again’ tried to exploit general concerns over security, and reinstill a sense of belief in the stereotypical ‘Great American Dream’.

Obama, who will be taking the exit to vacate the Presidential office for Trump and co., has said he prefers a smooth changeover. In an official White House release, Obama mentioned about the need to give the President-elect a fair opportunity to lead the people.

“We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team…We’re not Democrats first, we’re not Republicans first, we are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country.” – President Obama, 9th of November, 2016.

The decision was expected to be tight, and indeed it was: the Presidential elections of 2016 would be one to remember for a long time ahead. Although the Democratic nominee won by popular vote, the Electoral College made the last-mile difference in choosing Trump as the inheritor of the White House. Primarily, both candidates had drawbacks. First, Trump had his bohemian way of looking at things. From suggesting a blanket ban on Muslims entering the States to proposing tight restrictions on rights of Latin Americans, he has done it all. Personality, however, proved to be his redeemer: for his image was more of an “I do what I do”-like than his comparatively tamer opponent, Clinton. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was in a spot due to unpardonable questions over her integrity in respect of the email scandal. Despite a whole host of celebrities putting their weight behind Clinton, her glittery speeches failed to gain considerable traction with the masses. And the result is what we presently have at hand: a Republican administration led by Trump at the commanding helm. After the election results were out, Clinton accepted her electoral defeat and echoed Obama. In a public tweet, she asked the populace to accept Trump with an open mind.

From an Indian perspective, questions can be raised on the new bilateral relations that would develop between Washington and New Delhi. Trump has had double standards as far as India is concerned: while he has acknowledged his desire to cooperate and work closely with the Indian government, he has also explicitly made clear his wish to repeal H1B visas. A lot of the Indian diaspora based in the States live on H1B working-class visas, and cutting off the H1B as part of chauvinistic reforms would definitely affect the community. However, there are positives to take as well from the result. Trump’s constant emphasis on eliminating terrorism in all of its ugly forms could result in stronger Indo-US defence ties. Consequently, closer defence ties would give birth to deeper trade relations, currently valued at almost $44.7 billion (2015).

Nevertheless, it is heartening to note that experts in the policy-making circles believe with a sense of complacency that irrespective of whatever temporal cracks that may develop, the bilateral Indo-US relations would be on a positive track. In stark contrast to the pages of history, America’s initial indifference towards India was soon washed away when it became evident that New Delhi could not be ignored if America were to protect her interests in South Asia. Also, Capitol Hill focused its lights on India in a special way after India stepped into the era of globalization, initiated by the late Prime Minister, Rajeev Gandhi. This touched the zenith when in 2005, under the Presidency of George W. Bush, the Civil Nuclear Deal was inked with the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

If we are to assess Trump’s foreign policy in sections that have Indian interests intertwined, we would find that it tilts by a good slant to favour India. His long-standing grudge against China would definitely reflect on the policies, including a probability of drawing sanctions for economic strong-arm tactics that Beijing often uses. Pakistan has woken up to a state of disillusional quandary: for it hesistates to go the distance, given the President-elect’s discountenance with Pakistan’s open secret of using terrorism as a State weapon against India. The threat of Islamic fanaticism and an increasingly authoratarian China also possess security challenges to both India and the States, which if handled well, could assure a safer world. On numerous fronts, he has lambasted Pakistan for being a harbour of terrorists and a safe haven for all activities underground. That is rightly evident from his official Twitter account.

On a personal front, it is my firm conviction, and I believe you would undeniably agree, that with great power comes along a sense of responsibility. The temptation of power is a lot like lust: it can lead people astray. However, when the baton has to be passed on to the next successor, the realization kicks in early: the President of the United States of America can never afford to have a happy-go-lucky attitude in complete disregard of official protocol. The American elections once again reaffirm how unpredictable the popular choice may be. And if all is well, we definitely have one line that sums it all:

Abki Baar, Trump Sarkar

Read also from the same author: India’s growing bonhomie with the United States (June 2016).