Updated: Dec 8, 2020
India has always been a land of adjustment of diversities and minorities. In ancient time, when south Asia was constituted of the Indian subcontinent, present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, all one, migration of labourers was rather easy due to absence of citizenship law. But when they gained independence from the British, they were partitioned majorly based on the basis of religion. Myanmar did not recognize one ethnic group Rohingya as its citizen. The military of the State was brutal against the Rohingyas, who, for protection, sought shelter in neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Philippines, etc. It is difficult for any country to provide basic amenities to such a large population of migrants without even knowing their true identity. The same problem was faced by India who denied to help vulnerable Rohingyas for security reasons. It was important to secure the safety of citizens of India rather than those who did not have a nationality. The Rohingya population was kept in refugee camps near the international borders and were sent back to Bangladesh. The same challenge is discussed here by analyzing the threat to identity and internal security of India at the hands of susceptible migrants, and the way forward to mitigate it.
To understand the Rohingya crisis, it is important to know the meaning of citizenship, who are Rohingyas and why were they denied citizenship? Merely residing in one country and utilizing its resources does not make people citizens of that country. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, citizenship refers to ‘membership in a community’. Citizenship is the relationship between an individual and a state to which the individual owes allegiance and in turn, is entitled to its protection; it implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities. When a State recognizes someone as a citizen, they are conferred with civil, political and socio-legal rights which are not vested in non-citizens. Citizenship is used interchangeably with nationality, which refers to the identity of a person belonging to a particular nation-state.
Citizenship of a country can be acquired by birth, naturalization, residing in the country for a specific time period, both or one of the parents born in the country, migrating to the country before a particular date, etc. It is important to note that people who falsely acquire citizenship, violate the constitution of the country, acquire citizenship of another country, voluntarily give up citizenship, or enter the country illegally are not entitled to be called as a citizen of that country. There are some nations which exclude a group of people from acquiring citizenship based on race, ethnicity, religion, etc. The nation in itself is a larger ethnic group where both citizens and non-citizens reside. But some are highly homogenous in nature and do not allow migrators to acquire their citizenship. This is the case with the Rohingya population, identified as stateless.
Rohingya are an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslim, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, residing along the western coast of Rakhine province. They (internally) migrated from present-day India and Bangladesh and reached Myanmar, which was disregarded by Myanmar after independence in 1948. When the Union Citizenship Act, 1948 came into existence, it provided citizenship to Rohingya in a restricted sense. New citizenship law was passed in 1982 completely denied Rohingya citizenship of Myanmar, rendering them nation and identity-less.
IMMIGRATION OR EXODUS
Being a minority, Rohingya were tortured and ill-treated in Myanmar due to which they shifted to a new land and travelled to different nations in large numbers. This was the biggest example of ethnic cleansing in history and the United Nations referred to Rohingya as the most persecuted and discriminated minority in the world. The exodus began on 25 August 2017 after Rohingya Arsa militants launched deadly attacks on more than 30 police posts. This was not the first time, since 1970s Rohingya Muslims had been on move and sought refuge in Bangladesh particularly, which accepted them.
There were nearly 40,000 Rohingya who migrated to India and had settled in Jammu & Kashmir, Delhi, Assam etc., according to Ministry of Home Affairs. Sceptical of their identity, Bangladesh and India deliberated on the crisis with Myanmar to take them back, but to no avail. After all, to protect their lives was their main aim and hence they settled in different South-Asian countries to start a new life. But no nation could accept them easily because they directly/indirectly belonged to Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), responsible for the attacks on Myanmar military. In India, they were treated as illegal immigrants, encroaching land and resources of citizens and increased burden on the economy.
THEIR VULNERABILITY, OUR THREAT
The refugee population can be a threat to the citizens of the nation in which they seek refuge. The government justified Rohingya as a potential danger to the internal security of India and was determined to deport them. But how can defenceless population harm the sheltered people? How can they peril security of the state? The Indian government has explained it in response to the questions by the Supreme Court and suggestions, to extend help, by world organizations.
Firstly, their inhabitance in large numbers near the international border of Jammu province has raised many eyebrows and also sent alarm bells to the security forces regarding the nefarious designs of rogue neighbour Pakistan, who is bent upon to export terror in Jammu & Kashmir State. The centre alleged that Rohingyas living in Jammu & Kashmir had links with ISIS and massively indulged in terrorist activities along with Pakistan based terror groups, responsible for communal violence in the state.
Secondly, the government warned that Rohingyas, who were a part of ARSA in Myanmar, could harm the Indian Buddhists and initiate radicalization. They were called illegal immigrants, having no legal right to live in India, and their presence was disadvantageous to the human rights of citizens of India. Many have called it ‘infiltration’ due to the influx of armed and rebellious people, particularly Muslims, into the country.
Thirdly, the security of the nation is connected with integrity, unity and sovereignty of the nation too. Rohingya being mostly Muslims could have posed danger to the native non-Muslim population who were adamant to drive them out. The demographic balance of places where lakhs of Rohingya settled would be disturbed resulting into communal struggle. Government feared that the Rohingya Muslim settlement in Jammu & Kashmir may lead to violence and exodus of Kashmiri Hindus.
Fourthly, the Center said that Rohingya were indulging in illegal activities such as mobilization of funds through hawala channels, procuring fake identity documents- PAN (Permanent Account Number) and voter card- and indulging in human trafficking. After all, security of the State cannot be negotiated in the name of humanity.
Apart from security reasons, another factor responsible for their deportation is identity. Those who entered India did not primarily have any documents and were rendered nationless. They lived as refugees in different nations in the camps near borders. Some managed to get recognition but there were many who issued forged certificates. The government tried to identify such impersonators and send them back, but the settled ones amalgamated with the citizens of India. This was a major problem as in such a short time span, they would be naturalized by fraudulent means and could enjoy fundamental rights guaranteed only to citizens of India.
Rohingya though safe in India from life threats as in Myanmar, with no identity, had no access to basic amenities like education, employment, medical facilities. This is where verification of a large populace is necessary to ensure the safety of its own citizens. If millions of Rohingyas have had equal access to them, it would have been difficult to sustain an overly populated. The unnecessary burden on already limited resources had resulted in an increase in poverty and downfall of the economy. The second-largest nation in population with a developing economy and an added millions of people to seek shelter and refuge is neither ideal nor achievable.
SOLUTION TO REFUGEE CRISIS
The primary answer to the Rohingya crisis was to identify them and send them back to Bangladesh. But there was pressure on India from international organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, United Nations, to treat refugees on humanitarian grounds by giving them shelter in the country. India refused to do so due to mentioned reasons but extended help to Bangladesh which was overwhelmingly affected by refugees. On 14 September 2017, India launched ‘Operation Insaniyat’ to provide relief assistance for the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
India held several delegations along with Bangladesh and Myanmar for the upliftment of Rakhine province and providing livelihood to Rohingyas. Every other nation, whether neighbouring or distant urged Myanmar to end the atrocities on Rohingya and to take them back but Myanmar has not satisfactorily responded to the call. International communities slapped sanctions on Myanmar for its anti-humanity act.
The Indian government has proposed amendments to its citizenship laws (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019) that would allow certain Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to become eligible for citizenship. Exclusion of Muslims has put Rohingyas in peril as they have nowhere to go.
India has witnessed a refugee crisis in past too, but it does not have a static refugee law. The constitution defines who is a citizen and a foreigner is defined in the Foreigners Act, 1946, with no mention of a refugee. India has also not been a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention or the 1967 Protocol- both relating to the Statute of Refugees and included in UNHRC statute. With no refugee law and no international code of conduct applied, it is difficult for refugees to claim citizenship and it is the absolute discretion of Center whether to accept and accommodate persecuted minorities in India or to restrict and deport them.
It is a serious obligation on every country in the world to treat its people with dignity whether majority or minority, citizen or non-citizen. With most countries being democratic, guarantees people a secure environment and equal access to resources. But trouble comes in when the populace is victimized, based on certain grounds. They have no choice than to flee away to save themselves. They have no identity except for their status on homeland which abandoned them. Rohingya have faced the same challenges and found shelter out of Myanmar. Countries had a difficult time to aid them and some refused to help. It is important to understand that working for humanity by staking the safety of its own people is no good. No one can coerce a nation to nurture millions, on scarce means. Security and sovereignty of the state is the first and foremost priority of the government and other major concern is the rights of the citizens which cannot be traversed with the protection given to displaced/migrated people.