During a visit to India in 2013 as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres observed, “India's refugee policy is an example for the rest of the world to follow.” He rightly noted “India with its history, culture, traditions, is today an example of generosity in the way it has opened its borders to all people who have come looking for safety and sanctuary.”
Although not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, since independence, India embraced a diverse range of refugees fleeing persecution in their own lands. It provided shelter to 80,000 Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama after the abortive uprising in 1959. Subsequently, more than 150,000 Tibetan refugees came and of them 120,000 remain in India today. The Indian government extended support to the Tibetan refugees to settle in the country pending their return to Tibet, which never happened. In 1971, in the wake of Bangladesh's Liberation War India again experienced influx of about ten million Bangladeshis. It opened the border, sheltered the refugees and appealed for international assistance. Within a year almost all returned home following the liberation of Bangladesh and defeat of the Pakistan occupation army, an event in which India played a seminal part for which we are grateful. Again, during the civil war in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Tamils sought shelter in the southern Indian states. 64,000 have remained in India. The reputation of India as safe sanctuary attracted the Afghans during their troubled times. India still hosts about 10,000 Afghan refugees. Likewise, the policy of military solution to the Chittagong Hill Tracts problem led to the inflow of 55,000 hill people into Tripura. The peace accord in 1997 created conditions for the return of the hill refugees to Bangladesh.
Although India's treatment of various groups of refugees varied, the country earned international accolade for keeping its door open to the persecuted. Hosting refugees with different cultural backgrounds and faiths often in economically depressed regions was not an easy task. The astute liberal political leadership rose to the challenges; including those often posed by the hostile host population, and defended the refugees. At certain points when that was deficient the National Human Rights Commission and the higher judiciary stepped in to protect refugees. Recent developments centring the Rohingya, however, signal a departure from this elevated stand.
Over a period of time a number of persecuted Rohingya refugees found their way to India. They entered the country from western Arakan state, some after a stint of stay in Bangladesh. The series of atrocities committed by the Burmese security forces and the militant Buddhists in recent years led to the swelling of their ranks. Many have settled in Jammu, Hyderabad, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi-NCR and Rajasthan. The Indian government claims the number to be 40,000, while the UNHCR puts the figure at around 16,500.
On September 4 the Additional Solicitor General, representing the central government, reportedly informed the Supreme Court that it will not give any assurance to Rohingya refugees that the government will not deport them back to Myanmar. This response came when the apex court probed the government's stand on a petition challenging its decision to deport Rohingyas in irregular status to Myanmar. Two refugees registered with the UNHCR, India, filed the plea.
A day later as Prime Minister Modi began his maiden visit to Myanmar, a junior minister of Home Affairs informed the local media “whether the Rohingyas are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees or not, they are illegal immigrants in India…as per the law they stand to be deported.” Media reports inform that in April senior government functionaries discussed plans for the “detection, arrest and deportation” of Rohingya.
Such developments heightened the insecurity of and occurrences of discrimination against the Rohingyas. The scope for securing any form of legal status for these hapless Rohingyas in India appears to be shrinking fast. Increasingly they are being branded as “illegal immigrants”.
Jurists have noted that the proposed deportation would be contrary to the constitutional protection of Article 14 (right to equality) and Article 21 (right to life and personal liberty) of the Constitution of India. The deportation order would also be in contravention of the Principle of Non-Refoulement, widely recognised as a standard of international customary law. The petitioners reminded the government that India ratified and is a signatory to various conventions that recognise the Principle of Non-Refoulement that proscribes deportation of people to a country where they may face threats to their lives. They sought that Rohingya people be provided “basic amenities to ensure that they can live in human conditions as required by international law.”
It appears that Rohingya refugees in India have become convenient scapegoats in a polity where reason and tolerance are increasingly losing ground to hatred and prejudice. It may also be the case as Ravi Nair notes, “Out manoeuvred on the influence imprint in Myanmar by China at every point of engagement India's only diplomatic ploy is security rabbit it pulls out of Islamophobic terrorist threat campaign (Indian Express, September 7).” Members of Rohingya community, both in Arakan and in India, have thus become dispensable pawns in such reckoning.
One wonders, sitting in his UN Plaza office in dreary wet evenings, what crosses the mind of the now UN Secretary General Gutteres as he learns India's turnaround in refugee protection, a country on which once he lavished his praise.
C R Abrar teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka.