The Indian police transported seven Rohingya Muslims to the Indo-Myanmar border for deportation on October 3. The Rohingyas had been convicted under the Foreigner’s Act and detained at Assam’s Silchar detention center since 2012 for illegal entry.
This is the first such instance of deportation after anti-refugee tensions flared in Jammu last year and the Indian administration pushed for the deportation of 40,000 Rohingyas in the Indian Supreme Court.
Indian state governments were also urged by the center to identify the refugees and deport them. However, no such instances had been reported — until now.
Globally considered one of the most persecuted minority groups, the Rohingyas are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in northern Rakhine who have fled Myanmar in a large-scale exodus since August 2017. More than 700,000 refugees fled to Bangladesh after a military crackdown on Rohingyas last August, following the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attack on Myanmar’s military posts.
An independent UN fact-finding mission into the treatment of local minority groups, including the Rohingya, has accused Myanmar’s military of “genocidal intent” and involvement in murder, false imprisonment, torture, sexual slavery, and large-scale gang rape.
Despite being neither a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol nor possessing a domestic legal framework for refugees, India has traditionally adhered to the policy of nonrefoulement and been a welcoming host nation.
However, in the case of Rohingyas, Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has labelled them “illegal immigrants,” accused them of posing a “national security threat,” and pushed for their deportation in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court. The affidavit was in response to a case filed by two Rohingya refugees against the involuntary deportation of refugees. The case remains pending before the Supreme Court.
The affidavit also stated that India does not have to adhere to nonrefoulement as India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
In response, the Supreme Court has urged the Indian administration to “strike a balance between human rights and national security interests” but not stayed the administration’s deportation plans.
According to UN records, nearly 200 Rohingyas are presently detained in India on the charges of illegal entry. Their future, along with the 40,000 others who reside in India, remains uncertain.
India’s ad hoc refugee policy and strategic legal ambiguity, owing to its lack of domestic or international legal restrictions, allows New Delhi to differentiate between different groups in its treatment toward refugees and put other interests over humanitarian concerns.
India’s refugee policy toward the Rohingyas in particular has four major planks: competition with China, India’s economic interests and ambitions in Myanmar, the fragile geopolitics of India’s northeast, and the rising Hindu nationalism in the nation.
The China Factor
India recognizes that it was Myanmar’s isolation by India and the international fora in the 1980s that helped China build considerable economic and political influence in Myanmar.
Indeed, it was the threat of China using Myanmar’s Coco Islands for military and intelligence purposes in the 1990s that pushed India to woo Myanmar’s generals and move away from its strong stance on promoting democracy in Myanmar.
India fears Chinese encirclement in its neighborhood, where the commercial ports of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar are used by China for military purposes, becoming a “string of pearls” strangling India’s access to the Indian Ocean.
Given India’s 1962 defeat against China, which continues to influence Indian policymakers, and China’s close relationship with Pakistan as its “all-weather ally” on the west, New Delhi seems keen to avoid a similar Sino-Myanmar partnership on India’s eastern border.
Since its shift toward democracy, Myanmar has been looking to diversify its economic and strategic interests away from Chinese dominance. As an aspiring rising power, India hopes to take on China on the soil of Naypyidaw and reduce Chinese influence in its neighborhood.
India’s Economic Ambitions and Interests
India’s economic influence in Myanmar continues to remain below potential. While bilateral trade between Myanmar and India has more than doubled since 2008, it is dwarfed by the trade between China and Myanmar.
China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and dominates investments in the country. Indian exports to Myanmar are less than a fifth of China’s, which make up 33 percent of the total exports to Myanmar.
Furthermore, Myanmar is rich in oil and gas resources, vital to the energy-scarce and rapidly developing India. During the 2007 military crackdown on monks, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee defended India’s silence, stating, “We have strategic and economic interests to protect in Burma. It is up to the Burmese people to struggle for democracy.”
Myanmar is also critical to India’s Act East Policy as the only Southeast Asian country sharing a land border with India. India has capitalized on the declining China-Myanmar relationship and the opening of Myanmar by getting involved in multiple infrastructure development projects. Many of these projects run through Rakhine, like the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital. The Kaladan project is designed to provide a sea-river-land link to India’s northeast region through Sittwe port, thereby linking Sittwe to Kolkata.
This would not just connect India to Southeast Asia but also connect India’s northeast to the Indian mainland. Presently, the seven landlocked northeastern states of India can only be accessed through the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow 22 kilometer strip of Indian land bordering Bhutan and Bangladesh, often called India’s “chicken’s neck.” This has often led to significant transportation delays and cost overheads, making trade with northeast India difficult and expensive.
The Geopolitics of India’s Northeast
India hopes that socioeconomic and infrastructure development in northeast will also help curb the insurgencies, thereby easing its domestic security tensions.
In addition to being plagued by underdevelopment, northeast India is rife with corruption, drug trafficking, and insurgency, with as many as 50 Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) still active in the area.
Given the nature of porous borders and the transnational aspect of insurgencies, India is dependent on Myanmar, which shares a 1,600 km border with four northeast states, to combat insurgencies in the region.
While Myanmar has been more receptive to Indian concerns in the past few years, India fears that any criticism of Myanmar’s treatment of Rohingyas might affect the budding security relationship between the two nations.
For instance, in 1995, Myanmar suspended counterinsurgency cooperation with India after New Delhi honored Aung San Suu Kyi with the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding.
Lastly, with the upcoming 2019 elections, the audience cost of moving away from the religious Hindu nationalism that the ruling party has stirred would be too high for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. While not a causal factor, it serves as a vital tool to gain domestic support for the government’s problematic refugee policy.
There is a general trend under the Modi-led government of hostile citizenship policy toward the Muslim “other,” reflected in the Citizenship Amendment Bill that recognizes only non-Muslim minorities fleeing persecution in neighboring South Asian states as Indian citizens. Similarly, in August, India’s National Register of Citizens left out 4 million Assamese, predominantly Bengali Muslims, stripping them of their nationality and rendering them stateless.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, finds that India views the Rohingyas “from a single obsessive prism — that they’re Muslim.”
After 71 years of adherence to the principle of non-refoulement, for the first time, India’s realpolitik interests have prevailed over its refugee concerns. As the world looks to India to play the role of a regional leader, in the case of the Rohingyas, India’s material and power interests trump its humanitarian duty.
Bansari Kamdar is a freelance journalist based in India. She writes on South Asian political economy, gender and security issues.