India is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol since India believes “its borders are porous and any conflict can lead to mass movement of people” straining its limited resources. However, India has traditionally opened its doors to Tibetans and Afghan refugees. Therefore, its response to the Rohingya crisis catches us by surprise.
Al Jazeera has stated that “the Indian government appears intent on following dangerously in the footsteps of the Myanmar authorities: intentionally fomenting religious-nationalist fervor and placing thousands of traumatized Rohingya in a state of constant fear and deprivation.” The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC) have complicated matters for the Rohingya since they have been systematically excluded from its ambit. Home Minister Amit Shah has said that the Rohingya are ineligible for Indian citizenship as they entered India through circuitous routes.
Despite being politely distant, India is now willing to discuss the Rohingya issue. India’s first secretary at the Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Pawan Badhe, has stated that India had the “highest stakes” in resolving the issue. Badhe added, “We remain committed to ensuring safe, sustainable and speedy repatriation of displaced persons from Rakhine state, currently staying in Bangladesh, to Myanmar, based on the understanding reached between the two countries. We will continue to support efforts in this direction.”
The discussions between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Sheikh Hasina suggest a glimmer of hope with the Dhaka Tribune noting that “calls for assistance did not move Indians earlier.” The Indian side though has chosen to remain neutral in the conflict and has described the Rohingya as “people of Rakhine.” This difference in nomenclature is at the heart of the crisis. At a time when Modi is deepening India’s relationship with Bangladesh, India can adopt a conciliatory stance on the Rohingya issue and strengthen diplomatic relations between the neighbors at a time when it has limited maneuverability on the Teesta water issue. Since India wants to establish harmonious ties with its neighbors by rendering assistance to disaster-affected regions as a “goodwill gesture” India can assist the Rohingya through Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief initiatives within BIMSTEC. An editorial published by a government-funded think tank has urged India to take a proactive stance to the conflict and stated that the success of Indian diplomacy lay in India’s ability to induce a long view of the Rohingya crisis keeping in mind its internal security and social harmony.
Since India visualizes itself as a responsible global power, it is obligated to follow the principle of “non refoulement” since it is articulated in various human rights treaties like the United Nations Convention on Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Genocide Convention, 1948 and India ratified this pact in 1959. The Rohingya need to be provided protection on the Indian shores because Article 21 of the Indian Constitution mandates them “Right to Life.”
The Indian Parliament can legislate laws to protect the interests of refugees. Indian Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor had introduced the Asylum Bill in 2015 to deliberate on the refugee problem in India but there was limited movement on that front.
Interestingly, the Rohingya have found support within the Indian government and civil society. Sambit Patra, the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman, stated that the government did not have a problem with the 16,000 Rohingya refugees who were living in India with papers. The Indian government has supported the Kofi Annan Commission’s recommendations on the conflict. Similarly, it had launched Operation Insaniyat in 2017 to formally provide relief assistance to the Rohingya.
Opposition leader Sushmita Dev has espoused the Rohingya cause on humanitarian grounds and cited Articles 14 and 15 from the Indian Constitution to back her claims. NonBJP governments have been aiding the Rohingya with West Bengal leading from the front.
Similarly, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) are working to ameliorate the living and working conditions of the Rohingya in India. Similarly, the Ubais Sainulabdeen Peace Foundation (USBF) is also catering to the needs of the Rohingya living in refugee camps in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj and Madanpur Khadar areas. The Red Crescent Society of India (RCSI) has made substantial efforts to support the Rohingya. These initiatives inspire hope and confidence that India will play a more willing and open role in solving the crisis in the future.
Anuttama Banerji is a Research Associate with Delhi based think tank Centre for Strategic and Defense Relations (CSDR). She has a master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).