How Aceh’s About-face on Rohingya Refugees Echoes in India

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How Aceh’s About-face on Rohingya Refugees Echoes in India

Right-wing disinformation networks in India are using events in Indonesia to revive fake news and hate speech campaigns targeting the Muslim minority group.

How Aceh’s About-face on Rohingya Refugees Echoes in India

Protesters burn tires during a protest rejecting Rohingya refugees in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, Dec. 27, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Reza Saifullah

On December 27, just as the year was drawing to a close, a crowd of students broke through police barricades and barged into a temporary shelter housing Rohingya refugees in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, located at the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island. 

Many of the refugees had landed on Aceh’s shores just days earlier, after making a perilous sea voyage on rickety boats from their squalid camps in Bangladesh all the way across the Andaman Sea. According to a statement published by UNHCR Indonesia, the irate mob “forcibly put 137 refugees on two trucks, and moved them to another location in Banda Aceh.”

Remarkably, this mob attack instantly caught the imagination of Indian right-wing activists. Several posts praising the action of the local youth of Aceh began to appear on Indian social media platforms. A random sampling of some of the newer and older posts across X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, and Instagram shows how quickly xenophobic disinformation campaigners in one country can borrow from their compatriots in another in order to legitimize their own rhetoric.

Inspiration From Indonesia

A day after the Banda Aceh incident, a user named Jitendra Pratap Singh on X, whose profile picture shows him shaking hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, posted a video of the local students loading the Rohingya refugees onto trucks, and claimed (falsely) that the Indonesian government was sending the refugees “back to the sea.” 

The post, which had more than 15,200 views and 1,100 likes at the time of writing, is filled with comments from like-minded, pro-Hindutva accounts on how the Indian government should follow the Indonesian example of deporting the refugees. One user, Chambal ka Thakur, claimed that the refugees sent back by Indonesia would now wind up in India via Bangladesh.

On January 7, Sarika Tyagi, a blue-check right-wing influencer with more than 15,000 followers and “Sanatani Hindu” written in her bio, posted an Al Jazeera video of the incident and noted that Indonesian students were demanding deportation of Rohingya refugees from their country. “Throw out all Rohingya infiltrators from India,” Tyagi demanded.

Such rhetoric is more often than not spun using unsubstantiated claims about the supposed criminality of the Rohingya. One X account wrote on January 8 that Bangladesh and Indonesia were throwing out “illegal rohingya [sic] Muslims” because they were involved in “illegal activities.” This is a wholly unsubstantiated claim.

Notably, Indonesia began appearing in the Indian right-wing social media ecosystem even before the December 27 mob attack in Banda Aceh. On November 17, Gaurav Arya, a retired Indian army major and a right-wing influencer with more than 1.6 million followers on X (including Modi), shared a news item about Acehnese turning a wooden vessel with some 250 Rohingya asylum seekers back to the sea. He claimed that there was not a “whisper of protest from the world,” nor “a word of condemnation.” 

He also situated this narrative in a uniquely Indian context. “Indonesia’s NRC policy is pretty straightforward,” Arya wrote in the post. The NRC, which stands for the National Register of Citizens, is a headcount exercise to sieve out “illegal immigrants” from the Indian population. So far, it has only been undertaken in the state of Assam, but the Modi government has expressed its desire to expand it to the rest of the country.

Another blue-check right-wing influencer with more than 12,200 followers, Madhubanti Chatterjee, posted videos of Acehnese villagers pushing the Rohingya boat back to sea and wrote in the post: “Locals gathered on the coast and showed their anger and resisted them [the Rohingya] from landing.” The post, that had more than 18,300 views at the time of writing, drew deeply xenophobic comments. One user wrote: “We reject Rohingya and Middle Eastern refugees because of stealing, and chaos.”

Facebook, owned by Meta, is flushed with similar narratives. A video news story posted by BBC Hindi on the November incident on Facebook drew a barrage of mocking comments from Indian accounts and more than 3,600 “laugh” reactions. Many of them asked what other Muslim countries are doing. One poster, writing in Hindi, claimed that Islam is an alarm bell for the entire world.

Here too, we see a recontextualization of the Indonesian example in the Indian context. One comment reads: “Come to Bengal. Mamata Bano is waiting for you there.” This is a textbook jab that cyber trolls affiliated to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party use for Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, who belongs to an opposition party. “Bano” is a generic reference to an elderly Muslim woman, but is used here as a sectarian pejorative against a political leader who is often described as a biased patron of Muslims by members of the Hindutva political class.

Another Facebook user posted a news item on the mob assault and wrote in Hindi: “There are now fears that Congress and Kejriwal will now take to the streets in Shaheen Bagh to stage a sit-in protest against Indonesia.” The highly contextualized jab is premised on the 2019 protests against a sectarian amendment to India’s citizenship law. The movement began from Shaheen Bagh, a Muslim-dominated neighborhood of southeast Delhi, and drew support from members of opposition parties, including the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party, which governs Delhi under the chief ministership of Arvind Kejriwal.

By linking the Indonesian incidents to local political events, markers, and narratives, the Hindutva ecosystem is able to broadcast its rhetoric to a larger audience in India. But this isn’t the first time the right wing in India has imported anti-Rohingya rhetoric from abroad.

Rohingya as the “Hindu Killers” of Myanmar

In 2021, a seer and Hindutva agent provocateur, Swami Prabodhanand Giri, during a so-called “religious parliament” in Haridwar, urged the “police, army, politicians, and every Hindu” in India to pick up arms and conduct a “safai abhiyaan – cleanliness drive – against India’s Muslims, just as was done in Myanmar. (It should be noted that the United Nations condemned the Myanmar military’s anti-Rohingya “clearance operation” as a “textbook example of ethnic cleaning.”)

Needless to say, Giri based this call on false narratives about the Rohingya.

“[I]n Myanmar, Hindus were being chased away. The politicians, government and police were just standing and watching. They started by killing them by cutting their necks, and not only this, but they began to cut them in the streets and eat them,” Giri told the saffron-clad crowd. 

Interestingly, three years earlier, right-wing print and social media had used pictures from a Tibetan open burial ritual to claim that Rohingya refugees in India were eating Hindus.

The projection of the Rohingya as killers of Hindus began to circulate in Hindutva social media circles when the Myanmar military accused the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a Rohingya armed group, of killing 28 Hindus in northern Rakhine State of Myanmar in September 2017. The claim was never verified by independent sources. 

The narrative got a new lease of life less than a year later, when Amnesty International published a report claiming that ARSA fighters had killed 99 Hindus. Citing the alleged killings, Sonam Mahajan, a blue-check right wing influencer with more than 507,000 followers on X, argued that Rohingya refugees are a “threat to India” and need to be deported before they “begin mass-killings in Jammu.”

Surprisingly, the narrative has still not died down. In fact, it reared its head once again in Indian right-wing circles in October after a press conference by Nicholas Koumjian, head of the United Nations’ Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM).

“‘Massacre of 99 Hindus by Rohingyas could qualify as international crime’: UN investigator for Myanmar,” goes the headline from a October 25, 2023 report by OpIndia, a popular right-wing online portal.

However, Koumjian didn’t really say that it was indeed the ARSA (or Rohingya) that killed the Hindus. He merely stated that it is in the IIMM’s mandate to investigate crimes by all parties, including non-state actors like ARSA, and that they were looking into the evidence. The alarmist headline, however, implied that the entire Rohingya community was responsible for the mass killings, and ascribed that statement to a U.N. official, giving it additional credibility. The story was, needless to say, picked up and amplified by right-wing social media accounts.

It is this deliberate conflation of truths, half-truths, and untruths that continues to project the Rohingya as criminals, militants, or savages and justify various forms of violence against them. Recent punitive action taken by the Indian government against Rohingya refugees, such as detaining them for staying in the country without papers or allegedly stoking sectarian violence, only legitimizes such xenophobic narratives.

From South to Southeast Asia, the stateless minority, once described by a U.N. official as “probably the most friendless people in the world,” has today become an ideal majoritarian metaphor for the “undesirable other.” Regardless of their religion, everyone loves to hate the Rohingya.