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India’s ‘Forgotten Partition’ and the Myanmar Refugee Crisis

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India’s ‘Forgotten Partition’ and the Myanmar Refugee Crisis

When the British drew the India-Myanmar border, they arbitrarily divided Indigenous communities. With Myanmar embroiled in war, that long-ago decision is echoing in India’s Northeast.

India’s ‘Forgotten Partition’ and the Myanmar Refugee Crisis

People hold banners reading “We don’t want Border Fencing” at a gathering to protest against Indian government’s decision to scrap a limited free border movement regime between India and Myanmar, in Aizawl, capital of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram, Feb. 21, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Isaac Zoramsanga

The tumultuous year of 1947 witnessed the Partition of India, a brutal severing that left deep scars on the subcontinent. Hindus and Muslims were divided into two countries, a united subcontinent was ripped apart, and countless people were displaced or lost their lives.

However, lost amid this dominant narrative is another lesser-known tragedy – the “Forgotten Partition” of India, the arbitrary division of Indigenous communities in Northeast India, particularly the Chin-Kuki-Zo and Nagas, during the demarcation of the India-Myanmar border by the British colonial rulers.

Today, as Myanmar descends into renewed civil war marked by the military junta’s brutal suppression of ethnic minorities, these communities find themselves caught in the crossfire. Many are seeking refuge in an ancestral land they consider their own, where their brethren continue to live – the Indian Northeast.

The Chin-Kuki-Zo and Nagas are not monolithic groups. They comprise numerous tribes with a rich tapestry of shared cultural traditions, languages, and ancestry. Their ancestral lands transcended the India-Myanmar border.

The border demarcation paid little heed to these historical and ethnic ties. Families and communities who had lived together for generations were separated by an arbitrary line drawn by a foreign colonial power.

This historical injustice continues to reverberate today, as the ongoing conflict in Myanmar forces many Zo and Naga people to flee for their lives.

The Myanmar Civil War, also known as the Burmese Spring Revolution, erupted in 2021 following a military coup that ousted the democratically elected government. The coup sparked widespread protests and civil disobedience. The military responded to protests with brutal crackdowns, leading to numerous civilian casualties.

Soon after the coup, ethnic armed organizations in various regions allied with newly formed civilian militias to resist the junta. Fighting between the junta and resistance forces continues today, particularly in border regions.

As the resistance fighters became stronger and captured more territory, the junta began to take more brutal actions such as widespread aerial bombings in regions populated by ethnic minorities and Indigenous people. These indiscriminate strikes have led to the deaths of countless people, including civilians.

One such region that the military junta has targeted is the Chinland region, home to the Chin people, who are very closely related to the Mizo people of the Northeast Indian state of Mizoram. The Chin and Mizo people are both part of the wider Zo community, which comprises tribes that speak Chin-Kuki-Zo languages.

Chinland has suffered gruesome violence at the hands of the Myanmar junta. Countless civilians have lost their lives to the horrific military campaign and airstrikes. In one recent example, a junta airstrike destroyed a hospital, killed four patients, and severely injured many more. A few months prior, the junta airstrikes hit a school in Chinland, and eight children were killed.

More than 500 civilians were reported to have been killed in the Chinland region in a report by the Human Rights Group Institute of Chin Affairs in October last year. It would not be wrong to estimate that the number has only increased significantly since.

The Myanmar junta has also now introduced mandatory military service for all young people, which would force civilians to join the junta forces and fight against the resistance groups. This has been a major concern for many, particularly ethnic minorities and Indigenous people who are worried that they will be forced to fight for a junta that oppresses them, against resistance groups that are retaliating against the military’s oppression.

Naga groups have been particularly concerned with this decision and have condemned it. Forced conscription can not only result in numerous Naga youth losing their lives fighting for a military government that undermines their rights and the democratic will of the people, but it could also turn the Naga areas into a conflict zone, which could lead to countless deaths and severe destruction of civilian property and infrastructure.

With all the death and destruction caused by the civil war, many have sought refuge in India. Chin refugees are one of the largest groups; many have escaped Myanmar to the Indian state of Mizoram, which is inhabited by the closely related Mizo people.

As refugees pour into Mizoram, the state’s chief minister, Lalduhoma, has assured that his government will continue to assist them.

Naga organizations had also urged the Nagaland state government to assist refugees fleeing the conflict.

However, the demographic situation is different in Manipur. Manipur is inhabited by Nagas, Kukis, and Meiteis, and while Nagas and Kukis are related to Chin-Kuki-Zo and Naga refugees from Myanmar, the Meitei are not.

Ethnic violence between Meiteis and Kukis has been going on in Manipur for almost a year now. The Manipur government has also deported many people who entered the state from Myanmar.

The conflict in Myanmar has also raised security concerns, which has led the Indian government to announce a plan to fence the India-Myanmar border and suspend the free movement regime, which allowed Indigenous communities like the Naga and Chin-Zo to move freely between areas in India and Myanmar. This decision was opposed by the states of Mizoram and Nagaland.

Considering the deadly toll the conflict has taken on the Chin-Zo and Naga people of Myanmar, as well as the internal complexities in the Indian Northeast, what should the Indian government’s policy toward these refugees be?

While the situation is highly complicated, India should allow for refuge to those fleeing the conflict, especially Naga and Chin-Kuki-Zo refugees who have deep ties to Indian communities in the Northeast.

If India can allow religious minorities fleeing Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan citizenship under the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, then there is no reason to refuse refugee status, at the least, to ethnic minorities fleeing a civil war where an un-democratic military junta is brutally targeting them.

India can establish refugee entry points in Mizoram and Nagaland, states that have committed themselves to assisting these refugees. This will facilitate a smooth, organized, and safe influx of refugees. The central government should also help these state governments monetarily to ensure the safety and well-being of these refugees.

India should also condemn the civilian deaths caused by the Myanmar junta’s bombardments and stop all military aid to the junta. In 2023, India supplied millions worth of arms to the Myanmar military. Giving such aid to the junta will only worsen the situation. Civilian deaths are likely to increase, which will only lead to more instability in India’s borders.

India is the world’s largest democracy, and Indian communities have people with deep ethnic and ancestral relations living across the border in Myanmar. India cannot empower an un-democratic military junta that has caused the deaths of innocent people, including those who are closely related to Indian citizens.

The international community cannot afford to be silent in the face of the Myanmar junta’s atrocities. India, with its unique position and democratic values, can lead the way in pressuring the regime and advocating for a peaceful resolution. This includes ensuring safe passage for refugees and holding the junta accountable for its crimes.