Rohingya refugee children pictured in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh
Rohingya refugee children pictured in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh (Photo: Reuters)

The Rohingya crisis has led to a great deal of incoherent commentary in our media and around the world of late. Globally, the story has centred around the demonisation of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is the de facto leader of her country and is being assailed as complicit in her military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.

There have even been calls to strip her of her Nobel; headline writers have dubbed her “ig-nobel”. This is misguided and ill-informed, since it is the Burmese military that controls the Rohingya policy and not her, but that is another story and need not detain us here.

India Has a Record of Granting Asylum to Refugees

For in India, the issue is different. Minister of State (Home) Kiren Rijiju has declared his government’s intention to deport all Rohingya refugees – even those with documents from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognising them as such – as illegal immigrants.

This would be an extraordinary step, because India has had a proud humanitarian record of granting asylum to persecuted groups for over 2,000 years.

Swami Vivekananda, in his famous address to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, spoke of his country as a haven for the persecuted, taking pride in Hindus’ acceptance of refugees. In recent years, Tibetans, Bengalis persecuted by the Pakistani army in 1971, ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka, Nepalese fleeing their civil war, the Chakmas of Bangladesh, Afghans and an assortment of Iranians and Syrians, and Africans have been among those given refuge in India, with various degrees of formal legality.

This is our traditional practice, and there has been little serious dissent about it anywhere in the country.

There is one major difference, though: unlike the majority of those cases (some Middle Easterners and Afghans excepted), the Rohingyas are all Muslim. The arguments advanced by Rijiju all revolve around this inconvenient fact.

The Rohingyas, he says, are susceptible to recruitment by terrorist groups; they “pose grave security challenges”; their presence leads to social, political and cultural problems; and the government is anxious to “ensure the demographic pattern of India is not disturbed”. In other words, we don’t want to play host to large numbers of Muslim refugees. This is, in a word, appalling (and the government has not offered a shred of evidence for the suggestion that Rohingyas are in any way complicit in terrorism in our country).

The Rohingyas are Stateless

There is no immediate threat to the Rohingyas, however, because our Government has overlooked an inconvenient fact before Mr Rijiju made his statement: we have no place to deport the Rohingyas to. They all hail from Rakhine province in Myanmar, where their ancestors settled under British rule some 150 years ago, but Myanmar refuses to recognize them among the 135 ethnic groups listed under its 1982 citizenship Act, considering them foreigners.

Yangon therefore has no obligation to take back people it considers foreigners, whose presence in their country they, however outrageously, deem illegal. (Indeed, in Myanmar, the very word Rohingya is taboo: they can only be called “Bengali Muslims”, in other words illegal migrants from Bangladesh.)

For all practical purposes, the poor Rohingyas are stateless.

Still, India could work out some sort of deal to deport them to either Myanmar or Bangladesh in exchange for generous aid to “resettle” them there. And the reason the government can get away with this is because India has no refugee law.

India is not a signatory to 1951 UN Refugee Convention, or its 1967 Protocol; our government decides asylum pleas ad hoc, on a case-to-case basis, with no formally declared policy and quite often as a result of inertia rather than reflection. I introduced a Refugee and Asylum Bill in Parliament and lobbied tirelessly with every one of the three Ministers in the Home Ministry, as well as the former Home Secretary, but made zero progress.

Our government doesn’t want its hands tied by anything as irksome as a legal obligation; it would rather be free to act on its whims and prejudices, as convenient.

So-Called Hindu Nationalists Forget ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’

This, understandably, bothers the United Nations, which has politely pointed out that the principle of non-refoulement – under which no Member State of the UN will forcibly return a refugee to a country where he or she fears persecution – is binding on all states as a principle of customary international law, whether they have signed the UN’s Refugee Convention or not. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that argues that it is illegal for the government to deport the Rohingyas.

Legalities aside, there is also a simple moral case here. Our so-called Hindu nationalists are, as usual, forgetting the values on which the Hindu faith is based, one cardinal principle of which is ‘atithi devo bhava’, the guest is like God.

It is adherence to such values that has given India its standing in the world; if we flout international humanitarian law and practice, at a time when Western countries are admitting Syrian refugees despite similar fears of Islam and terrorism, our country will fall in the esteem of the world, and more important, in our own eyes.

Refugees bring a great deal to their host countries. Einstein was a refugee. Tom Stoppard was a refugee. In our own country, Milkha Singh was a refugee. They fled their homelands for their lives, and found a welcome in a new home, to which they brought lustre through their own achievements.

There are only 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India. A country of 1.2 billion people can easily welcome them in our midst. Let us stop allowing the ruling party’s bigotry to undermine more than two millennia of Indian tradition. Let us be humane to the Rohingyas – and in that way, let us be true to ourselves.