The Pope has been in South Asia this week, with the focus of his stops in Bangladesh and Myanmar on the reconciliation and rehabilitation of more than 836,000 Rohingya (including 623,000 since August, according to the UN’s International Organisation for Migration) who have fled gruesome violence in Myanmar.
Flurry of diplomatic activity
The Pope is by no means alone. In the past month, the U.S. sent Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Myanmar , while a senior State Department team as well as the British and Canadian international development ministers travelled to Rohingya camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar. Singapore’s Foreign Minister has made trips to Naypyidaw and Dhaka, exploring a role for ASEAN countries to help in the crisis. And earlier this month, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali took the European Union’s Foreign Affairs High Representative along with the German, Swedish and Japanese Foreign Ministers for a survey of the refugee camps. No Indian leader has, however, visited them.
In a rare shift of position from not involving itself in the internal politics of another country, China decided to play a mediatory role in the issue, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi went to Dhaka to meet Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on November 18, and then to Naypyidaw to meet President Htin Kyaw. Within days, Bangladesh and Myanmar announced an agreement to begin the repatriation of Rohingya refugees back to Rakhine province in about two months, as part of what Mr. Wang called a three-phase solution. It is significant that within the same week, Myanmar Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing visited China for more talks on the Rohingya crisis, while the country’s other power centre, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, is now headed to Beijing for three days.
Biggest nation, smallest voice
In this flurry of diplomatic activity, it would be natural to ask why India has been so soft-footed and silent in comparison. As the subcontinent’s biggest nation, neighbour to both Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as the country most likely to be affected if the numbers of Rohingya refugees continue to grow, India in fact should be showing the most initiative in this crisis. Instead, through a series of blunders that began with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own visit to Myanmar, India has allowed its voice to be muffled. Even as hundreds of thousands were fleeing violence at home, Mr. Modi refused to refer to the Rohingya in his press statements in Naypyidaw in early September. Nor did India refer to anything other than the terror strike by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army while discussing the violence in Rakhine. It wasn’t until two days later, and after some prodding from Ms. Hasina, that the Indian foreign office even issued a statement of concern over the refugee crisis that had reached alarming proportions, something the U.S. has now called a clear case of “ethnic cleansing”. Moreover, in Bali, India refused to endorse a 50-nation parliamentarian conference’s declaration because it referenced the Rohingya. Every other South Asian country, including Buddhist-majority Bhutan and Sri Lanka, endorsed the Bali declaration.
Later in September, the government began to dispatch humanitarian aid in an operation rather grandly named “Operation Insaniyat (Humanity)”, but was only one of several countries including the U.S., Turkey, Azerbaijan, Malaysia and others to do so. The government’s consignment to Myanmar of a mere 3,000 “family bags” last week also slipped notice given the large numbers of those displaced inside Rakhine and in desperate need of assistance. The Indian effort, coupled with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Bangladesh, where she didn’t even spare time for a trip to the camps, stands out not just in stark contrast to other nations, but to India’s own record. In every way, the Rohingya crisis is mammoth, with around a million men, women and children in Bangladesh and Myanmar living perilously. India, which has a tradition of rushing humanitarian aid and medical assistance, doctors and volunteers to other nations — for example, after the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 Cyclone Nargis that hit Myanmar, and the 2015 Nepal earthquake — has been seen to visibly hold back during the Rohingya crisis.
Position at the UN
Meanwhile, at the UN too, India’s voice has been consistently muted, ceding space to other countries to take the lead on the issue. The U.K., for example, hosted a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with Myanmar’s National Security Adviser and Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister, attended by senior officials from Indonesia, Turkey, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and the U.S. At the UNGA’s Third Committee vote, India abstained on a resolution calling for an end to military action, one of 26 abstentions on the proposal to send a UN fact-finding mission to Myanmar — 135 countries voted in favour of the resolution. While India’s vote is consistent with its position on interventionist resolutions, it doesn’t mark itself out for principled leadership of any kind. If anything, the votes have had a bearing on India’s standing in Bangladesh, one of its closest allies in the region, whose leadership is struggling to cope with the flow of refugees as Ms. Hasina braces for a tough election next year.
In short, all of India’s actions since the outbreak of this round of violence in Myanmar have negated its position as a regional, subcontinental and Asian leader. Regaining that stature will require a more proactive stance in being part of the solution to the crisis.
To begin with, the impression that the government’s decision to push out nearly 40,000 Rohingya living in India since 2012 is guided by its domestic political compulsions is not conducive to India’s international ambitions. Therefore, it may be necessary for India to put its own concerns about repatriation on hold until it is able to work with both Bangladesh and Myanmar on the issue, preferably in a trilateral format. This should have been easier for India than for China, given it already works with them on regional issues as a part of BIMSTEC.
Spell out the refugee policy
The government must also iron out internal contradictions on India’s refugee policy. Even though it is not a signatory to any UN refugee convention, India has a proud tradition of giving a home to neighbours in distress: from Tibetans in 1960s to East Pakistanis in the 1970s, from Sri Lankans in the 1980s to the Afghans in the 1990s. More recently, the Modi government even changed its long-term visa rules to help minorities fleeing violence from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. If India now says it cannot help Rohingya, who are a minority in Myanmar, it is either saying that Rohingya are not Myanmarese or that Myanmar is not a neighbour, both of which contradict previous positions. The government’s argument in court that Rohingya refugees pose a terrorist threat wasn’t used for Sri Lankans or Afghans. India also has a unique position as a country that is home to every religion practised in the region and must play to this strength.
For all these reasons, India, which has high stakes in global and regional governance, must ensure its voice is heard on the Rohingya crisis. Mumbling as part of a chorus while one of the biggest human tragedies is unfolding across two of India’s borders does not behove a nation with global leadership aspirations. Those questioning India’s push for a Security Council seat have often cited its record as a fence sitter at the UN. All those critics must be silenced now by clarity in India’s position on an issue where abstentions cannot suffice.