Chauvinist winds over India

The response to the Rohingya crisis is just one of many manifestations of a growing gracelessness

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:57 pm IST

Published - October 03, 2017 12:15 am IST

Recent debates, whether over refugees, the right to dissent, or gender violence, suggest that India is becoming a nation devoid of compassion for those who are persecuted even to the point of murder. Are we such a graceless polity? Have we always been this way?

Our forefathers tell us we were not so. In the great ethical exploration of the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna asked Krishna what, if anything, could justify taking a human life. He dismissed every answer Krishna gave and entered battle reluctantly, against his own dharma. Mahatma Gandhi qualified Arjuna’s words, saying we could take up arms if our own lives, or if the lives of others, were under attack. Guru Gobind Singh said it was our duty to come to the defence of all those who were threatened through no fault of their own.

We defended by opening our doors. More often than going to war, we gave refuge to the persecuted.


Stance on Rohingya

By contrast, we are told today that we should not offer sanctuary. Our own government is in the Supreme Court defending its decision to deport Rohingya refugees. Intelligence agencies say all Rohingya are a threat because some amongst them are terrorists and/or criminals. The Home Ministry says they are illegal immigrants, and many opinion writers say we must put security above concern for refugees. Government spokespersons say defensively that India has neither signed the 1951 Convention of the UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency) nor its 1967 protocol, and so it is not bound to take refugees.

That there are Rohingya terrorist groups is already proven. Some Rohingya have also been guilty of killing Hindus and Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. But that does not mean we can tarnish all Rohingya with generic suspicion. If Indian intelligence agencies have identified terrorists and/or criminals amongst the refugees, they should arrest and hand them over for trial in Myanmar, or try them in India’s own courts. But India cannot, or should not, deport all Rohingya because some are criminal. Nor can India call Rohingya refugees illegal immigrants when 16,000 of them are registered with the UNHCR and are clearly fleeing from the pogrom conducted in the Rakhine state. That India is not a signatory to the UNHCR convention is a matter of shame, not a just defence. The UNHCR is one of the few stellar non-governmental institutions whose work is a credit to all of the UN. The UNHCR’s efforts with Syrian and Rohingya refugees deserve support, especially since the organisation was critical to India’s support for refugees during the 1971 Bangladesh war, and helped ensure their safe return. The Congress party bears the blame for not signing the UNHCR convention, but why is the present anti-Congress government falling back on the Congress’s failure?


Despite India not signing the convention, the UNHCR has generally praised India as a host country. Indeed, as the present government at the Centre says, the country’s track record in the past has been good. The people of Tripura opened their homes for refugees from East Pakistan in 1971, as did the people of Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan refugees. Tragically, the issue of Rohingya refugees gained salience in Jammu, which has a glorious tradition of hosting refugees that dates back to the 18th century. And just by way of perspective, the number of Rohingya refugees in India is estimated to be 40,000 while the UN warns of an exodus of close to a million.

Worsening polity

India’s position on Rohingya refugees is only one sign of the country’s worsening polity. Trolls defend journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh’s murder as justified. We should not mourn the the death of “a witch”, they say. A year earlier they told us we should not mourn the lynching of Muslims suspected of eating or selling beef because anyone who kills a cow deserves to be punished. And these opinions are not just voiced by trolls — Bharatiya Janata Party MPs and MLAs voice them too, in footage captured by journalists. Communalism, misogyny, and hate appear to go hand in hand. Last week, a local BJP leader in Aligarh slapped a Hindu girl for having the temerity to go out with a Muslim. She has not been suspended from the party. Nor have the innumerable MPs or MLAs who voice similar opinions.

Sadly, there is considerable social sanction for these opinions. Seventy years ago, when introducing the draft Constitution of India, B.R. Ambedkar warned that democracy “is only a top-dressing on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.” Our elected representatives, he said, would have to work hard to give people the education, income, and opportunity that would enable them to display tolerance towards each other. Successive generations of political leadership have clearly failed this duty. However, condemnable as their dereliction is, what we see today is new. Never before has India been subjected to such a barrage of illiberal opinion by elected representatives, even to the extent of justifying violation of the law.


True, the shift towards chauvinism is not unique to India’s polity. Waves of similar and more extreme chauvinism swept the U.S. and Europe from the 1990s on — first in response to refugees from the Balkans war and then to 9/11, and post-9/11 to the rise of Islamist terrorism and refugees from the wars in West Asia. India’s own neighbourhood has long been communal towards religious minorities, whether they are Hindus in Fiji, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh; Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka; or Christians and Ahmadis in Pakistan.

But there is a strong fight back in many of these countries. In the U.S., state governments, the courts and civil society have mounted a fierce challenge to the Trump administration’s attempts to deport refugees and immigrants. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been re-elected Chancellor though many feared that her generous and unpopular stand on admitting refugees would cost her votes. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is battling chauvinists who have murdered dissenters. The Sri Lankan government has embarked on a slow and painful process of reconciliation with their Tamils, supported by provincial governments.

Are either our Central or State governments fighting back? Why are they not asking we sign the UNHCR convention right away, and implement our constitutional safeguards against communalism and misogyny?

Radha Kumar is a writer and policy analyst

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