The Central government reasserted last week that its policy on the Rohingya refugees in India, who it calls “illegal foreigners”, will not change. It did so while denying a tweet by Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri which said the government will move the Rohingya refugees living in Delhi to flats meant for economically weaker sections. Denying this, the Home Ministry said the government would continue efforts for their “deportation” to Myanmar, from where more than a million Rohingya have fled in the past decade after targeted attacks by the Myanmar military that the United Nations has termed a “genocide”. This week marks five years since the last big migration of the Rohingya, who have sought shelter in a number of countries around the world. In a discussion moderated by Suhasini Haidar, Vivek Katju and Meenakshi Ganguly discuss India’s policy on the Rohingya and the need for a refugee law. Edited excerpts:
Q / How would you describe India’s policy thus far towards the Rohingya? And does it need to change?
A / Meenakshi Ganguly: I think there are two issues here: policy and politics. India’s record on refugee protections is actually quite exemplary. We have often referred to India when we speak to other governments, because starting with the Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Bhutanese and even people from Myanmar, India has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees. Even though India will argue often that it has not signed the UN Refugee Convention, there has been a particularly humane approach.
A / Explained | What is India’s policy on the Rohingya?
A / Now, we come to the politics of this. India is right now led by a government that ideologically wants to promote Hindu rights. But that also reflects on how it treats other minorities, particularly Muslims. The Rohingya happen to be Muslim. And therefore, often when we hear political leaders speak, they don’t even seem to be able to distinguish between the Rohingya who have suffered some of the world’s worst atrocities visited upon any community, and irregular immigrants, economic immigrants, from Bangladesh. They can’t seem to even distinguish between the two. And therefore, often the rhetoric is that the Rohingya are taking jobs from Indians and they are a burden on India. Above all, what is most terrifying are these unsubstantiated allegations that thousands of Rohingya are, for some reason, a security threat or a terror threat. So, that is where it is really concerning to see how politics is impacting what has largely been a very humane policy that India has always adopted towards refugees.
A / Vivek Katju: I agree about India’s record of how it has dealt with people who have come to the country to seek refuge, even though it has not signed international instruments. The present UN Secretary-General [António Guterres], when he was the High Commissioner for Refugees, had told me much the same thing. We all know the history of the Rohingya issue. We know that India has only about 40,000 or so Rohingya, whereas there are Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Malaysia which have lakhs and lakhs of refugees. In Saudi Arabia, in 1973, King Faisal himself had given assurances of full and equal treatment. And yet these countries have never made good on these promises. So, I think it’s unfair to accuse just India of mistreatment of the Rohingya refugees. There is politics on the refugee issue in all countries, including in Europe and the United States.
A / Should there be discriminatory treatment of any person who seeks refuge in India? My position is, which I think is the position of all Indians, that there should not. As Hardeep Singh Puri said in his tweet last week, India provides refuge to all regardless of their race, religion, or creed. And I do believe that the government should follow what Mr. Puri has placed on record.
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Q / Are the Rohingya being treated differently by the government, though?
A / Vivek Katju: The fact is that India, like many other countries, has been impacted by international Islamist terror. And therefore, there is greater sensitivity in India, as there is in other countries, when people of a certain faith come to India. Should they be like that? I don’t think so. But these are facts of life. We recently had a case of someone, allegedly of Central Asian origin, who wanted to come to India via Russia [to carry out attacks]. So, I can understand the concern of security agencies. But should that mean that we do not provide any community of refugees with a basic degree of amenities so that they can lead a ‘civilised’ life? We need to ensure they can lead such lives, and after all, it is part of our tradition.
A / Meenakshi Ganguly: Yes, the Rohingya are being treated differently. The entire idea of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was to discriminate on the basis of religion. The Rohingya are ethnically South Asian. In fact, that is why the Burmese call them ‘Kalar’ because they look South Asian. The discrimination against the Rohingya in Myanmar is, to a large part, based on ethnicity and the idea that they belong to South Asia, to Bangladesh, which was part of the colonial Indian map. I agree that around the world, refugees face a challenge, but the Rohingya are among the saddest communities that we work with. They have been ill treated for so long. They fled Myanmar by boats trying to find refuge, tragically sometimes drowning in the Bay of Bengal. I would love to see India do something different to address the root problem for the Rohingya. Why is it that the Myanmar military that visited such horrors on the Rohingya has since occupied office in the country and is getting away with it? Why is it that India has not spoken up much more loudly on trying to get the Junta held to account?
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Q / How much are India’s diplomatic concerns and bilateral ties with Myanmar a part of the Rohingya policy? And could India play a bigger role in resolving the issue?
A / Vivek Katju: I’ll put it very bluntly. India has a major security interest in Myanmar and it is not unnatural for a country like India, which shares such a long border, a history of trouble, to look at its security interest first and foremost. Second, it is absolutely right that within Myanmar, ethnicity is a very sensitive issue, and many communities are discriminated against. It’s not a good thing, or something India would like, but that is part of the xenophobia which the Burman community within Myanmar has traditionally shown. It isn’t easy for the Indian government to deal with the Myanmar military, as recent developments have shown. There was some hope in the previous decade that they would open up the country, but that hope hasn’t materialised. Should India take the lead? I should imagine that the lead on Rohingya rights should be taken by those countries that have hosted the Rohingya for decades. I can name country after country whose own record of treating the Rohingya is abysmal, and they host much larger numbers of them, and they claim to have solidarity with them. So, a leadership role must be played by them.
Q / The Modi government has made it clear that it intends to keep trying to deport the Rohingya to Myanmar. How much should India worry about the principle of non-refoulement or the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), expected later this year?
A / Meenakshi Ganguly: Well, the UPR looks at many human rights issues including the treatment of refugees, and those are all going to be under scrutiny. On deportation, one of the cases that we are documenting was of a woman called Hasina, who was deported earlier this year. It was inexplicable that a mother of three who was detained in the middle of the pandemic was treated this way. They just forcibly sent her back accompanied all the way by security forces who ignored the Manipur Human Rights Commission findings that they should not deport a woman alone, unaccompanied by her family, into an area where she’s likely at risk. I don’t understand what the purpose of this policy is, because the solution lies only in persuading the Myanmar authorities concerned to allow refugees to return safely to where they want to be, which is home [in Myanmar].
A / Vivek Katju: In principle, who can disagree with what is ideal? People should be safe. There should be no discrimination. Unfortunately, the world we inhabit is far from ideal. And governments, like the Myanmar government, have their own logic, their own historical baggage with conflict. My own sense is that the answer to these issues has to come from within societies themselves. After all, what are we seeing in the U.K., where there is an attempt to move refugees or migrants coming to the U.K. to Third World countries (like Rwanda)? The West speaks of our human rights record ad nauseam. In the context of the UPR, will these countries have any credibility if they want to criticise our human rights record?
Q / Given this situation, does India need a formal refugee policy following UN conventions, or its own refugee law?
A / Meenakshi Ganguly: Of course, there are international standards and policies that need to be followed by all states — this is something they commit to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many states that have signed the UN Refugee Convention also do not follow them. I agree there are different standards, and have seen, for instance, how public sympathy has been different for the people leaving Ukraine and the people leaving Afghanistan or Syria just a year prior to that. So, there are all these challenges, which is why a state has to be above these kinds of views or discriminatory approaches to people. To [Bangladesh Prime Minister] Sheikh Hasina’s credit, when the refugees first came to her country, she said, if we can feed 160 million people, we have enough food security to feed the 700,000 refugees. Of course, it is frustrating that the situation in Myanmar has worsened, and now of course the same Myanmar military that was committing all these atrocities has taken power. These are complicated issues. The principle has to always be a commitment to universal human dignity without discrimination. That is why we should be happy that Mr. Puri tweeted about India’s policy, and spoke about doing the right thing. Now is the time for India to do the right thing. I’m not sure why the policy was then denied or taken back.
A / Editorial | Too good to be true: On accommodating the Rohingya
A / Vivek Katju: I don’t think India will ever sign these instruments because of the nature of their origin, and the fact that it is discriminatory. Do we need a refugee law? I think the politics within India today makes it very difficult to have such a law. In principle, I entirely agree that states should be non-discriminatory in all their approaches. Human history itself is the history of migration, and all migration through the millennia has been extremely challenging, extremely troubling, even extremely violent. Today, fortunately, states are trying their best to to reduce that aspect, but are not entirely successful. Those who mandate states must change their policies have to be conscious of the pressures on them.
A / Meenakshi Ganguly is Human Rights Watch’s South Asia Director; Vivek Katju is a former diplomat, and has served as India’s envoy to Myanmar