OPINION

In Vivekananda’s country?

His wise words on sheltering refugees are not reflected in the government’s affidavit on the Rohingya

Just about ten days ago, on September 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi admonished a students convention for forgetting the significance of 1893. Many were perplexed until they realised this was the year Swami Vivekananda delivered his famous speech to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As Mr. Modi put it, that date was the original 9/11. “Had we not forgotten the significance of our own 9/11, there would have been no 9/11 in 2001,” he added.

Perhaps the Prime Minister has himself either forgotten or is unaware of an important and, today, very relevant boast at the start of Swami Vivekananda’s speech. In a critical sentence he said: “I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth.”

Unfortunately, that sentiment is not reflected in the government’s affidavit on the Rohingya presented to the Supreme Court on Monday. Instead, it views them as “a very serious threat and potential threat to national security”. It claims “many of the Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISI/ISIS and other extremist groups”. It accuses them of “mobilization of funds through hundi/hawala channels”. Finally, it adds there’s a “serious potential and possibility” of Rohingya violence against Buddhists in India.

Assertions without evidence

Yet these are simply broad and generalised assertions. So far the government has not submitted a shred of evidence to support them. In fact, there’s good reason to disregard or even dismiss these exaggerated fears.

First, whilst it’s true that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army has connections with Hafiz Saeed and al-Qaeda, it would be grossly unjust to view all Rohingya as potential terrorists. That leap of logic is akin to a flight of imagination. Or else, because the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed and now, perhaps, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State conduct operations in Kashmir, this argument should lead to the government viewing all Kashmiris as terrorists!

However, it’s not just the government’s logic that falls apart; facts also disprove its position. S.D. Singh, the Inspector General of Police in Jammu, where the largest Rohingya concentration is located, has told NDTV that there are only a few cases of petty crime against them, the sort that poor refugees are often accused of, and they are not a threat to national security. Several other police officers have said that the same seems to be true of Rohingya settled in Jaipur, Delhi, Chandigarh and parts of Haryana such as Faridabad and Mewat.

Second, the claim that the Rohingya are carrying out hawala transactions is nothing but an insult to their poor and wretched status. If they had the money for hawala transactions they would surely spend it on improving their miserable existence. You only have to look at the conditions in which they live to realise how unlikely is this charge. If it were not hurtful, it would be laughable.

Third, the claim that the Rohingya will indulge in violence against Buddhists in India is simply bizarre. You could just as well say that Hindu refugees fleeing Pakistan and Bangladesh could be a threat to Indian Muslims. This argument suggests the government is dredging up whatever fear it can to demonise the Rohingya in the eyes of the Supreme Court.

Attempt at avoidance

The government’s affidavit is clearly an attempt to get around India’s international law commitments and its own constitutional provisions, both of which require the grant of sanctuary to the Rohingya. That now depends on whether the Supreme Court is intimidated by the government’s lengthy affidavit or has the strength to stand up for the principles of our Constitution and international law. These are quite explicit.

No doubt India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, but we are still bound by the many conventions on human rights we have signed. These include the UN principle of non-refoulement, which explicitly forbids the forcible return of refugees. More importantly, the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 applies to all people in India, irrespective of citizenship. That includes the Rohingya refugees. The government cannot overlook all of this without shaming India.

Paradoxically, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has tweeted, “This chorus of branding India as villain on Rohingya issue is a calibrated design to tarnish India’s image.” The actual truth is that it’s the government that’s doing the tarnishing. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to uphold India’s self-respect and honour.

Karan Thapar is a television anchor

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