MYANMAR/INDIA: The escalation of the Rohingya crisis requires a humane reaction from the Indian state

In August 2017, the government of India had termed Rohingya refugees residing in India as “illegal immigrants”, and had conveyed its intention to deport them. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has previously condemned the genocide of Rohingya Muslims at the hands of Myanmarese security forces, as well as the proposed deportation of Rohingya refugees. While it has been generally assumed that all the refugees are Muslims, some reports suggest that the refugees, especially in Bangladesh, include Hindus as well, who have been fleeing the violence in Myanmar.

At present, a petition challenging the deportation is pending before the Supreme Court. The petition alleges that the deportation violates principles of customary international law, especially the principle of non-refoulement i.e. that a person cannot be repatriated if they can demonstrate that their life or freedoms shall be substantially harmed in their country of origin. Customary international law is binding on States regardless of whether they have ratified treaties containing provisions to the same effect, and hence the Indian state is bound by this principle despite not ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention. There is ample evidence to show that Myanmar has consistently conducted a pogrom against Rohingyas, especially in the Rakhine state to which the group has been confined, resulting in the denial of basic human rights to the Rohingya.

First-person accounts of the plight of the Rohingya demonstrate the extent to which sexual violence and extra-judicial killings are used to suppress the community. Abu Ahmed, a 60-year-old farmer, described the killings of female members of his family and their children, an event which forced him to flee his village and cross the border into Bangladesh. The village in which Ahmed used to reside was razed to the ground by security forces, in furtherance of the unofficial ‘scorched earth’ policy of the Myanmar state, calculated to permanently drive the Rohingyas out of Myanmar. Rashida, a 25-year-old woman, describes a similarly shocking situation, where her child was slaughtered by men wielding machetes during an organized massacre in her village conducted by security forces. Kasim, a 26-year-old man who managed to escape during a similar raid on his village, describes security forces raping women in open yards during the pillages, and the subsequent murders of the women.

The attitude of the Indian state towards Rohingya refugees is steeped in Islamophobia, as evidenced by the statements of multiple leaders from various political parties as well as the proposed amendments to the Citizenship Act which completely excludes Muslim refugees. In response to the petition, the government had also filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court, alleging that Rohingyas pose a threat to national security, and that many of them have ties with Pakistani intelligence agencies and ISIS, despite there being no publicly-available evidence to support these claims. Shockingly, the Indian government’s hard-line anti-Rohingya stance has culminated in Border Security Force (BSF) personnel using heavy-handed tactics to dispel refugees along the border in West Bengal. Reports of the BSF throwing stun grenades and using chilli spray to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing the border abound; sources say that the usage of “rude and crude” methods has been authorised to stop Rohingyas from entering Indian territory.

The Indian State must refrain from making irresponsible and false statements that it has no obligations under international law to protect the Rohingyas. The State must fulfil its obligations under international law, and also demonstrate some basic humanity towards people who are fleeing one of the worst genocides in modern history. The State must rescind the order of deportation, and extend a helping hand to a community that is generally considered the most persecuted in the world. It is also essential that the characterization of Rohingyas as national security threats ceases immediately, and that the equal protection of the law and the right to life is extended to these refugees in line with long-standing precedent on the issue. The de facto regime of refugee protection, wherein the UNHCR was allowed to function without impairment, must continue, and Rohingyas must be provided with all possible protections from the State without regard for political considerations, much as how the government assisted Tibetan refugees more than half a century ago. The present stance of the Indian government also puts undue pressure on Bangladesh to accommodate the refugees and a large number of them are now in Bangladesh.

Further, if there is evidence of any Rohingyas being involved in terrorist activities or activities threatening India’s national security, they can and must be dealt with according to the due process of law. To paint a whole community with the same brush and send them back into a situation of grave danger due to the supposed criminal activities of a few is reprehensible. There is enough documented evidence by well-respected authorities and sources which show the horrific situation in the Rakhine state, the genocide that the Rohingya are fleeing. The Indian State is continuously ignoring these and striving hard to establish a flimsy counter-narrative of the security implications of allowing the Rohingyas to stay– one steeped in parochialism and barbarity.