As it often happens with internet-based (mis)information, it turned out that those lurid pictures posted on the web were not from India but showed scenes of violence in the Arakan region of Burma (now Myanmar) involving Rohingya Muslims. Since then, atrocities on Rohingyas in Myanmar have increasingly drawn attention in India. Recently, matters came to a head when some 40,000 Rohingya refugees, who had illegally crossed into India via Bangladesh, were sought to be resettled in Jammu. This led to widespread protests by locals who feared that the new settlers would be indoctrinated by the ISI and other Pakistani agencies, adding to an already volatile situation in the disturbed state.
Although the Government has now assured that no more Rohingyas would be sent to Jammu & Kashmir, the steady trickle of refugees has not stopped. Over one lakh Rohingya refugees have flocked to India in recent months and more are waiting to infiltrate.
Ethnically, the Rohingyas are originally an Indo-Aryan tribe living along the Arakan coast of eastern Myanmar and physically resemble people in India's North-East on account of centuries of intermarriage. Since they speak a distorted version of a Bengali dialect, the Burmese authorities for long have dubbed them as foreigners and refused to grant them citizenship. The majority of Rohingyas happen to be Muslim, converted by Arab traders whose ships sailed along the coastline of the Bay of Bengal. The Myanmarese government, committed to promoting the Burman identity (which is predominantly Buddhist), has systematically persecuted the Rohingyas.
Interestingly, at the time of India's Partition, Rohingya leaders had pleaded with Mohammed Ali Jinnah to be included in his plan of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) saying the Burmese would eventually decimate them. But Jinnah categorically turned this down. After Independence, Rohingyas have agitated from time to time seeking the right to self-determination for carving out an independent state. These protests were ruthlessly crushed by the Army which controlled Burma till recently.
This background is important because it establishes that the Rohingya desire to relocate outside Burma is decades old. Although Myanmar consists of many (around 135) ethnic groups, the Rohingyas of the Arakan in particular, are severely discriminated against. Human rights groups claim that the police and security personnel provide protection to Myanmarese vigilantes who frequently indulge in violence against Rohingyas, burning their huts, looting property and raping women. Rohingyas are tormented both on account of their language (in fact, in Myanmar they are referred to as Bengalis) as also their Islamic faith.
Bangladesh, the favoured destination of refugees from the Arakans or Rakhine state, has refused point blank to accommodate them. Arguing that the country is already over-populated and also facing problems of ethnic integration in its south-eastern region, Dhaka says they will not accept Rohingyas despite their sharing a common religion with the majority of Bangladeshis. It is estimated that over a lakh displaced Rohingyas are living in ramshackle camps along the Bangladesh border, waiting for an opportunity to cross over. Many Rohingyas are also known to be attempting to sail to Bangladesh by boat, aimed at making a landing near its port town of Cox's Bazar in Chittagong district, many drowning in the process. They have also been reported to enter Mizoram which shares a border with Myanmar.
So, there is a powerful argument in favour of accommodating the Rohingyas facing persecution in their home country. Many liberal opinion makers believe that it is Indian tradition to protect homeless people who turn to their Big Brother for succour and livelihood. Anti-government commentators have suggested that the BJP regime is unwilling to accept Rohingyas only because of their faith, whereas Hindu and Buddhist refugees have always been given shelter in this country. While there may be some logic in this reasoning but considering what is happening in Western Europe where many Muslim immigrants have been found to get mixed up with radical jehadi groups and conduct terrorist activities, India has reason to worry about adding destitute Muslim refugees to the population. After all, they could be easy recruits for various terror outfits.
With radical Islam and jehadi terror becoming the most serious challenge facing civilization as we know it, India cannot afford to retain its erstwhile open door policy towards persecuted people. Some years ago, the BJP internally discussed a clear definition of the terms refugee and illegal immigrant. Refugees are those fleeing persecution on grounds of faith, the assumption being they would mainly be Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and even those countries like Fiji that are home to a big Hindu Indian diaspora. Illegal immigrants are everyone else, particularly Bangladeshi economic refugees. The underlying philosophy is that Hindu refugees have no other country to turn to, whereas adherents of other religions can be accommodated by many. Indeed, some commentators have pointed out that since Pakistan - and by extension, Bangladesh -- was created as a homeland for Muslims, why should these two nations not be pressured to accept the hapless Rohingyas?
After Bangladesh's firm refusal to accommodate them and the recent clarification by Minister of State for Home Kirren Rijiju that India will deport all illegal Rohingya immigrants, the Arakanese people have nowhere to go. The only option is for the global community to mount pressure on Nay Pyi Taw, and shame Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, to treat the persecuted Rohingyas humanely. They can have no home other than the country of their birth. The challenge is to make the Myanmar government accept them as equal citizens in their own land.
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)
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