Rohingya refugees are constantly targeted in India by many – primarily by the right-wing forces. According to estimates, there are about 40,000 Rohingyas in India, who fled to the country from Myanmar at various points in recent history to escape persecution.
The principal reason for their targeting is that they are Muslims – this is a social fact. Rohingyas becoming a target of intimidation, detention, and deportation unmasks India’s stance on refugees and how religion becomes a deciding factor in their mistreatment and misrecognition as “illegal.” Like the floating metaphor “Bangladeshi,” the term “Rohingya” is also used synonymously with an illegal immigrant.
One of the main arguments put forth against their residency in India is that they are a threat to “national security.”
Interestingly enough, many decades ago, groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) were seen as a threat to India. Now, the tables have turned, laying bare the dark irony of such forces deciding the measurements of terror, patriotism, and freedom in this country.
Rohingyas as ‘Jihadis’
If we recall how VD Savarkar admired Muslims for being martial and a “better material” for running a modern nation state, the envy and hate towards them gathers some context. As opposed to Muslims, he saw Hindus as a “non-martial,” “non-masculine,” and “unorganised” group of people. Psychologically, such envy remains socially distributed, creating grounds for the expulsion and elimination of Muslims from the body of the Indian nation.
Today, any social action of Muslims – performed both in public and private – is now increasingly open to scrutiny, harm, and punishment. Both state and non-state forces perform them with impunity. We all know of multiple such non-state individuals and organisations, which openly express their necrophiliac desires of rape, annihilation, and disgust towards Muslims. Apart from these expressions of dehumanisation, and the hate and harm directed at their bodies, families, religion, clothes, and life in general, they are profiled as dangerous to society. And by society, we refer to the Hindu society and community.
They are also seen as termites, scavengers, and cancerous entities, albeit being profiled as a threat to India. In marking them as a threat to national security, they are seen either as jihadis or as being loyal to them, and maybe, as those who enjoy their sympathies in some form or the other.
This propensity to equate any Muslim to jihad is, of course, to a large degree, influenced by how the idea of jihadi as a Muslim terrorist was created in the West and how the discourse of ‘global jihad’ emerged. The way jihad is framed in such contexts by the media and others in the West certainly gave a fillip to how this discourse could be driven to its own ends in the Indian context.
Jihad can be seen as one of the additional means to attack Muslims within the larger corpus of anti-Muslim hate and fields of communal Hindutva politics in the subcontinent, which borrows from multiple sources and events of the past.
By extending the security infrastructure of the state through legal provisions to attend to the idea of national security, the identification of jihadis – both real and imaginary – becomes an act of saving the nation and its society (Hindu society). Both state and non-state actors seem to participate in this act, and more often than not, it involves calling out the entire community of Muslims and denuding them.
This savior complex, emerging out of the imagined fear of being annihilated at the hands of jihadis and Muslims, which is performed by the proponents of Hindutva, will help us locate certain organic contours that the use of jihad takes in the subcontinent. With this act, Hindu society is both saved from terrorists as well as Islam.
In this river of hate and disgust that flows in India, the Rohingyas have become a soft target, caught in this struggle for power and a new order of society, which is suffocatingly majoritarian.
In 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in its letter to state chief secretaries, described Rohingyas as illegal immigrants and directed that they be deported expeditiously. Such a view of the Indian state stands contrary to Article 14, Article 21, and Article 51 (c) of the Constitution, which provide rights and liberty to every person. It must also be noted that a majority of the Rohingya refugees are women and children.
Moreover, the excuse of national security is debunked by many official statements that were made about Rohingyas by the Indian authorities. In 2017, the Home Minister of Jammu & Kashmir noted in the Legislative Assembly that “no Rohingyas (Burmese) have been found involved in militancy related incidents.” Even Border Security Forces Director General KK Sharma denied any links of Rohingyas to any terror outfits. There is no proof that they are related to any such forces.
However, their witch-hunting in the right-wing media over their supposed terror links continues unabated. The OpIndia, The Pioneer, and Swarajya Magazine leave no stone unturned to make them the most feared entities in India, portraying them as a part of organised clandestine networks. The RSS has also profiled them as “infiltrators” and a threat to national security on many occasions.
The Detention Machine
Detention is a tamed spectre of the state. For refugees, the spectre of possible detention always looms large. Despite its colonial origins, the logics of camps and detention have survived the demise of empires with the same essence of confinability and deportation. It haunts people as and when those in power flex their muscles.
There are multiple examples of misuse of detention in postcolonial India – be it the victims of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) or Dr Kafeel Khan. The whole infrastructure of detention drags the victims both through administrative and judicial systems. They also face various types of regional variety of nationalisms that denude them as unwanted and illegal with their own attended logics, making them arbitrary, differential, and dynamic. For instance, the Rohingyas are received differently in Mizoram, Karnataka, Jammu, and Assam.
In the past, some 150-170 Rohingya refugees were illegally detained and jailed in Jammu. They were summoned to submit their biometrics, but they never returned home. They were inhumanely separated from their families and faced the possibilities of deportation back to Myanmar, despite most of them holding UNHCR-issued refugee cards.
In theory, then, all Rohingyas potentially face deportation and disappearance. It is as though they are facing collective punishment everyday for being who they are. This was also a time when Myanmar was facing a potential coup, which became a reality eventually. In one such case, as reported in The Indian Express, four minors from a family were left out in the cold and their parents were separated from them.
Recognition as Refugees
Refugees are neither illegal immigrants nor foreigners.
India has failed to recognise Rohingyas as refugees. Refugees are not illegal immigrants, but fall under a different category of immigrants who escape or migrate to a different place due to fear of persecution for reasons related to their race, religion, nationality, etc. This way of seeing refugees is formally accepted as a part of customary international law. Such a category of people includes asylum seekers, ones who have not declared their status yet, those whose status is pending, as well as those who do not formally express their willingness to be protected.
The principle of non-refoulement applies to any refugees. When it comes to the Rohingyas, who are both stateless and refugees, India has categorically violated this principle by deporting them to Myanmar. Thus, by deporting them back, Article 21, which gives both citizens and non-citizens the right to life and liberty, stands violated. Moreover, prohibition from torture must prevail over any other principle or law.
The infrastructures of detention and the status of refugees are also differentially used by India. It is well known that when it came to Tibetans and Sri Lankans, the Indian government recognised their status as refugees and extended basic socio-economic rights, apart from right to vote and government jobs. What, then, is the deciding factor of this differential treatment of the Rohingyas? Is it their religion? Are each of the 40,000 Rohingyas a threat to India?
The laws that are used to prosecute them are also deeply misplaced. In the writ petition, Mohammad Salimullah v Union of India, it is argued that the Foreigners Act 1946 and Foreigners Order 1948 used to deport them are laws that should ideally address the foreigner who enters India without a valid document. Rohingyas are not foreigners but refugees who fled Myanmar fearing genocide.
The absence of legislation for refugees in India also complicated matters, leaving room for their arbitrary and differential treatment. In the same petition, it is also categorically shown that “mass refoulment without due process is arbitrary and discriminatory and abhorrent to constitutional morality.” It is these grounds that make India a party to crimes against humanity in Myanmar, the petition further observes.
Despite not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, the principle of non-refoulement is still binding on India as per customary international law. Rohingyas are not safe in Myanmar, and deporting them is the same as putting them on a course of definite harm. On the other hand, they ought to be recognised as refugees and not as illegal immigrants. The kind of mercy and minimum morality shown to Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees can also be extended to them.
The reason for national security ought to be used with caution, as the writ petition reminds us. They must be used in a “limited” and “careful” manner, and before such exceptions are used, they must be “rigorously and carefully” proven. If care is not taken when the question of “national security” is brought to the fore, Rohingyas being called jihadis find legitimate expression, directly or indirectly, in both spheres of state and society.
The recent clarification from the Ministry of Home Affairs, which came on the backdrop of claims that Rohingyas will be provided housing, only proves that India’s shameful position on Rohingya refugees continues.
(Suraj Gogoi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at RV University, Bengaluru. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect or represent his institution. Further, The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the author’s views.)