India’s position on its community of self-identifying Rohingya refugees from Rakhine State has come under severe criticism from international organizations. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein accused India of lacking “basic human compassion,” in seeking to deport the refugees. India’s UN representative in Geneva termed the comments “tendentious judgment” based on “selective and even inaccurate reports which do not further the understanding of human rights in any society.”
Out of this mud slinging comes no clear winner, but the more worthwhile question of why India is displaying such rigidness on accommodating the self-identifying Rohingya. Why the sudden alarm, when the community has been living in the country for years?
Much debate has taken place over whether the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government under Narendra Modi is averse to providing asylum to Muslims, given that many in the right-wing party and its ideological fountainhead the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been called anti-Islamic.
But an anti-Muslim agenda would have seen the BJP opening post-1971 Bangladesh war files and attempting to deport many Muslim refugees from among the near 10 million people of various religious groups that came across to India. Deciphering the Indian government’s position calls for a more rational examination of the factors at play.
Jihadi outfits with alleged connections to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) top the list of India’s worries about its population of self-identifying Rohingya.
The rise of the erstwhile Harakah al-Yakin—now calling itself ARSA—has seemingly rattled intelligence agencies in India, Bangladesh and other parts of the region.
Unlike the predominately Muslim countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, or Thailand, which often prefers to be a silent spectator, perhaps to conceal its own human rights record, India is voicing its many concerns.
Intelligence agency reports in India and Bangladesh reveal systematic efforts are underway to strengthen the Rohingya militant groups with more trained men and money.
Some would argue that reports of Rohingya militant groups associating with jihadi outfits in Pakistan and receiving funds from Islamic groups in Saudi Arabia are bereft of evidence. Even if that were the case, India could not ignore the blatant display of support for ARSA by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Al Queda, and other Islamic groups.
Many international organizations and perhaps also a number of news outlets have chosen to ignore these messages of support from terrorist groups and instead speak of ARSA’s rudimentary arms. India cannot afford to be as foolhardy and allow a Syria-like situation in the region.
Several longtime experts on Myanmar have cast doubt on the “rag-tag” nature of ARSA, deeming it a group guided by a calculated strategy executed to near perfection. Independent political analyst Richard Horsey who works with the International Crisis Group tweeted on Sept. 30 that “ARSA is murderous and willing to sacrifice entire Rohingya population for a dubious political objective.”
Horsey added that ARSA’s clothing and weapons may be “rag-tag” but “definitely not in relation to their objectives and impact: sophisticated & brutal.”
Indian intelligence agencies have been working around the clock to piece together an ARSA terrorist network and authenticate claims the group has deep support from transnational jihadi outfits by various experts. Links between ARSA and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, and possibly in Afghanistan and Iraq have been reported. However, the modus operandi of ARSA vis-à-vis its terror network is not yet clear.
One name doing the rounds in intelligence agency reports as well as Indian media is that of Abdus Qadoos Burmi, a Pakistani of Rohingya origin based in Karachi who allegedly has links with LeT and received patronage from Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistani Islamist behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Burmi has been identified as the head of Islamic fundamentalist organization Harkat ul Jihad al-Islami-Arakan (HUJI-K) and has been instrumental in creating international support for ARSA and other groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD), a front of the LeT in Bangladesh.
Sources in India and Bangladesh intelligence speaking on condition of anonymity shared some precise information which claim that JuD has spearheaded training for ARSA, instructing fighters on how to produce improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and strategizing with the group’s leaders. JuD enjoys backing from the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan and is known to have deep resources in Bangladesh, its primary entry point to Myanmar.
Indian intelligence agencies believe that the JuD has a presence in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar along the Naf River although it is unclear whether JuD is involved in recruiting or training men from these camps. In India, the home affairs ministry has cautioned that “illegal Rohingya immigrants” from Rakhine are “vulnerable” to recruitment by terrorist groups.
Liaising for the training of ARSA began as early as 2008, with Burmi leading the activities under the banner of Aqa Mul Mujahideen (AMM). Intelligence agency reports have also linked Burmi to terrorist activities in Kashmir. Indian security agencies suspect others from Rakhine of being involved in nefarious undertakings in Kashmir.
For instance, intelligence agencies identified “Chota Burmi,” a member of Pakistani terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), who was killed in a clash in 2015, as a “Rohingya from Rakhine.”
As for ARSA leader Ata Ullah, there are ample reports that have appeared in almost all forms of news media, both within and outside Myanmar, which suggest that he was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, and formed the outfit after the 2012 riots between self-identifying Rohingya and Arakanese. Indian intelligence officials are of the view that ARSA has been “working in close coordination with AMM,” which is now led by Havistoohar, who reportedly underwent six months training by the Taliban in Pakistan.
Members of the Border Security Force (BSF) in India told this writer that they are sharing regular information with both Myanmar and Bangladesh security forces about suspected ARSA involvement in smuggling weapons to Rakhine with the help of “different groups.” BSF officials did not elaborate on who these groups could be.
Recently, Australian National University Associate Professor Greg Fealy was quoted by ABC radio as saying “weapons can come through broader Islamists network,” and that “militants in Bangladesh could provide the weapons to the Rohingyas.” It remains to be seen if ARSA is actually involved in smuggling weapons or a wider network used to transfer arms and ammunitions to Teknaf in Cox Bazar and into parts of northern Rakhine.
Al-Qaeda and ARSA
In its recent broadcast, “Evidence of a link between Rohingya militants and jihadist groups,” ABC Radio claimed Al-Qaeda is attempting to forge links with ARSA. Indeed, Al-Qaeda called on Muslims around the world to send weapons to the self-identifying Rohingya in Myanmar.
Al-Qaeda offshoot Ansar Ghazwat Ul Hind in Kashmir has been actively campaigning for the self-identifying Rohingya in India. Its leader Zakir Musa has warned Prime Minister Modi to stop any plans to deport the refugees from India.
The Kashmir Factor
The unprecedented support that the self-identifying Rohingya has received from separatist groups in Kashmir has certainly not gone down well with New Delhi.
Recently, Kashmir separatist leaders marched against the persecution of the Muslims in northern Rakhine. The separatists, however, did not condemn reports of killings of other minority groups like the Hindus and Mros at the hands of ARSA.
Many would say the Indian government’s plan to deport the refugees is reasonable given its internal security situation. In response to the UN human rights chief’s claim that India and Pakistan had not engaged with his office on human rights concerns in Kashmir, India representative to the UN Rajiv Chander said, “It is a matter of regret that the central role of terrorism is once again being overlooked. Assessments of human rights should not be a matter of political convenience.”
Internationally designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed is suspected to have made attempts to recruit young Rohingya refugees in relief camps in Indonesia, on the pretext of providing them relief, into the LeT and send them to Kashmir.
While the threat of the militant Islamic movement cannot be used to legitimize military brutality, we also cannot lose sight of the fact that the militant Islamic movement has been troubling the region. This is exactly what New Delhi has been telling the world. The intellectual community in India has aired similar feelings.
Brahma Chellaney, a professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, in a recent article titled “Myanmar’s Jihadi Curse,” which appeared in the online portal Project Syndicate argued that the “external forces fomenting insurgent attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight.”
Chellaney, the author of nine books including “Asian Juggernaut,” notes “the links between Rohingya militants and such external forces, especially terrorist organizations like ISIS, that have driven the government of India, where some 40,000 Rohingya have settled illegally, to declare that their entry poses a serious security threat.”
“Even Bangladesh acknowledges Rohingya militants’ external jihadi connections,” he adds, in a possible attempt to vindicate the Indian government’s stance on the issue.
Therefore, given the complexity of the issue, faulting Aung San Suu Kyi for drawing similarities between security issues in Myanmar and India would not be right. She argued that it has become difficult to sift militants from innocent civilians, as is the case in Kashmir. Perhaps leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, Bangladesh’s Sheik Hasina and India’s Modi realize how vulnerable their socio-political landscape is in the face of growing religious fundamentalism.
The main Islamic political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami, is officially banned, but it enjoys significant support in a country which has been angered by the treatment of Muslims in Rakhine. A change of guard in Bangladesh could well see the rise of Jamaat-e-Islami once again, meaning a possible increase in the radicalization of the region.
New Delhi’s recent display of seriousness in dealing with the exodus of self-identifying Rohingya is palpable. In the last week several key initiatives were adopted to ensure there is no attempt to push more of the refugees into northeastern India. None of the eight states in the area can afford more anti-foreigner movements, such as one of the 1980s that left the region reeling from communal violence and subsequent insurgencies.
India’s defense secretary Ashok Kumar Gupta visited the Indian-Myanmar border township Moreh on Oct. 3 in what was described by local media as a move to “assess the law and order situation in the area in the wake of the Rohingya refugee crisis.”
Manipur shares a 398-kilometer border with Myanmar. Even though these areas are hilly and far from northern Rakhine, it appears that both the central and the state government of Manipur do not want to take any chances.
The visit by the Indian government official follows the decision to open two immigration checkpoints in Mizoram state along its borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh (Zorinpui checkpost in Lawngtlai district) and Bangladesh (Kawrpuichhuah checkpost in Lunglei district). In addition, the Indian government has beefed up its security along the India-Bangladesh land and riverine borders along West Bengal and Assam.
Indeed, the exodus of Rohingya to Bangladesh and other parts of the region has turned into a sprawling humanitarian crisis. But it also has the potential of destabilizing the region, especially with the growing support for ARSA.
Bidhayak Das is a former journalist who has spent over a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.