Guest Column

India Wakes up to Multiple Concerns After Violence in Rakhine

By Bidhayak Das 12 September 2017

The situation in northern Rakhine State has gone from bad to worse with a sea of people (UN estimates of some 300,000) fleeing to Bangladesh to save their lives and that of their children. The violence there has engulfed the entire region and threatens to cause ongoing communal disturbances. There have been conflicting stories in the media and it is difficult to assess the true situation on the ground.

However, what we do know is if the specter of violence is not contained soon it could throw Myanmar’s neighbors into a deep crisis, with the potential for communal violence looming. The question being heard in Indian media is, “Is India equipped to handle a problem of this magnitude if it does occur?”

India is already feeling the pinch and there is a deep division across the country between those that want the 40,000 self-identifying Rohingya Muslims to return to Myanmar and those that want them to stay. The battle has reached India’s highest court, the Supreme Court, with a group of activists pleading for them to be given asylum, while others oppose the petition on grounds including that it violates international human rights conventions. A counter petition has been filed by a Hindu group in the same court.

As a decision is anticipated, arguments outside of the court seem to lean heavily against the self-identified Rohingya. The reasons being cited are many, starting with the fact that India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and therefore, is not obliged to accept the migrants. Though India has accepted refugees in the past, the case of these particular Muslim migrants is embroiled in controversy. Concerns over national security have been cited by government officials and civil society.

A few of the prominent examples that are being played out in Indian media are an attack in and around the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya on July 7, 2013, which was influenced by the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and the Indian Mujahideen. The arrested suspect Mohammed Umair Siddiqui, a member of SIMI and the Indian Mujahideen, stated that the attack was targeted at international Buddhist tourists to avenge the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The incident that preceded the Bodh Gaya blasts and threatened to escalate into communal riots was the protests at Azad Maiden in Mumbai on August 11, 2012, organized to condemn communal riots in Rakhine and in the Assam State of India.

That incident of violence saw the death of two people, with the protesters targeting police and media persons, setting vehicles afire, smashing cameras and chanting provocative slogans. After the incident, the spotlight was on clerics in mosques and Muslim leaders for claims that they built the anger that caused violence to erupt, impacting several other cities in India. Social media was flooded with (mis)information and misleading pictures of the Rakhine and Assam violence, and SMSes and MMSes designed to make Muslims in India feel hunted and victimized were spread in the run up to the protest day.  A state of high alert was issued throughout Mumbai and most cities in the country were left shaken by the incident.

Sultan Shahin, a senior Editor of the New Age Islam in India, said in a recent discussion on the self-identified Rohingya: “The concern expressed by Indian security forces is quite legitimate in view of what happened in the past and in view of what has happened in Myanmar itself recently.” He went on to add, “It is natural that any forces in the world like Al-Queda and ISIS would want to make use of them [the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army – ARSA], especially in the current situation where so many people are fleeing to Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, other arguments in favor of the deportation of the self-identified Rohingya from India include the recent alert by intelligence agencies in India and Bangladesh that have warned of increasing radicalization of Rohingya Muslims by Pakistani-based terror groups. The Indian establishment and most Indians have been alarmed perhaps because the support for the self-identified Rohingya has come from none other than Hafiz Saeed, co-founder of the Laskhar-e-Toiba and the prime accused in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack in which 164 civilians including six American citizens were killed.

Given that there have been incidents in which self-identified Rohingya are linked with attacks or groups carrying out attacks, alarm is natural. It is not Islamophobia, which may be used as an argument by some. The issue is complex, certainly where ARSA – which the Myanmar government recently branded a terrorist organization – is involved. But no government wants to be caught with their guard down.

A number of Indian media outlets have highlighted that Ata-Ullah, who leads the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), was born in Karachi and formed Harakah al-Yaqin, which claimed responsibility for attacks on border guard posts in Myanmar on Oct. 9, 2016. He has been linked with the Lashkar-E-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Pakistan-based groups, and it has been reported that records of his recent telephone conversations with some Muslim men in India have led the Home Ministry to take a firm stand on the issue of deportation. Times Now, a leading Indian television program, has quoted Indian intelligence agencies as saying that Ata-Ullah “has vowed to fight ‘oppressors’ in the Indian subcontinent,” and also that “he has been hiring Rohingya immigrants.”

The Indian news media has also run repeated stories on how various terror groups – in particular, Zakir Musa who leads the Hizbul Mujahideen in Kashmir – have been inviting self-identified Rohingya to join them “in fighting for Islam.” With no proper official estimates of the number of Rohingya in India, the apparent increase and the fact that many have made their way to Kashmir have seemingly worried the Indian establishment.

The debate over a home for the self-identified Rohingya in India has given rise to some thorny issues. In a recent television discussion, Anand Narasimhan, editor of Times Now, challenged the very narrative of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the UNHCR, which have cited “humanitarianism” and “human rights” to prevent the Indian government from deporting the Rohingya from India. He said, “when Indians don’t have the right to go and settle down everywhere in the country, how will we settle this group (of self-identified Rohingya).” Many states in India by law do not allow land rights or settlement rights to other Indians.

The issue of the Kashmiri Pundits who have been driven out of their homes in Kashmir and living in tents as internally displaced people has also dominated the debates over whether to allow the self-identified Rohingya to remain in India. The issue of detecting “foreigners” (Bangladeshis) who entered Assam after 1971 and possibly pushing them back has also resurfaced, making the issue even more complex. The question that is being asked by all is, “Should not every displaced person, refugee and asylum seeker be treated equally or should there be a different measuring stick in the case of Rohingya, and if so, why?”

The Assam local Parliament (called the Legislative Assembly) was rocked on Sept. 6, 2016, when legislators staged a walk out over the issue of the self-identified Rohingya. The legislators demanded that they be taken in on humanitarian grounds. The question posed to the group was, “Shall we not speak out against the atrocities and slow genocide of religious minorities since the last two decades in Bangladesh and in Pakistan?” Also, the other question to ask is how about those who are unable to include their names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which is being updated in Assam to detect “illegal migrants,” from Bangladesh?

It would seem indisputable that if the self-identified Rohingya have human rights, so do other religious minorities in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Ironically, the situation on the ground is different, and when it comes to accommodating persecuted religious minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan, there is an uncomfortable silence from the same group that is voicing support for the self-identified Rohingya.

This has perhaps led many in India from various ideologies and religious beliefs to question the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) and Muslim nations about refusing to accommodate the self-identified Rohingya. Senior Supreme Court Advocate and a Kashmiri Muslim Shabnam Lone said on Indian television, “Shame on the Islamic countries” while also adding that, “India is not Pakistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia. India is a pluralistic country, a land of tolerance.”

Countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have in the recent past asked the Rohingya to return to Myanmar after seeking asylum, on one pretext or another. OIC Secretary General Yousef bin Ahmad Al-Othaimeen, has been quoted in the Indian media as saying, “Take them back, they are your people, rehabilitate them. It is your responsibility.”  This statement was made a day before the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory on Rohingya deportation.

So as India gears up to face the challenge posed not just by the dilemma of whether to deport the self-identified Rohingya, but also by the threat of a growing insurgency in its eastern frontier, the question perhaps is one of “tolerance versus terror,” as has been articulated by a cross section of the social and political class in India. The jury is out on this.

Bidhayak Das is a veteran journalist who has also spent more than a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.