The newspaper photograph of seven Rohingya men whom the Indian government recently deported to Myanmar made me wonder if they would have been treated differently if they had not been Muslim. Religion may or may not be “the opium of the people” but it is certainly the single strongest determinant of individual as well as collective behaviour throughout Asia. When race is added, it makes a powerful brew. That explains the harsh political reasoning of the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s ruling military junta) which knows it can count on public support when it denies Rohingyas citizenship under the 1982 nationality law and insists they cannot be recognised as one of the country’s eight “national indigenous races”.
A pocket of Muslim South Asians would sit ill on a Mongolian Buddhist nation that sees itself in terms of Thailand and Cambodia. It’s a cruel situation but not of India’s making and in no way the responsibility of either the people or government of today’s India. India has more mouths than it can feed, and more socio-political problems than it can cope with. The Muslim factor compounds challenges even when this country is at its most secular. The Hindutva bias of Narendra Modi’s government cannot be accused of setting a new trend in the matter of refugees. It has always been implicitly accepted that while Indians must make people of all faiths feel at home, India’s dominant culture is Hindu.
That had an unintended bearing on the illicit movement of people from erstwhile East Pakistan to West Bengal, Assam and Meghalaya. The cost of a “jungle passport” in those days depended in practice on whether the migrant was Hindu or Muslim. Hindus paid more to the East Pakistan border guards and less to the Indian, rates being reversed for Muslims. Reportedly, Hindu refugees were treated more sympathetically at the Indian border. Amit Shah’s “termite” jibe singled out Bangladeshi Muslims. The logic is that Hindus have nowhere to go save India unless Bangladesh transforms itself into a truly secular society which is not likely to happen. The late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto went to the heart of the matter in 1971 when he said that if what he called “Muslim Bangla” was more Muslim than Bangla, it should remain in Pakistan. If it was more Bangla than Muslim, it should merge with West Bengal. Similarly, if Rohingyas are Myanmarese, they must stay where they are and international pressure must be brought to bear on Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital and administrative headquarters, to come to an amicable arrangement that no longer endangers Rohingya lives and property. It has been done in Kosovo and Iraqi Kurdistan by translating the world community’s generous expressions of sympathy and support into positive action.
A solution on similar lines would not only save hapless Rohingyas from threatened extinction but would provide tremendous encouragement to other beleaguered minorities like the Chakmas, Chechens and Basques, to say nothing of various Indian groups that feel isolated or marginalised. But if Rohingyas are Bengali and Muslim — the order doesn’t matter — their natural refuge is Bangladesh where they originated, despite claims of Mughal, Arab and Portuguese lineage. At one time, the British Raj treated Arakan as part of Bengal Presidency. Moreover, movement was free during all those decades when Burma was a province of British India so that western Burma became almost an extension of east Bengal. The community knows this too, and sought merger with the proposed East Pakistan before Partition. Rohingyas have taken several steps since then to emphasise their Muslim identity. One such was the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army with suggestions of Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Malaysian and Afghan links and funds from Islamic sympathisers in Australia. As recorded before in this column, the ARSA insurgency simmered all through 2016 and the first half of 2017.
It began as the even more fundamentalist-sounding Harakah al-Yaqin movement led by Attullah Abu Ammar Jununi, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia before he returned home to lead the struggle against Tatmadaw-sponsored Buddhist vigilantes and the official repression that began formally in 1978 when the junta launched a military crackdown codenamed Operation King Dragon. The challenge now for India, Bangladesh and the United Nations is to find an equitable and pragmatic solution that does not affect the security or social stability of any country. Myanmar, of course, is in total denial, claiming not only that far from being victims of atrocities, Rohingyas are actually the perpetrators of violence. In Myanmarese eyes, they are illegal immigrants who have stayed longer in their country than the Indian labourers, rickshaw pullers, lawyers, clerks and judges who were sent packing in 1948, but are no more welcome because of that. This national conviction might explain what is globally deplored as Aung San Suu Kyi’s enigmatic silence. Maurice Collis of the Indian Civil Service, who spent 22 years in Burma and courageously risked both British wrath and Burmese anger, has left behind vivid accounts of how the Burmese proletariat hunted down and butchered Indians while their social superiors watched in approving silence.
India may have a moral role in the controversy as the world’s biggest and Asia’s only parliamentary democracy, but no direct legal liability. It is difficult to disagree with the admittedly unsympathetic response of the minister of state for home, Kiren Rijiju, when the question was raised last year. “As far as we are concerned, they are all illegal immigrants,” he said. “They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is an illegal migrant will be deported.” Responding to another question, he said state governments had been instructed to set up district level task forces to identify and deport “the illegally staying foreign nationals” while India discussed “illegal immigration” with neighbouring countries. The fact that the seven deported men were in or travelling to Kerala is bound to raise suspicion. The Rohingya language and culture could not be farther removed from the Malayali lifestyle. The only commonality could be that of religion, since 27 per cent of Keralans are Muslim. Strengthening this bond would also inevitably lead to increased fear and misgiving to the detriment of minority security and an increasingy fragile secular polity.
Given the charges of mass illegal immigration in Assam and West Bengal, and fears of a South Asian fall-out of Islamic revivalism as well as of turmoil in the Muslim ummah, it would further encourage worries concerning India’s changing demographic balance. What if more Muslim refugees were to pour into India from stricken Afghanistan? What if dispossessed Syrians, also Muslim, seek a home here? What if Europe’s rising neo-right forces the flood of West Asians and North Africans into South Asia? Communal harmony would not be strengthened if Indians feared that Rohingyas might be the thin end of an Islamic wedge.
The Sunanda K Datta-Ray is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.