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Rohingya are human, too: How we can deal with persecuted refugees and still keep India safe

By The Times of India

News reports suggest BSF is using pepper spray and stun grenades to stop Rohingya refugees from entering Indian territory. The government also seems keen to get rid of 40,000 odd Rohingya already in India, citing security threats.

Many of our TV news channels seem to want the same. We have even heard anchors screaming, “Let Rohingya be found floating around in the Indian Ocean. Don’t dump them here.” Well, we are talking about human beings here. That includes little children, women and elderly people. These are people who live in our neighborhood.

Some border villages of Myanmar’s Rakhine province (where Rohingya come from) are about 100km from towns in Mizoram. These people are ethnically close to Indo-Aryans. Their own country has marginalised them for decades.

Illustration: Chad Crowe

They are denied citizenship or passports, need state permission to marry (which takes years), need state permission to travel to neighbouring villages, and are denied state jobs. Worse, there is a systemic campaign of racism and hate against them in Myanmar. Imagine living in your own country like an officially hated outsider, denied basic rights, and people from your community routinely killed from time to time just for being who you are.

If you can understand this suffering as a human being, then it is perhaps also time to disclose that majority of the Rohingya are Muslims. Does it make a difference? Is their suffering any less because of their religion?

So why are we pepper spraying their kids and screaming to get them out?

There are several reasons. Some are actually valid. Others simply reek of our bigotry and lack of human empathy. They also ignore potential benefits and opportunity here for India in being a regional big brother.

But first, the valid reasons for not having Rohingya. According to the government some Rohingya in India may have terror links, or are at risk of radicalisation. The assessment is not wrong. Unfortunately, there are fundamentalist groups within Rohingya.

To fight the injustice Rohingya have been subjected to organisations like Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) popped up, using violent means to grab attention for their cause. In fact, the recent purge of the Rohingya by the Myanmar government was a result of ARSA terror attacks.

Rohingya are not just seen as victims, but also a community with significant radical elements. People who have grown up in strife, have limited means and are discriminated against, are more vulnerable to being indoctrinated. In fact, plenty of Indians fit these criteria and can be exploited too.

Having said that, if we had a proper registry of the Rohingya in India, and we could monitor them better, such probability is reduced. If we gave them a legal way to stay in India as refugees (rather than hide from authorities), say by issuing refugee cards, we could have a better idea of what they are up to. Like any community, over 99% of them would not be terrorists.

Spraying them with pepper or sending them back to the country that will probably kill them doesn’t seem something a civilised, democratic and humane country would do. Another reason cited for doing so is the ‘burden’ refugees create on the state. For one, the total number of Rohingya left in Myanmar is probably around a million now.

Most of the Rohingya refugees move to Bangladesh, as where they live in Myanmar borders Bangladesh. In the recent exodus alone Bangladesh received over 4,00,000 refugees, 10 times as many as the total Rohingya in India. These refugees fend for themselves, get very little state benefits and mostly work as daily labour. Are they really going to create such a burden?

The bigger question is how do we handle refugees in general. What would we have done, for example, if Hindus were persecuted in Pakistan to the point they were forced to run to us? Will we accept them and give them asylum, or will we pepper spray them back?

We need to provide a mechanism for refugees in our neighbourhood to legally apply for asylum. If they can prove persecution, religious, ethnic or otherwise, they may be eligible. Economic reasons alone will not be enough. These refugees will be tracked. They would be obligated to inform of their movements and activities more than regular citizens.

Of course, a formal refugee policy doesn’t mean India alone takes refugees while the rest of the continent does nothing. Just as in the EU, there should be sharing arrangements in the Asean region to handle any refugee crisis. Richer nations can contribute more money for resettlement.

Meanwhile, if India took the lead in handling the Rohingya crisis, it would lift our image as a serious power and problem solver in the region. Instead, if we fear monger and pepper spray, it will only show us as immature.

Ultimately, the Myanmar government cannot be absolved of its actions which have created the crisis. To deny citizenship to people who have lived in your country for decades is deplorable and unjustified, whatever the rationale. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country. We see Buddhism as one of the world’s most non-violent religions. Hence, the extreme violence meted out to Rohingya is, frankly, shocking to most Indians.

India can play a big role in pressuring Myanmar to fix this problem peacefully. We have to decide. Are we going to be the scared, xenophobic and closed-minded India of the past, or a more open, humane and mature society?

How we treat the helpless at our door goes a long way in determining that.