There is something surreal about the photo-op of a smiling Rohingya refugee family heading back to conflict-torn Myanmar. In a similar case of mixed signals, Myanmar’s social welfare minister Win Myat Aye’s visit in April to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh spoke a language of resettlement but its message was a deeply unsettling one.
He announced that his country would take back only those Rohingya refugees who could furnish a proof of residency in Myanmar. In the complex game of political signals all nations play, this was as clear a warning shot as any, of trouble ahead. But one wonders how many in the Indian policy establishment heard it at all, given its increasing tone-deafness to both nuance and subtext.
Could this misplaced complacency arise from the fact that Myanmar’s securitised narrative on the Rohingya issue is a lot similar to that of the Indian state? If this is indeed the case, what Delhi has deluded itself into believing is that a shared language translates into a shared understanding. If anything, Myanmar’s securitised narrative on the Rohingya issue will potentially affect India’s interests in damaging ways. For instance, the verification process will no doubt involve an opaque process of separating the ‘good’ refugees from the ‘bad’ ones.
This means that, as and when the full-fledged repatriation takes place from Bangladesh to Myanmar, several thousands of the one million refugees will not make the cut. What is also sobering is that their right of return is seriously jeopardised by the fact that only an estimated 7,548 out of the one million Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state hold national verification cards.
When you add to this the fact that the fleeing millions did not exactly have the time to pack their bags with the necessary documentary proof, what are the chances of their right to return in a land where they are totally unwelcome? What this will mean is that a sizeable stateless population will remain next door to India in a heightened state of vulnerability and faced with the prospect of an indeterminate wait. Where will they end up? Could India become ‘the refugee capital of the world’ by its own acts of omission?
Framing the challenge
How Indian diplomacy addresses this crisis of credibility and governance will depend a lot on how it chooses to frame the problem. Ironically, while the Centre categorically defines the Rohingya as the problem, this could well be a case of not knowing what the problem is. India’s Rohingya narrative appears to be caught in a double vision, suspended between political opportunism and a squandered opportunity.
One would have thought that given its experience of historically managing complex population movements in South Asia, India would have been a shaper of the larger global discourse on refugee protection from the point of view of the Global South. But it has curiously chosen not to shine a light on the reality of such ‘mixed flows’ and to lend intellectual and political heft to non-western approaches and experiences.
Ironically, it is its own policy fetters that prevent India from utilising the array of intellectual and political tools at its disposal to respond to the regional crisis that the Rohingya issue represents. Part of this inaction is due to its own fixation with the opportunistic logic of seeing the Rohingya issue as an ‘internal’ issue. Intriguingly, it has cited economic costs as a factor while making a case for deportation of the 40,000 Rohingya refugees from India. In its affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court in September 2017, the Centre argued for deportation citing ‘diversion of national resources’. It is an incredible argument for the world’s fifth-largest economy to make, given that even in 1971 when India hosted 10 million refugees, it did not make such an argument despite the fact that its economy was then virtually on the verge of collapse.
Back then, among the measures it adopted to cope with the financial burden, was the rather innovative postal tax called the Refugee Relief Tax priced at 5 paise that it levied to help raise revenues. What any talk of economic costs at this juncture will certainly do is to bring serious credibility costs for India.
What India could do instead is to begin a regional conversation to unpack the definition of the refugee to include the diverse categories of those seeking protection. It could help draw up a list of the most vulnerable such as women-at-risk, unaccompanied children, environmental migrants and victims of trafficking among others. It is only by rendering the displaced millions more visible in this fashion that the state, be it in India, Myanmar or Bangladesh, can be held to account to provide protection. And the more diversified this list is, the more it will be in India’s interests as well as those of the returnees. Doing so can also help India strike the much-needed ‘balance between human rights and national interest’ that the Supreme Court had referred to in one of its hearings on the Rohingya issue.
But if India instead chooses to peddle the good refugee/bad refugee categorisation that all refugees are potential terrorists, it will only end up swelling the ranks of the stateless in the region. Reducing the Rohingya narrative to a single-issue debate fixated only on the security dimension would ironically end up creating an even more intractable security nightmare not just for India but for the region.
If India is willing to imaginatively reframe the Rohingya narrative in the coming days, it could tick several political boxes at once: from offsetting centrifugal forces, strengthening regional stability to salvaging its own image as a leader with the influence and incentives necessary to shape the discourse on rights and responsibilities.