Historically, the BJP has maintained an unclear position on illegal immigration, whether of Bangladeshi Muslims and Hindus or of other nationals from India’s neighbourhood.
By the time the first NDA government under the leadership of the then prime minister AB Vajpayee was firmly in power at the Centre, the BJP had all but given up on one of its principal political objectives – the banishing of Muslim illegal immigrants from Bangladesh to India; the Bangladeshi Hindus were, of course, a constituency which had to be enticed with the carrot of Indian citizenship.
Vajpayee and his then deputy prime minister LK Advani realised that it would be near-impossible to deport millions of Bangladeshis living illegally in India.
What Explains the Govt’s Stand on Rohingyas
Over three years into its rule, the Narendra Modi government has struck on political gold by taking a decision on only 40,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, a move that smacks of prejudice. Its stated position that the Rohingyas constitute a threat to India’s national security has a dual purpose: to please a malevolent regime in Naypyidaw so it could outsmart China in Myanmar and also whip up mass anxieties domestically.
The government’s viewpoint over the Rohingya refugee crisis, as it unfolds in India and in the region, is supposedly shaped by concerns over internal stability and international security.
It would have us believe that suddenly the hapless Rohingyas pose a grave danger to the Indian Union, a position that not even the Vajpayee regime adhered to, even as the risks to national security supposedly posed by Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants were overlooked.
A host country is well within its rights to admit or deport refugees and illegal immigrants, but to distrustfully overlook the humanitarian aspect of the Rohingyas’ plight may not be well received by the international community, especially countries in the West which have traditionally welcomed refugees.
Impact of Refugees on Internal Security
The history of international migration is replete with instances of refugees and forced migrants posing serious challenges to host/receiving States’ security and stability. Violent conflicts have often broken out over the movement of people across international boundaries. As international migration scholar Myron Weiner says: Population flows across borders “do not merely happen. More often they are made to happen”.
Myanmar has had a sordid history of violent conflicts that have driven out different ethnic groups who were forced to find refuge in neighbouring countries, including India and Bangladesh. Indeed, in the 1980s and through the 1990s and early years of the 2000s, Myanmar’s brutal military junta “expelled” some of that country’s ethnic minorities, including the Rohingyas. Muslim-dominated Bangladesh adopted a similar policy vis-à-vis the Buddhist Chakmas, but today it has willingly embraced the fleeing Rohingyas in its own attempt at realpolitik.
This is best exemplified by Weiner’s thesis. He says that “to view refugee flows simply as the unintended consequences of internal upheavals…is to ignore the eagerness of some governments to reduce or eliminate from within their own borders selected social classes and ethnic groups and to affect the politics and policies of their neighbors”. To this extent Naypitaw, under Aung San Suu Kyi, has certainly been successful in affecting New Delhi’s position on not just itself but also on the emerging refugee crisis.
Silence on Bangladeshi Hindu Migrants
It would appear that from India’s perspective, driving out the handful of Rohingyas, while maintaining a deafening silence over the millions of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, serves its realpolitik objectives, if any. But this would be bad international politics at a time when many western nations have shown eagerness to absorb hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who recently fled another conflict theatre in West Asia.
The Indian government could very well argue that it has no obligation to continue to shelter the Rohingyas and, in fact, deport them since it is not a signatory to any of the international conventions on refugees. But that would expose its insincerity, especially when the Modi government has not explicitly acknowledged that the Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants living on Indian soil for years together are refugees.
If millions of Bangladeshi Hindus could be given refuge because of their real or perceived fear of persecution in their home country, Myanmar’s open hostility towards the Rohingya minorities is in and by itself solid enough reason to continue to shelter them till such time that conditions in Myanmar improve sufficiently to warrant their return.
It is now a matter of detail that two Indian states, Assam and West Bengal, have taken the brunt of Bangladeshi illegal immigrants since 1971. Millions have settled in these two states from where the Muslim and Hindu immigrants have moved on to other states. The BJP is fully aware that while the Bangladeshi Muslims have for all practical purposes acquired citizenship status, they do not form an electoral constituency.
The Bangladeshi Hindus do. With the aim of bagging the Hindu immigrants’ electoral support, the Modi government has sought to amend the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to them. The Bangladeshi Hindu immigrants, especially those living in West Bengal, have also successfully acquired citizenship documents. But the BJP-led NDA government’s objective is to drive home its point that it is favourably disposed towards the Hindu immigrants. The government’s argument that the Rohingyas could potentially destabilise or threaten national security is founded on exaggerated fears.
While building bridges with Myanmar or seeking economic benefits by enlarging the scope of bilateral ties is certainly welcome, India cannot be party to a situation in which Rohingyas are massacred by a government which has historically violated human rights of its ethnic and religious minorities.
Even if New Delhi decides to deport the Rohingyas, it must obtain guarantees from the government in Naypitaw that the persecution and violence against the minorities must end before the small community living in different parts of India could safely return to their home country.