On Wednesday, in a surprising series of tweets, Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri, announced what he called a “landmark” decision to shift “all Rohingya refugees” to EWS (Economically Weaker Section) flats in the Bakkarwala area in Delhi. He further revealed that the refugees will be provided “basic amenities”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identity cards, and “round-the-clock Delhi Police protection”.
Puri went on to declare that “India respects [and] follows UN Refugee Convention 1951 [and] provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion or creed.” This is a noteworthy assertion, given that India has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention and is, thus, not legally bound to follow it. It also seemed like a volte-face on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s hostile stance on Rohingya refugees.
The HMO's 'Clarification'
Hours later, however, the Home Minister’s Office (HMO) refuted Puri’s announcement. The “clarification” said that the refugees are to continue at their current place of residence (Madanpur Khadar). The press release also noted that the Indian government was in discussions with the “concerned country” – Myanmar – to deport the refugees.
Strangely, despite the HMO’s refutation, Puri’s tweets were still up at the time of this article’s publication. So, what to make of his pronouncement that India follows the 1951 convention, which expressly contradicts what the HMO press release said the government was intending to do – deport the Rohingya back to their country of origin where they face serious threats to life? How come two union ministries are sharply contradicting each other?
Some new information has come to light following Puri’s dramatic announcement that helps us make sense of what’s afoot.
On Thursday, The Indian Express reported that the plan to move the refugees to EWS flats in the Bakkarwala area was already in the works between the Delhi government’s Home Department and the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), which falls under the Union Home Ministry. The Delhi government was particularly keen to move them to the new location after a series of fires razed the current settlements in Madanpur Khadar to the ground.
All of this disputes a claim made on Wednesday by Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister, Manish Sisodia, that the Union government had not kept the national capital’s government in the loop while taking this decision. It now turns out that not only was the Arvind Kejriwal government aware of the decision, but it was also actively involved in the process.
In a disturbing revelation, the Express also reported that “the FRRO was to run the Bakkarwala complex as a detention centre” and that “the FRRO and Delhi Police, in consultation with MHA, had to detain the immigrants in the detention centre”.
The Aim Was Surveillance, Not 'Protection'
If one joins the dots, a troubling picture emerges. Both Delhi and the Union governments had already decided to move the refugees to the Bakkarwala area. However, it was never meant to be a refugee resettlement project, but an initiative to detain and confine the Rohingya currently residing in the national capital. That the refugees were to be moved to a place where they could be kept under constant police watch shows how sinister this plan was.
Puri appears to have reframed the whole thing in benign terms to possibly avoid national and international outrage. So, when he wrote “round-the-clock police protection”, what he perhaps meant was round-the-clock surveillance of the refugees.
Whatever the reasons might have been, his tweets put the BJP in a sticky spot even as the party’s own ardent supporters slammed the decision on social media. That the Union government and the party quickly scrambled a series of tweets, a press release, and even a press conference shows how politically unwieldy Puri’s announcement was.
Why the Govt Rushed to Do Damage Control
What is greatly worrying is the aggressive nature of the Union government’s damage control strategy.
The Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) “clarification” states that the Delhi government has been directed to “immediately” declare the “present location” of the refugees, Madanpur Khadar, as a ‘Detention Centre’. Effectively, it seems to have conveniently walked back on its earlier decision to move the refugees to EWS flats in the Bakkarwala area. At the same time, it also wants to appear tough on the Rohingya issue.
The Madanpur Khadar area houses a highly congested settlement that lacks basic facilities and is perennially vulnerable to fires. In June 2021, a massive fire gutted several shanties in the area, leaving at least 250 families homeless.
Following the blaze, refugees have struggled to live a life of dignity in their makeshift camps due to the continued lack of basic amenities. A similar fire had rendered 205 refugees homeless in 2018.
Now, if such a squalid settlement is converted into a detention centre, the refugees will face worse conditions. While it is not yet clear whether this conversion will actually happen or what it will entail, precedent suggests that it will create an institutionalised confinement regime around the Madanpur Khadar area, which would then put in place a more pervasive security cover around the refugees.
Consequently, the refugees would face more severe restrictions on mobility and access. They would find it nearly impossible to communicate with the outside world, find legal recourse or avail of humanitarian services. One only has to look at the existing foreigner detention centres in Delhi and Assam to understand how inhuman India’s foreigner detention regime is. So pitiful were the living conditions in one such centre in Delhi’s Lampur area that even the High Court was forced to intervene last year.
If moved to EWS flats in Bakkarwala, the Rohingya would potentially face surveillance and ghettoisation. But, at least, they would be residing in better material conditions with access to basic amenities.
That the Union government is willing to deliberately confine the refugees in subhuman living conditions for a protracted period of time reflects a very specific intent – not to merely confine Rohingya refugees, but confine them in particularly punishing circumstances. Hence, in this case, the process of detention becomes more than just a legal protocol; it is a populist tactic to collectively castigate the much-hated “ghuspethiya” (infiltrator) and appease the majoritarian conscience.
How Rohingya Were Treated Under Previous Govts
The story of Rohingya refugees in India is one of devious political discretion. It is a prime example of how a government can politicise and communalise asylum policies to water its own ideological garden.
Rohingya refugees are not new in India. They have been living here, in varying numbers, throughout the last few decades. The numbers went up sharply after 2012 as renewed sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State drove thousands of Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh and, eventually, India.
What is new, however, is the treatment of the Rohingya by the Indian state.
The Manmohan Singh-led government wasn’t particularly keen on going out of its way to care for the Rohingya refugees living in India. For instance, even before 2014, the Madanpur Khadar settlement was a derelict town without basic amenities. Yet, they were allowed to settle in not just Delhi but also other places, such as Jammu. Despite their legal precariousness, they didn’t face constant police action or political diatribes from the highest echelons of the government.
“In India, we are at least safe and can practice our religion,” one Rohingya refugee living in Madanpur Khadar was quoted in a 2013 Countercurrents report by Shivnaryan Rajpurohit. The Singh government also extended Long Term Visas (LTVs) to several Rohingya refugees in 2012.
In his 2013 India visit, then UNHCR chief (and current UN Secretary General), Antonio Guterres, had remarked that “it is important that [...] the countries of the region follow the example of India that has opened its borders to the Rohingyas and granted them the same status as it has to the other refugees.”
But things have changed now. Under the BJP government, Rohingya refugees find themselves in a dark abyss marked by rising hate speech, relentless police harassment, judicial apathy, mass detention, and, worst of all, forced deportation to Myanmar. According to the UNHCR, at least 240 Rohingya are detained in “holding centres” in Jammu and Delhi.
So fierce is the clampdown today that Rohingya refugees in India are choosing to do something that they have never done before – go back to Bangladesh. For them, that is better than being detained in India or deported to Myanmar, where the military snatched power by force in February 2021.
Even while going back to Bangladesh, some have been apprehended by state authorities and thrown into detention centres. One wonders whether Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will discuss this unprecedented reverse migration of the Rohingya to her country in her upcoming visit to India early next month.
To be clear, the BJP government’s favoured vocabulary for the Rohingya refugees – “illegal foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” – isn’t the saffron party’s invention. It flows directly from a set of Indian immigration and citizenship laws that are inherently anti-refugee in nature. The ruling government has only mainstreamed the use of this dehumanising politico-legal vocabulary to create a powerful sociopolitical enemy out of the Rohingya.
One, after all, doesn’t see the government or party functionaries deploying these terms for Tibetan, Tamil, Burmese or Chin refugees. Needless to say, this double-faced policy will have long-lasting ramifications on how Muslim refugees are seen and treated in India.
All of this comes while our envoys wax eloquent about India’s great tradition of welcoming “refugees from all over the world” at the United Nations and applaud the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), which India has signed. The contradiction cannot be any more striking.
(Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Previously, he was Senior Researcher and Coordinator of the Southeast Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. In 2019, he was a GIBSA Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. In 2020, he co-founded the Right to Nationality and Citizenship Network, a collective of researchers, lawyers and activists advocating against statelessness in India.)
(This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)