The fate of Rohingya refugees in India will now be decided by the competitive bigotry of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party.
On Thursday, Union Housing Minister Hardeep Singh Puri announced Rohingya refugees would be shifted to housing for economically weaker sections in Delhi, be provided basic amenities and police protection. India had always “welcomed those who sought refuge”, Puri said.
But the BJP-led Centre was forced to back down on this commendable impulse, under fire from its own saffron supporters but also from the Aam Aadmi Party. The latter immediately went to war, alleging a “conspiracy” by the Centre to settle so-called illegal immigrants in Delhi for the BJP’s benefit.
Hours after Puri’s statement, the Union home ministry said there was no plan to relocate Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled persecution in Myanmar and the process of deporting “illegal foreigners” would continue. A BJP spokesperson claimed it was the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government that had originally proposed relocating Rohingya refugees. In response, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia said that Rohingyas would not be allowed to “illegally settle” in the city.
It is testimony to a derangement in Indian politics – a move in line with international humanitarian laws on refugees is seen as a plot to compromise national security at worst or get votes at best. The BJP has long made communal scare-mongering about Rohingya “infiltrators” part of its politics. It has managed to create a politically fertile panic about a Muslim other breaching the country’s borders, threatening to destabilise it from within. The Aam Aadmi Party has cravenly chosen to play along.
‘Refugees’ and ‘infiltrators’
Over the last decade, thousands of Rohingya have been forced to flee Myanmar as that country’s government launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing, rendering the community stateless and then visiting large-scale violence on it. Even as reports of arson and massacres poured out of Myanmar, the Indian government maintained the Rohingya were not refugees but “illegal immigrants” who would be deported.
The Centre’s stand was challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it violated the international law of non-refoulement. According to this legal principle, a country cannot send asylum seekers to another country where they would be likely to face persecution because of their identity. The Centre argued granting refuge to the Rohingya was not a question of human rights but of national security, that many of the asylum seekers had terror links, and anyway it was not bound by international laws since India was not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 refugee convention.
India also has no domestic law on refugee protection, merely standard operating procedures issued by the Union home ministry and applied on a case-to-case basis. The fate of different refugee groups depends on the goodwill of the government.
A fresh flood of refugees poured in from Myanmar last year after a military coup triggered a civil war. Many of these refugees share ethnic affinities with communities in North Eastern states, where they took shelter. While the Centre tried to insist they were also “illegal immigrants” who must be deported, it did not press the point. Rightly so – all groups fleeing persecution and violence need a safe harbour.
Meanwhile, Rohingya refugees, settled in camps in Delhi, Jammu and Hyderabad, live in daily fear of deportation. Over the last year, the government has quietly been detaining refugees in Jammu.
The Centre’s crackdown on the Rohingya dove-tailed neatly with the BJP’s Hindu majoritarian politics. Post Partition, successive governments have subtly distinguished between Hindu or non-Muslim “refugees” with legitimate claims to asylum and Muslim “infiltrators” who need to be expelled. The BJP made a virtue of it. It codified this difference in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which facilitates citizenship for undocumented, non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Shah routinely brought up the Rohingya during election time, promising to drive them out if the BJP was voted into power, accusing the Congress and other opposition parties of protecting them in order to cultivate a captive vote bank. In the BJP’s political language, the Rohingya and other Muslim migrants were “termites”, “infiltrators” and “terrorists”, never human subjects with rights and dignities.
Puri’s proposal to provide shelter for Rohingya refugees might have been the first government response approaching basic decency. But the party found itself defeated by its own politics and policy.
In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party has settled into a version of Hindutva-lite, echoing the BJP’s rhetoric on dangerous “ghuspetiyan” – infiltrators. Earlier this year, when communal tensions broke out in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri area, even so-called progressive voices such as Aam Aadmi Party legislator Atishi Marlena tried to blame it on the Rohingya.
Like the BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party may have electoral calculations in mind. The two parties have been locked in electoral battles over Punjab and Gujarat this year. They will also be pitted against each other in the Delhi municipal elections, which are indefinitely postponed. In a city polarised after the anti-CAA protests and the 2020 communal violence, the Aam Aadmi Party appears to think it expedient to run with the majoritarian consensus on Rohingya refugees.
This does not sit well with the party’s claim to progressive welfare politics otherwise. Recently, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal took on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s jibe against “freebies”. Free quality education and healthcare were not freebies meant to appease voters but essential public services, the chief minister argued.
Going by the party’s backlash to Puri’s statement, however, it feels these rights cannot be extended to the dismal camps in Delhi where Rohingya refugees lead lives of constant precarity, with few means of livelihood and periodic fires that swallow up whatever savings some might have.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s attack has only strengthened the BJP’s malicious politics on the Rohingya. Meanwhile, there were only stray voices of protest from the Congress against the Centre’s u-turn. An opposition that offers an alternative to the politics of the BJP must do better. It needs to stand up for refugee rights. It needs to hold up a politics of empathy instead of endorsing hate.