The Big Story: Communalising shelter

In 2015, the government announced that it would allow minority-community refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh to stay on in India even if their visas had expired. This decision, said the government, had been taken on humanitarian grounds, given the persecution religious minorities face in the two countries.

However, the humanitarianism that was claimed as the basis of that decision does not seem to ring completely true. Even as the Union government was making space for Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh, it was threatening to expel Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar who are often called the “world’s most persecuted minority”. Not only are they stateless – their own country does not recognise their citizenship – but Myanmar has over the past weeks been accused of committing genocide on the group in the hope of ethnically cleansing them. If humanitarianism is a value New Delhi holds dear, India should open its gates for the Rohingyas too. Instead, the Union government is keen on deporting Rohingyas who are already here.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear a petition asking for the Union government to desist from its attempt to deport Rohingyas. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to discuss the issue with top Myanmar officials when he stops in the capital, Naypyidaw, on his way back from China. It’s clear that the Union government’s recent decisions have been driven by political considerations. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological framework imagines India as a land of Hindus. This philosophy drives it to fashion a communal refugee policy that sees persecuted peoples through the lens of their religion. The court, however, should have no such explicit considerations.

India, it might be noted, has no laws on how to treat refugees. But even though India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, these rules are now widely seen as part of customary international law, applicable across the board. One of the core principles of the 1951 convention is non-refoulment: a state cannot force refugees to return to a country “where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. In international forums, in fact, India has repeatedly backed this principle.

Can the Supreme Court then apply this customary international law to help the Rohingyas? Precedents exist to allow it to do so. In Gramophone Company Of India Ltd vs Birendra Bahadur Pandey, the Supreme Court was of the opinion that as long as it did not run into conflict with Indian law, customary international law can apply in the country.

The Supreme Court should break free of the BJP’s cynical politics and apply the law to the case of the Rohingyas, ensuring that India honours the principle of non-refoulment.

The Big Scroll

  • A people without a home: Rohingya refugees in Jaipur told to leave by end of August, reports Abhishek Dey.
  • India cannot deport Rohingya refugees without violating international law, explains Rineeta Naik.
  • “If I were a bird, I would fly home to Burma”: Jammu’s Rohingya refugees hit by wave of hostility, reports Rayan Naqash.
  • In Delhi’s Rohingya camp, a refugee couple describe their 40-year search for a place to call home, reports Abhishek Dey.

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  • The Right to Information Act needs to be protected against attempts to dilute it, write Christophe Jaffrelot and Basim U Nissa in the Indian Express.
  • Beware of the wrong lessons from Doklam, argues Srinath Raghavan in the Mint. The Doklam standoff needs to be seen for what it was – an indication of the steady deterioration in the ability of India and China to deal with such situations


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