The Narendra Modi government’s denial of refuge to Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar is seen as a choice made between humanitarianism and security from Islamic terrorism. Somewhere amid these rhetorical flushes rests the (flawed) logic of Independence and Partition that determined the refugee policies of India and Bangladesh, which in 1947 was separated from India to form the region called East Pakistan. History suggests that the Modi government’s policy is very much in continuity with those of the previous regimes in India.
The birth of the Republic of India was accompanied by violent and massive demographic exchange in the wake of Partition, probably the biggest refugee crisis in history. Compared to the rest of India, the demographic exchange in the wake of the Partition was near-total in Punjab, and significant in Bengal, respectively. Once Pakistan was carved out as the homeland of Muslims of these two partitioned states, and displaced Muslims went to East and West Pakistan, it was foundational for India to grant refuge to Hindus and Sikh members of ethnic communities such as Punjabis or Bengalis from Pakistan.
The scale of Partition violence, and its subsequent memory, ruled out any acceptance of Bengali and Punjabi-speaking Muslims as refugees. These were supposed to be the responsibility of Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). To a lesser degree, this was true for other parts of North and Central India as well.
However, in a big country such as India, there are states such as Tamil Nadu and Assam where a composite sense of regional identity has dominated political culture. The Partition did not have such an impact in these states. Consequently, an ethnic Bengali Muslim from Myanmar (Rohingya) cannot seek refuge in India, but a Tamil Muslim from Sri Lanka can. In fact, many of them have, when they sought to escape the tumultuous civil war years in Sri Lanka.
After Independence, citizenship was granted by the Indian government to all those who were born and living in the country prior to the adoption of the Constitution in 1949-’50. This included a sizeable number of Muslims in India, just as it included a sizeable number of Hindus and Buddhists in Pakistan (especially East Pakistan). An interesting trajectory in its own right, the non-acceptance of the logic of Partition by large groups of peoples and individuals, and its consequences, are a separate issue not dealt with here.
India has also been accepting Buddhist Tibetan refugees since the 1950s. It is tempting to say that realpolitik was a greater determinant behind the acceptance of Tibetan Buddhists than anything else. However, the colonial knowledge system that leaders of post-colonial rulers of India inherited saw Buddhism as India’s gift to the world. Jawaharlal Nehru always discussed the Buddha glowingly in his Discovery of India. BR Ambedkar also saw Buddhism, not Hinduism, as the authentic religion of India. Same goes for many other luminaries in the nationalist pantheon.
On the other hand, India has let Muslims of Afghan origins lead a life in Delhi, but has granted them Long Term Visas for stay, not refugee status. Even refugees of the predominantly Muslim Rohingya community community that are presently living in India do so on Long Term Visas, not as refugees.
The case of Assam
India made a very different choice in 1971, when huge numbers of largely Muslim, but also Hindu and Buddhist East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis), started pouring into the country leading to the Third Indo-Pakistan War. Many of these migrants are yet to go back to Bangladesh, and their claims to citizenship or refugee status in India are a vexed issue. These are points of serious political contention in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and elsewhere in Eastern and North-Eastern India.
The government of India chose to provide either citizenship, refuge or “illegal status” to resolve the influx from Bangladesh. It never offered refuge to any Muslim Bangladeshis (earlier East Pakistanis). Unlike Muslims from Bangladesh, Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh were provided refuge in India. Just to reaffirm this point, in 2015, the Supreme Court ordered the state of Arunachal Pradesh to ensure that all Buddhist Chakma refugees are granted citizenship and treated at par with other Indians. This went against local sentiment in Arunachal Pradesh and all of North-East India that sees all Bangladeshi settlers, irrespective of their legal status, with disdain.
By seeking to provide refugee status to Hindu Bangladeshis, against local sentiment in the North-East, the Modi Government is not doing anything new. Its active rhetoric of providing refuge to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs from East and West Pakistan may or may not match the ground reality, but its policies are built and extended upon the legacy of Nehru and the foundational logic of 1947.
Question of self-identification
It is very important to point out that in some cases, the logic of 1947 has also led to Muslim refugees (Tamil Muslims from Sri Lanka) being admitted to India, and Hindus not being granted refuge in India. The refusal of the Government of India to grant refugee status to even one out of lakhs of ethnic Nepalese people kicked out of Bhutan as “illegal” settlers during an ethnic cleansing in the 1980s and 1990s might seem striking. Even more so because these were Hindus without a home.
However, in this case, the self-identification of these people was more as Nepalese than Hindus. While, some of them have been accepted by Nepal as refugees, most have been granted refuge not by Nepal or India, but by the United States, and to a lesser extent by smaller First World countries. Unlike Tamils, whose homeland exists in India, the homeland of Nepalese people exists outside India. Thus, in cases where a regional identity or pan-South Asian identity is involved, the Hindu-Muslim lens of looking at people breaks down.
The Modi government should not be seen as novel in refusing to come to the aid of Muslim Rohingyas. The logic and patterns of nationhood determined in the formative years around 1947 (and 1971) continue to determine the trajectory of nationhood and refugee policies of India and all other South Asian states. Here, humanitarian concerns stand on a pedestal lower than ideas of nationhood. As per the logic of 1947, foundational to the birth and subsequent evolution of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Rohingyas, whose language is akin to the Chittagong dialect of Bangla, fall into the care of Bangladesh. Bangladesh, too, in its self-image as the nation of Bengali Muslims, has provided refuge to the Rohingyas.
Vikas Rathee is Assistant Professor in History, Central University of Punjab.