On Thursday, seven Rohingya men were deported from India to Myanmar. They had been in an Assam prison since 2012, arrested for crossing over into India without valid documents. As the Union government sought to deport them, the move was challenged in the Supreme Court on the contention that Rohingya face genocide in Myanmar. However, the court refused to interfere in the deportation, arguing that the seven had been “found to be illegal immigrants”.

The Rohingya are a minority within Myanmar who have faced incredible levels of state-led majoritarian violence since 2016. The Burmese Army has been accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya by the United Nations and multiple governments, including the United States. The United Nations has noted that entire villages were burned down, families killed and the gang rape of women and children carried out as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign. As of September, there were more than 9 lakh Rohingyas who had been made refugees as a result of this violence.

In such a scenario, India’s decision to deport the Rohingya back to the same place where they faced this genocidal violence is inexplicable and a serious violation of human rights. The United Nations itself spoke against the move arguing that “the current conditions in Rakhine State in Myanmar are not conducive for safe, dignified and sustainable return for Rohingya”. The deportation, in fact, violates the principle of “refoulement” – a basic theory of international law that holds that refugees cannot be deported back to a place where they face ethnic violence. By going through with this, India has placed at risk the lives of these seven people.

This shocking move comes against the backdrop of increasing xenophobia and hyper-nationalism in India, often channelled along religious lines. Earlier in September, Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah went so far as to compare Bangladeshi migrants to “termites”. A bill currently with a joint select parliamentary committee seeks to put in a religious rider for migrants seeking Indian citizenship, mostly to help Hindus facing religious persecution in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Given this, it is ironic that a secular India can deny protection to the persecuted Rohingya, just because they happen to be Muslim. This deportation also comes on the back of the on-going National Register of Citizens, an exercise to determine Indian citizenship in the state of Assam, which has been criticised by multiple commentators for victimising minorities on the basis of religious as well as linguistic identity.

India is often seen as a positive anomaly in the crop of post-colonial countries given its emphasis on secularism and human rights. Given this, New Delhi has managed to avoid the scarring violence that has characterised so much else of South Asia. A move to xenophobia and religious nationalism in these circumstances is a baffling step back for the country.