Over the last two days, two separate groups of Rohingya refugees have been detained in the North East. On Wednesday, a group of 31, including women and children, were arrested by the Border Security Force after being stranded in the no-man’s land beyond the border fence for four days and handed over into judicial custody for 14 days. Facing charges under the Passports Act, they are being held in cells at the Bishalgarh Correctional Centre in Tripura. The second group was caught at the Assam-Tripura border.
Both groups had come from Jammu, some to escape the bitter cold, some to find jobs, others to escape deportation to Myanmar, their country of origin, where they had faced ethnic and religious persecution. This at a time when the Lok Sabha has just passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which the government claims is meant to give relief to people fleeing religious persecution.
The Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar have been described by the United Nations Human Rights Council as the “most persecuted minority in the world”. A campaign to slowly strip them of the rights of citizenship started decades ago in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, ripening into systematic state violence over the last few years. Satellite imagery shows entire Rohingya villages razed to the ground. Fleeing Rohingya refugees brought with them horrifying tales of extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, arson, the murder of women and children. Estimates of the casualties vary from 10,000 to 25,000. A report by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights finds 28,300 Rohingya children said they had lost at least one parent, while 7,700 reported having lost both parents.
Nearly 7 lakh Rohingya refugees fled to overcrowded camps in Bangladesh, which signed a repatriation deal with Myanmar in November 2017 and was to start sending back refugees from last year. Most Rohingya have resisted, fearing certain death if they went back. It is telling that even with the prospect of repatriation looming over them in Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees in India now feel it is safer there.
Over 40,000 Rohingya took refuge in India, mostly crowded into dismal camps in Delhi, Haryana, Jammu, Jaipur and Chennai. As of January 2017, only 500 had been granted long-term visas while others depended on refugee certificates handed out by the United Nations or other non-governmental organisations.
India, which has no refugee policy so far, has chosen to treat the Rohingya as illegal immigrants. Last year, it started deporting the first batches of Rohingya back into Myanmar. It has reserved its sympathies only for Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. The citizenship bill proposes to grant these minorities citizenship after six years of residence in the country, even if they cannot provide the required documents.
What accounts for this selective sympathy? The Indian government’s contention that the Rohingya pose a threat to national security cannot detract from its blindness to the scale of the human tragedy. Its treatment of the Rohingya raises serious doubts that the citizenship bill is innocent of religious and ethnic biases.