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Can India ignore the Rohingya crisis?

The Hindu
By Professor  

Over 379,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmar to neighbouring Bangladesh. India should come forward to help the refugees. The reasons are threefold: maintaining a tradition of generosity, and economic and strategic factors.

A welcoming nation

First, not only as a major power in the region but also as the largest democracy in the world, there are expectations that India should extend help to the fleeing Rohingya, at least on humanitarian grounds, and contribute to help resolve the conundrum. India has been historically known to be benevolent to refugees. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, it welcomed thousands of refugees from Myanmar. New Delhi not only provided basic necessities such as food and shelter but also provided refugees the necessary logistics to continue their pro-democratic movement from India.

Another extant example of India’s magnanimity in welcoming refugees is the presence of approximately 120,000 Tibetan refugees, residing in different parts of India. From the first Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the incumbent Narendra Modi, India has been providing all necessary assistance to the Tibetans, including the government-in-exile in McLeodganj, a suburb of Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. India is also a home for hundreds of thousands of refugees from countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, internal refugees from Kashmir, and even some 40,000 Rohingyas from Myanmar.

It is understandable about the concerns in some quarters in India that the Islamist terrorist groups may expand their networks through some hard-line Rohingyas. However, since the refugees have no home to return to, at least at the moment, New Delhi should reconsider the idea of deporting them. The question one should seriously ponder is of where the refugees would go if they are deported at a time when both the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments are refusing to accept them as citizens.

Projects at stake

Second, peace and stability in the Rakhine state is important for India’s economic investment. During his September 5-7 visit to Myanmar, PM Modi said India shares Myanmar’s concerns over “extremist violence” in Rakhine. He also emphasized the need to bring about overall socio-economic development in the state by undertaking both infrastructure and socio-economic projects. The continued violence in Rakhine state is affecting India’s Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport project, aimed at developing transport infrastructure in south-west Myanmar and India’s Northeast. The project includes the construction of a deepwater port at the mouth of the Kaladan river in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state on the Bay of Bengal. Reconciliation between the Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists is necessary for peace to prevail. It is therefore in the economic interest of India to show its generosity and reach out to all peoples of the state.

Third, it is understandable that India does not want a strained relationship with Myanmar at this juncture when New Delhi is exploring ways to enhance its presence and influence in Myanmar and the Southeast Asia region through its Act East policy. But this does not have to be at the expense of alienating or marginalizing the Rohingya population.

When there are growing calls from the international community to the Myanmar government to end violence in Rakhine state and address the Rohingya conundrum, it would not be a wise strategic move for India to ignore them. While the government may take a conscious decision to publicly support Myanmarese leader Aung San Suu Kyi, at the same time it should gently prod her government to adopt a positive attitude toward resolving the Rohingya problem with the help of the international community.

Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University