In its 13 February edition, The Indian Express carried an article about the J&K National Panthers Party telling the Rohingya and the Bangladeshis to leave Jammu. The article mentioned a PIL, filed by one Hunar Gupta of the BJP’s legal cell, seeking deportation of the Rohingya refugees. The Panthers Party and the BJP want us to believe that the Rohingya and the Bangladeshis are becoming a threat to Jammu's “Dogra identity”.
My focus is on the Rohingya, one of the several mandate refugees and a community I have interacted with over the last five years as a researcher, including in Jammu.
Refugee protection experts in India would agree that such calls for refugees to leave serve only a limited purpose: they create a public frenzy, making one anxious that a refugee community may cause trouble. This then legitimises any harassment that the latter may be subjected to.
In the case of Jammu, clearly, the Panthers Party and the BJP are blissfully indifferent to the fact that the Rohingya are de jure stateless – they are a people “who are not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. They aren't counted among the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar and have to agree to be identified as “Bengali” to be considered Burmese citizens. They are one of the most discriminated communities in the world today and continue to flee Myanmar in large numbers, often at risk to their lives.
Thus, calling for their “deportation” without considering its implications isn't only a clear violation of the principle of non-refoulement, it may also amount to complicity in crimes committed against the community in Myanmar today.
India generously hosts refugees but without being held accountable to its actions, many of which arise out of humanitarian gestures but many of which are blatantly illegal and violative of our core constitutional principles. More often than not, courts in India have not questioned the government’s policies on refugees. Thankfully, some trial courts have recommended that a refugee law be framed. Be that as it may, refugees in this country are at the mercy of our benevolence.
In this scenario, calls for the Rohingya to leave are strategic games played by political parties in which the refugees become easy targets. But why does this situation not elicit sufficient anxiety from the government?
One may recall that in Mizoram, the Mizo often called for the Chin refugees to go back to Myanmar. The Young Mizo Association, or YMA, a supposedly social organisation, was often at the forefront of such demands. The Burmese were targeted on the grounds that they were involved in crime, including drug trade, rape, murder. That mere allegations were sufficient to demonise the community and that the Mizos too were perhaps involved in crime did not make a difference.
The YMA made several announcements of carrying out a census of the “foreigner” population so that all such “outsiders” could be successfully deported. Over time, though, the Mizo-Chin relationship has stabilised, with instances of harassment of the Chins occurring when it suits those with power and heft. The “census”, to my knowledge, never saw the light of day.
Such “quit India” notices to refugee communities are shortsighted, bereft of any nuance and, in the long run, do not offer solutions to legitimate concerns of either the government or the refugees. So, one of the questions that will have to be deliberated upon by the J&K High Court when it hears the BJP member's PIL is the constitutional validity of a relief-seeking deportation of the Rohingya. While foreigners have no fundamental right to travel as they please within India, can a prayer that calls for the Rohingya to leave Jammu and go anywhere else in the country be sustained in law?
The Rohingya have been responsible for some positive developments in this country's refugee policy. In 2012, the Indian government extended the Long Term Visa (LTV) policy to the Rohingya refugees although it has yet to see its full potential. This policy articulated, for the first time in decades, a procedure akin to the refugee status determination (RSD) as part of visa issuance process. Also, for the first time, the government allowed the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to conduct RSD in cities and towns inhabited by the Rohingya.
To appreciate how positive the LTV development is, it is pertinent to briefly state what procedures are applied in general to regulate the stay of refugees in India. Since the country does not have a “refugee law”, the only document that guarantees protection for mandate refugees is the “refugee card” issued by the UNHCR after a successful RSD process. Further, depending upon their nationality, refugees may be granted a residence permit by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), which otherwise is issued to all foreigners entering India on a valid visa. Such a residence permit for a refugee is a tacit recognition by the Indian government that refugees’ stay in India is legal.
If the government feels it has a legitimate right to secure its borders and control access to its territory, it should, in this day and age, be equally prepared to spell out its own responsibilities towards refugees. A Joint Parliamentary Committee is currently considering amendments proposed to the Citizenship Act, 1955, which, among others, seek to change Section 2 to make the presence of certain classes of foreigners – Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists and Christians from India’s neighbourhood – legal even if they enter without valid identity documents.
This is being proposed to address the long standing problem faced by Hindu refugees from Pakistan and other neighbouring countries -- that their path to Indian citizenship isn't being realised due to the lack of valid documentation and bureaucratic hurdles. There is no doubt, of course, that Pakistani Hindus are being persecuted on the basis of religion. The Indian government clearly has the will to take in such refugees from its neighbourhood, and grant them citizenship.
Why is it then that the Rohingya, who merely ask for their status as refugees to be recognised, do not elicit a similar response?
Sahana Basavapatna is a lawyer based in Bangalore