Few Indians must have heard till other day about Rohingya refugees which have suddenly received much hyped media attention and political controversy in India. Supreme Court heard the plea of Rohingya immigrants on 18th September against the Government order to depart illegal immigrants. Their position is that they had taken refuge in India after escaping from Myanmar on account of a large scale discrimination, violence and bloodshed against the community and, interestingly, an impressive line-up of Senior Advocates such as Fali S Nariman, Prashant Bhusan, Kapil Sibal, Rajeev Dhavan, Ashwini Kumar and Colin Gonsalves is set to argue the case on behalf of the Rohingya community. Many of these famous names have political affiliations and are often found these days to support petitions against the Central Government.
The Government has taken a stand that approximately 40,000 Rohingya people are not refugees but illegal immigrants from Myanmar who at various points of time have entered in the border states of Bengal, Assam and Tripura from Bangladesh through agents and touts and later spread in different parts of the country including Delhi and Jammu. As per intelligence inputs, many radicalised Rohingyas are a serious security threat to the state besides being engaged in several illegal activities Accordingly, the Government has expressed its concern about the organised influx of the illegal immigrants from Myanmar through middlemen and requested the Supreme Court not to interfere in the government executive policy of dealing with the illegal migrants.
India being a democratic country and people having full freedom of speech and expression, this has become a live and burning issue with a lot of open debate pro and against Rohingya. This involves several questions and issues such as who are Rohingya people, what is their origin and background, where from they come, what is the magnitude of problem and its legal status? Besides, the most significant issue arise whether they are really a security threat, and if so, why should particular political parties or social groups cause impediments in Government’s normal function to deal with the illegal immigrants?
Rohingya: Origin and Background
The term Rohingya is believed to have origin in colonial and pre-colonial terms Rooinga and Rwangya which literally mean ‘natives of Rohang’ that was the early Muslim name for Arakan. There were estimated one million Rohingya, mostly Muslims and a few Hindus, living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis that led to mass exodus of the community. Myanmar officially maintains that the Rohingyas are not one of their national races but illegal immigrants from the neighbouring Bangladesh.
Though the Rohingya history is traced back to eighth century in Arakan (now Rakhine state), they have not been granted citizenship and Myanmar law does not recognise them among the eight national races. Consequently, they have restricted movement and largely deprived of the state education and civil service jobs. On the contrary, the Rohingya insist that they are among the indigenous people of the western Myanmar dating back over a thousand years under the influence of Arabs, Mughals and Portuguese as the descendants of pre-colonial and colonial Arakan. Recent investigations by the United Nation Human Rights organization have concluded sufficient evidence of the hatred and religious intolerance by "ultra-nationalist Buddhists" and excesses by security forces against Rohingyas in Myanmar. They have also opined that Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya community tantamount to ethnic cleansing and the country indeed wants to expel its Rohingya population.
Early History and Migration to Arakan
Rohingya Muslims are largely concentrated in the coastal Southeast Arakan (now Rakhine state). The early authenticated history of the Arakan region is not well documented but till about the tenth century AD it was possibly under the Indian dynasties with demography similar to Bengal. Situated at the coastline of the Bay of Bengal, Arakan was a centre of maritime trade between Burma and rest of the world and Arab merchants had been visiting there since the third century under the Mauryan Empire. Apparently, Arab influence around eighth century increased and some of them married local women and settled in Arakan. Besides, they also persuaded or forced some locals to convert to Islam.
Around ninth century, the Rakhines, one of the tribes of Burmese origin, started large scale migration to Arakan region and they established several cities and own rule in the valley around the Lemro River. Some historical accounts suggest the Rakhine rulers seeking help and refuse in the neighbouring Bengal in the event of Burmese invasions particularly in the early fifteenth century. The earliest evidence of Bengali Muslims’ settlement in Arakan dates back to a Buddhist ruler Min Saw Mon (1430-34) who remained in a long exile in Bengal and regained control of his Arakanese kingdom in 1430 with the military assistance of the Bengal Sultanate. Many Bengali Muslims who accompanied the Arakan king during this venture settled in the region. Muslim population increased in the seventeenth century onwards with many of them brought as slaves by the Arakanese raiders and Portuguese settlers from Bengal.
There is another account of Mughal Prince Shah Shuja, the then governor of Bengal, taking asylum in Arakan along with his entourage after his brother Aurangjeb defeated him in 1660 but was soon betrayed by the Arakanese king. Later Shaista Khan, Bengal governor, under the orders of Emperor Aurangjeb invaded and controlled large part of the northern Arakan facilitating migration and settlement of a large Muslim population in the conquered region. The region had several conflicts and persecution of the communities during the next 200 years till finally British occupied and retained it as a part of the extended Bengal presidency.
British policy encouraged Bengali inhabitants from the adjacent regions to migrate as farm labourers into the then lightly populated and fertile valleys of Arakan under the Bengal Presidency. At that time there was neither any restrictions on migration between the regions nor there was any international boundary between Bengal and Arakan. Accordingly, thousands of Bengalis, mostly Muslims, from the Chittagong area of Bengal migrated and settled in Arakan during that time. The migration was aimed by the British in nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mainly due to the cheap labour in British India to work in paddy fields. Though en masse migration took place from the Chittagong region of Bengal, Indians from the other parts too are believed to have gone to Arakan in search of work and better opportunities those days. According to some British historians, the Muslims long settled in Arakan started calling themselves as Rooinga (natives of Arakan) that assumed the colloquial nickname Rohingya at some point of time. Historians believe that the majority of Rohingya arrived in Arakan (now Rakhine) with the British colonialists in nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Though the cheap labour from Bengal and elsewhere in Arakan boosted the colonial economy, it also led to social and cultural tensions and conflicts because the local Arakanese (mostly Buddhists) strongly resented resources sharing by the alien immigrants. According to historian Clive J. Christie, "The issue became a focus for grass-roots Burmese nationalism, and in the years 1930-31 there were serious anti-Indian disturbances in Lower Burma, while 1938 saw riots specifically directed against the Indian Muslim community.” In later years, the situation kept deteriorating with the assertion of the growing Burmese nationalism and Rohingya too claiming their rightful place in the region for the respectable living and religious freedom.
The Rohingya Insurgency
Influx of the Rohingya immigrants from Myanmar to the neighbouring countries including India is the consequence of the long on-going insurgency in the state of Rakhine, Myanmar which was formerly known as Arakan, Burma. While there is a long history of Rohingya Muslims migration to Myanmar and their social tension with the local Buddhist population, the acute antagonism between them dates back to the second world war when Rohingya Muslims sided with the British troops perhaps on the understanding of a separate Muslim state in return and fought against the Rakhine Buddhists who were allied with Japanese forces.
Burma was colonized by British in nineteenth century; it was granted the status of an administered colony of Britain in April 1937 and finally it became an independent republic in January 1948. However, unlike the other British colonies, Burma did not join Common Wealth. The newly formed union government of Burma with the predominantly Buddhist population did not grant citizenship. From then onwards and till about early 1960s, Rohingya mujahedeen groups fought against the Burmese government and forces to either gain autonomy of the Rahkhine state (then northern Arakan) or secede so as to join East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The government too dealt with them applying severe force and the mujahedeen movement gradually lost its support and momentum, majority of them surrendering before the authorities.
In early 1970s, an erstwhile mujahedeen leader Zaffar Kawal formed the Rohingya Liberation Party (RLP) and started mobilising former mujahedeen factions. Based in the forests of Buthidaung, and armed with largely smuggled weapons from Bangladesh, their strength gradually reached to approximately five hundred fighters indulging in guerrilla war against the state. In July 1974, a massive operation was undertaken by the Myanmar army against RLP, as a result of which many militants were killed and the remaining fled to Bangladesh. Another leader of RLP, Jafar Habib launched a new Rohingya Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1974 and continued the war against Burmese government till the Myanmar army carried out another massive military operation (King Dragon) that led to killing of several extremists and thousands of Rohingyas fleeing to take refuse in Bangladesh.
This was, however, not the end of insurgency, as the more radicalised elements among Rohingya Muslims came together to constitute Rohingya Solidarity Organisation (RSO) in 1982 led by one Muhammad Yunus. This group made a common cause with other Islamic militant groups on religious ground and mustered support from many of based in South and East Asia such as Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen of Jammu and Kashmir (India), Hizb-e-Islami of Afghanistan, Angkatan Belia Islam sa-Malaysia and the Islamic Youth Organisation of Malaysia in Malaysia. This group became the most influential and deadly militant organisation against the Myanmar government and things further deteriorated when the Burmese Citizenship Law was introduced in October 1982 denying citizenship to the most of the Muslim minorities. The RSO operatives, by early nineties, were well equipped with deadly weapons like light machine-guns, AK-47 Assault Rifles, rocket launchers, hand grenades, claymore mines and explosives in their fight against the Myanmar government. Towards the end of 1991, the Myanmar Armed Forces carried out another major offensive operation against the insurgents in the northern Rakhine along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. While several militants were killed or crossed the border, this operation also forced mass exodus of civilians, mostly Rohingya Muslims in the neighbouring countries - mainly Bangladesh.
The events of the following decades suggest that Rohingya insurgents kept grouping and regrouping under various outfit names to carry on their insurgency and terror attacks against the Myanmar government. In the recent years, some videotapes and incriminating documents have been found suggesting the link of Rohingya militant recruits with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ISI. Such organisation are believed to have lured young and poor Rohingya men to travel to Pakistan where they would be enlisted on a monthly sum, trained and brain-washed before giving missions of suicide attack on the assurance of compensation to their families if killed in the holy war.
Current Crisis and Rohingya Exodus
It is evident from the preceding account that there is a long history of Rohingya insurgency and Myanmar security forces’ reprisal and crackdown to avenge sabotage and violence caused by the former but the current crisis leading to mass exodus of refugees and worldwide attention of the international community dates back to October 2016. According to the Myanmar state agencies, armed insurgent groups attacked many Rakhine state police posts leading to the death of nine police personnel and organised loot of weapons and ammunition. The responsibility of the strike was taken by a previously unknown insurgent group namely Harakah al-Yaqin. Then in August last, Rohingya Arakan Salvation Army (RASA) comprising of several hundred armed militants allegdly attacked several security posts and other minorities in villages in Rakhine state killing a large number of security and civilian personnel.
Consequently, a retaliatory crackdown by the Myanmar army was undertaken to search, identify and detain/eliminate insurgents among the Rohingya concentration areas in the villages of the northern Rakhine state. In the initial operation, dozens of people were killed and a large number of suspects were detained. As the operation continued, the number of causalities increased as also the allegations against the Myanmar army of the instances of arbitrary arrest, extrajudicial killings, gang rapes, brutalities on civilians and looting of property. According to media reports, hundreds of Rohingya people were killed by December 2016 and thousands fled Myanmar to take shelter in the neighbouring areas. The Myanmar army continued this operation in 2017 too leading to numerous instances of military – insurgents’ clashes and civilian tragedies. The Myanmar government and UN Human Rights Rapporteur have conflicting versions of violence and resultant casualties, the former with low counts of casualties while the latter put it in thousands.
For instance, in one such crackdown recently the media and the human rights groups reported intense human rights violations by the Myanmar military using helicopters to shoot and kill the civilians after some villagers joined the insurgents in an ambush killing a senior army officer. On the other hand, the Myanmar army conceded the use of helicopters mounted with guns to disperse the violent crowd but denied shootings of any civilians. People fleeing Myanmar and seeking refuse elsewhere narrate gruesome events and gory details of excesses caused by the army but their version remains unverified because of the restrictions imposed by the government in troubled areas. In August 2017 too, reportedly there have been several instances of Rohingya militants attacking the government army and establishment and, in turn, a fresh crack down by the government forces on the Rohingya civilian population leading to a large scale killing, arson and loot with allegations and counter-allegation from both sides.
Consequent to the military reprisals and clearance drive, estimated four lakh Rohingya people have fled or driven out of Myanmar as of September 2017, although different sources talk of different figures. Majority of Rohingya are fleeing to Bangladesh, while others to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand taking sea routes. Reportedly Rohingyas reach to various destinations in India after initially entering through the states bordering Bangladesh with the nexus of agents and touts.
Whenever any military or police crackdown occurs on any unruly and rebellious group, usually it's heat is simultaneously felt on their alleged or suspected sympathisers rendering them cooperation in terms of shelter, food, informationon and other logistic support. It is unfortunate because several innocent souls mainly women and children suffer but this collateral damage is imminent when people resort to violent means to address a cause however genuine it may be.
Rohingya Dimension in India
India has officially not accepted Rohingya refugees in the country, however it is gathered that over 40,000 Rohingya immigrants have already illegally entered in the Indian territory through porous borders of Assam and West Bengal and living in various parts including Delhi and Jammu & Kashmir. The cause of particular concern is their presence in Jammu as the northern state is already passing through a turbulent phase. On one hand about five lakh Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of Kashmir valley few years back by the violence caused by the Muslim extremists and now a sinister design is emerging to change demography of Jammu region by importing and sheltering illegal Muslim immigrants there. Such moves are bound to cause social tensions and communal conflicts and violence in the already sensitive state.
Political parties in India are divided over the issue of the treatment of Rohingya people including grant of the refugee status. While the ruling Central Government holds them as illegal immigrants and a threat to security in the long term based on intelligence inputs as several Rohingya Muslims are believed to have radicalised and are soft targets of Pakistani ISI and the terrorist organization operating in Jammu & Kashmir, the major opposition parties favour their retention on humanitarian ground citing that every Rohingya is not an extremist. In fact, the Chief Minister of Bengal whose party largely thrives on the vote bank of Indian Muslims and Muslim immigrants of Bangladesh, only recently made a strong plea for their retention stating that all Rohingyas are not extremists. Muslim clergy and political outfits too have strongly come in support of Rohingya immigrants.
A private news channel has revealed astonishing facts of the connivance of people of the particular community in extending overt and covert support to Rohingya immigrants. Their investigation in a small ghetto of about eighty plus Rohingya families in Mewat revealed that they have not only illegally established temporary houses and hutments on the government land with the connivance of a few government official but also mustered facilities of electricity, water and other necessities. In fact, many Rohingya have managed to get even Ration and Voter identity cards, PAN cards etc. This is not a simple case of humanitarian gesture rather it poses a question of legality, breach of the laws of the land and security threat to the nation.
In fact, videos and other incriminating evidences have come to light where the marked terrorists of the UN listed terror outfits have been found to making open appeal to Rohingyas to enlist for jihadi movement. Back in 2014, Rakhine state of Myanmar was declared a key region for jihad by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nazir Hossain, an Imam in western Myanmar, was found in last August blessing the Rohingya extremists for the attack on a security post. In fact, living in an unstable and communally disturbed environment in Rakhine, Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are soft targets and prone to easy religious radicalization with so many international terrorist organizations at work to recruit jihadi elements. Only recently, a British national of Muslim origin was also arrested in Delhi who it is alleged had come to India via Bangladesh specifically to recruit Rohingyas for Al Qaeda.
Besides, disturbing news and facts are emerging from Myanmar about the barbarian acts of Rohingya Muslim extremists in respect of other minorities including Hindu and Buddhist in Rakhine state. Reportedly, the RASA comprising of hundreds of militant Rohingya Muslims while attacking several police posts in August 2017, had also unleashed terror on minority Hindu population in villages resorting to indiscriminate killing, arson, rape and abduction of young women. These are eye-witness account narrated by survivor Hindu families living in pitiable condition in camps maintained in Rakhine state. In two separate mud-graves, fourtyfive dead bodies mostly of Hindu women and children have been recovered by Myanmar army only in last few days.
Indian Position: Refugees or Illegal Immigrants
In their recent affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on 18 September 2017, the Government among other things have held that the Rohingyas are illegal immigrants in India and not refugees as claimed because they have crossed border without any legitimate papers mostly through Bangladesh with the connivance of unauthorised agents and touts. Besides, they pose a serious security threat as many of them have links with the terror organizations and Pakistani ISI. Such militant among the Rohingya community are believed to be active in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mewat and Jammu, many of them have even illegally got voter identity cards and PAN cards and some are using the ‘Hawala’ route to raise money for illegal activities. The Government’s stand is that Rohingyas shall be deported back after proper identification and completing the due process. The salient points contained in the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court are as follows:
Due to large influx of illegal immigrants from the neighbouring countries, the demographic balance in some of the bordering states has already undergone a significant change with a far reaching implications besides detrimental effects on the rights of the local populace and the country in general;
Rohingyas have entered in India without any valid travel documents illegally some from Myanmar and majority through agents and touts via Bangladesh taking the advantage of the porous border and the total number of such migrants is estimated more than fourty thousand on date;
Illegal immigration and their continued stay have serious national security ramifications and threat because many of them have links with terrorist organizations and the latter are actively campaigning for their enrolment. The Central Government has contemporaneous from security agencies inputs and other authentic material indicating linkages of some of the unauthorised Rohingya immigrants with Pakistan based terror organisations and such organisations operating in other countries;
Illegal influx of Rohingyas in the bordering Indian States in the current spell started since 2012, thereafter they have spread in other parts of the country and many of them resorting to illegal activities like mobilization of funds through hundi/hawala channels, procuring fake/fabricated Indian identity documents such as voter cards and PAN cards, and also indulging in human trafficking;
Many Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISIS, Pakistani ISI and other extremists organizations who had ulterior territorial designs in India besides fomenting internal troubles by flaring up communal and sectarian violence in various parts of the country;
Some Rohingyas with militant background have been found to be active in Delhi, Hyderabad, Jammu and Mewat, posing a serious and potential threat to the internal / national security of India.
Some radicalised Rohingya may have a serious potential for causing violence against the Buddhists living in India as its own citizen, due to their on-going tussle and tensions in Myanmar.
India being a country with large population, surplus labour force and complex social, cultural and economic structure. If the illegal immigrants too start competing for the national resources, this is bound to have adverse impact on citizens of their legitimate share in employment, housing, medical, educational and other facilities, thereby violating fundamental rights of Indian citizens apart from creating social tensions, law and order problems.
There is no doubt that Rohingyas today are a persecuted community in Myanmar and many of them have been forced to leave their traditional home land for centuries now. But then another hard fact is that many radicalised Rohingya Muslims have also been involved in insurgency and violent struggle in Myanmar for a long time seeking the autonomy or secession rather than a peaceful protest or struggle to claim their genuine civil rights. Historically, wherever a community has resorted to violent means to meet their ends, this has led to mass sufferance to innocent civilians, women and children. This has happened with Rohingya in Myanmar and this is happening in many other parts of the world.
Rohingya had largely migrated to then Arakan and now Rakhine state in Myanmar from the erstwhile Bengal sultenate of India in pre-colonial and colonial periods seeking the job opportunities and better avenues of life and their origin dates back to over a millennium in that land. Hence they cannot be left stateless now and the Government of Myanmar must consider their legitimate demands including conferment of citizenship, social security and job opportunities in the mainstream governance. On their part, Rohingya must publicly abandon insurgency and violence dropping the demand for the autonomy or secession from Myanmar and take pledge to resort to a peaceful living. The United Nations, instead of their present mechanical reactionary approach, should work in a sustained ‘cause and remedy’ mode and the influential nations should take initiative to broker peace process in Myanmar.
As for India, the opposition parties and Muslim organization must stop politicising the Rohingya issue with greedy eye on future vote bank or community expansion. The fact is that irrespective of numbers, Rohingya are illegal immigrants in India and due to their vulnerability as also presence of several terror modules in the environment, there is no reason to deny if the intelligence inputs see them as a security threat in India. Hence they need to be identified and deported back after complying the due process. Only recently, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kui has expressed willingness to take Rohingya refugees/immigrants back after verification.
Government of India have launched Operation Insaniyat as a Humanitarian gesture to Bangladesh Government to manage the huge Rohingya refugee influx. Under the operation, India is contributing free food materials, tea, blankets, mosquito nets etc. and other technical assistance for Rohingya refugees. This relief must be continued and the opposition leaders and sceptics should not see or cite this as an alibi to justify the cause of the illegal immigrants in the country. Besides, this relief should not be selective and restricted to Rohingya in Bangladesh camps; instead the Government must also extend similar helping hand to destitute families living in the camps in Myanmar (Rakhine state).