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India's response to the Rohingya crisis is driven by an 'un-fine' balance

Realist response has taken an upper-hand over a humanitarian response

Avinash Paliwal 

Rohingya, Rohingya Muslims, Rohinya refugees
Ethnic Rohingya carry an elderly man and walk through rice fields after crossing over to the Bangladesh side of the border near Cox's Bazar's Teknaf area. Photo: AP | PTI

is witnessing a military crackdown against the ethnic community. Facing extreme violence, hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas have fled from their homes in It is estimated that more  than 300,000 have entered Even as has been stretched in providing relief to these refugees, the government and activists in India have been pushing the Indian government to admit refugees in India. The Indian government for its part has sent relief assistance to for these refugees but has not agreed to accept more refugees in India. What is driving the Indian response to this crisis? What are the factors that make this a complex decision? The author analyses in this Business Standard Special.

‘India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in and the outflow of refugees from that region’, began a recent statement by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) of India. The rest of this short 166-word note focused on strongly condemning the ‘terrorist attacks on security forces’, reminded us of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent aid commitment to the strife torn region, and urged the powers that be in to handle the situation with ‘maturity’, focus on the welfare of both civilians and security forces, and restore normalcy ‘expeditiously’. Soon after, New Delhi launched Operation Insaniyat offering aid to refugees pouring into Both the statement and the aid make for fitting examples of how India balances competing domestic and advocacies and priorities. As this article demonstrates, torn between balancing its legacy of humanitarianism and protecting its material national interests, India has – in simultaneity – communicated its displeasure at the situation to Myanmar, stepped up support for the persecuted minority in Bangladesh, and assured Naypyitaw of continuous political, economic and military support. That this balance has emerged more from default reactions to regional pressures (e.g. Dhaka’s anger over New Delhi’s inaction) instead of intellectual design, and the fact that it is unlikely to stem Tatmadaw operations makes for a successful, yet ‘un-fine’ balance.

Realism versus Humanitarianism 

The policy debate in India on the situation in Rakhine State remains deeply divided. One strand argues that geopolitical and national security concerns such as countering Chinese dominance in Myanmar, developing economic connectivity to ASEAN markets, and tackling complicated insurgencies in Northeast requires India to be sensitive towards Naypyitaw. Unhinging support for Aung San Suu Kyi and proactive distancing from the ‘hypocritical’ criticism she is receiving from international quarters is part of this approach. At the steep end of this argument are concerns over radicalization of the part of 40,000 Rohingyas (in India), along religious lines not just in and Bangladesh, but also in India. Intelligence agencies have warned of a ‘serious emerging threat’ as the Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) seeks to benefit from the situation. If anything, the argument goes, Rohingyas should be deported from India as they are here illegally. Minister-of-State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju’s controversial statement on the issue has come to typify this line of thought. 

The other strand argues that India should take the baton in criticizing what the UN has termed a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing’. In Myanmar, Rohingyas are widely viewed as Bengali-speaking illegal Muslim settlers whose natural home is contemporary This view permeates across Myanmar’s political spectrum, even if there is diversity of opinion on how to treat them. For instance, the more xenophobic, extremist Buddhist monks argue that the Rohingyas are deserving of the Tatmadaw’s disproportionately violent response to a recent attack by the newly formed Arakan Salvation Army (ARSA). According to some in New Delhi, India, a country which fought a war with Pakistan in 1971 primarily driven by the refugee crisis (but not just), still houses Tibetans persecuted in China, sheltered beleaguered Sri Lankan Tamils, eased entry for war-weary Afghans, and critically, opened its doors for dissidents from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds during the 1988 crackdown by the same Tatmadaw, must uphold its secular and humanitarian credential by calling a spade, a spade. Not criticizing Suu Kyi’s bewildering silence and military’s brutal crackdown in Rakhine, and hinting towards deporting the few scattered Rohingyas living in squalid conditions is not what India stands for. Even from a security perspective, it makes sense to pressure for an immediate halt of violence and help developing mechanisms for social reconciliation and dialogue in  

Domestic Policy Drivers

Both these advocacies compete for influence on India’s policy. Then why does the former seem to have an upper hand? Surely, Chinese influence in has been an ongoing concern since 1962 when not only was India’s conflict with China escalated to open warfare, but also helplessly witnessed the rise of a xenophobic regime in Rangoon that persecuted and drove out ethnic Indians. The situation in Northeast is perhaps much less threatening today than it has been at any point since independence. India is already connected to ASEAN markets via sea-routes even if land-routes promise a fillip in trade and connectivity; and threats of Islamist radicalization are equally correlated to communal harmony within India and Bangladesh, as much in A more accurate explanation, then of why advocates of ‘realism’ seem to dominate policy lies in the interplay between the domestic, regional, and global drivers of India’s policy. 

Domestically, protests against Rohingyas, who are viewed as ‘criminals’ and/or ‘potential terrorists’ in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region feeds into national-level threat perceptions and political calculus. Though many support the presence of Rohingyas in Jammu, and the issue is less pronounced in Delhi and Hyderabad, the volatile security situation in Kashmir adds fuel to such anxieties. Attribution of the 2013 Bodh Gaya blasts to collaboration between militant Rohingyas, the LeT, and Pakistani intelligence offers evidential pedigree to this narrative. The rise of Hindu nationalism across India ensures limited sympathy for the Rohingyas, while encouraging affinity for and connections with Buddhist nationalism in The two BJP-run states in northeast, Assam and Manipur’s directive to state security forces to ‘push back’ Rohingyas entering India signals how the ruling party views the situation. 

In Nagaland, the heavily cloaked negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), NSCN-IM, which have been punctuated by attacks from rival Naga factions operating from the other side of the border compounds the need to proactively court the Tatmadaw. That this bilateral diplomacy may not translate into operational effectiveness is a different matter. The Tatmadaw does not have the capacity to undertake complex operations far from its ‘operational core’ (it is fighting multiple low-level insurgencies against the Karens, the Kachins, and the Wa). And when it does swing into action, the chances of compromised operational intelligence regarding India-centric rebels remains high due to toxic levels of corruption among its soldiery. Yet, its better to have them on board than not. Such domestic drivers strengthen the realist argument over the humanitarian one. 

Global and Regional Drivers

Globally, the lack of action despite high-decibel criticism of further undermines the humanitarian argument within India. Most Western and Islamic countries, despite castigating Suu Kyi, have done nothing to help. Given the emotionally charged debates around migration in these countries, especially in the wake of the wars in Syria and Iraq as well as the occurring of Brexit and Donald Trump, it is unlikely they will take practical steps to help the In October 2016, for instance, the US lifted most sanctions aimed at the Tatmadaw. The UK continues to offer training to Tatmadaw officers. Germany and Austria both gave a red-carpet welcome to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in early 2017 – knowing well that he is perhaps the only person who can bring the situation under control (but won’t). Even Southeast Asian countries did little more than raise concerns. Thus, popular rage against Suu Kyi, though correct and important, has been devoid of diplomatic mettle. If anything, she has become a convenient scapegoat for a decision that is not hers, in which she has little say, and speaking on which will further erode the few gains made since its opening in 2011. If anything, international opprobrium has only strengthened her position as a politician in Myanmar, and earned her sympathy from even within the Tatmadaw

In contrast to the domestic and global drivers, the key regional driver i.e. China, ironically, complicates the realist argument in favour of the humanitarian one. Having just emerged from the Doklam standoff, Indian security planners are likely to be aware of the fact that the Myanmar-India-China tri-junction in Arunachal Pradesh, stretching from Diphu Pass to Talu Pass is contested territory and important to secure east Assam. In 1967, when India and Burma formalized their border, the latter party simply gave up its claims on that 5-mile stretch for the two giants to resolve the issue bilaterally (which never happened). India-relations are nothing like what New Delhi has with Thimphu, but any military standoff in this sector will require modicum support from That such support is also needed for India’s Act East policy to succeed is common sense. Muddying the waters, then, is India’s other neighbour – Witnessing intense polarization between the Islamists and Sheikh Hasina loyalists on one hand, and being unable to cope with pressures generated by a sudden influx of refugees, Dhaka has been critical of India’s stance on the issue. Had India not issued the statement or launched Op Insaniyat, Beijing would have been the next port-of-call for Dhaka. 

That geopolitics forced a shift in India’s response towards the situation in Rakhine State – when the driving force could have emerged from a different, competing, logic rooted in principle – makes for an unsatisfactory but somewhat successful ‘un-fine’ balance.
Avinash Paliwal is Lecturer in Diplomacy and Public Policy at SOAS University of London. He tweets as @PaliwalAvi

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Mon, September 18 2017. 10:00 IST