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Bangladesh first: Behind India’s changing stance on the Rohingya

  • Published at 08:56 pm May 24th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:20 pm May 25th, 2018
File photo of Rohingy refugees holding placards at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, demanding justice and their safe and dignified return to Myanmar from Bangladesh Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Considering the importance of the India factor in Bangladesh’s internal politics, India’s role in the Rohingya crisis will be under microscopic scrutiny in Bangladesh, and could decide the country’s election

During External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s recent visit to Myanmar, India categorically conveyed that it wants the “safe, secure sustainable” return of the Rohingya refugees. The statement crystallizes the Indian perspective on the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Up till now, India has been perceived as reticent to take any firm stance on the issue, and that reticence is substantially impacting India’s image as a regional leader. India’s dilly-dallying was a disappointment both in the global arena and in its neighborhood, particularly for Bangladesh. India’s recent shift arises out of its effort to reclaim its position in the region, particularly in Bangladesh. 

In her two-day state visit to Myanmar on May 10 and 11, Indian Minister of External Affairs of India Sushma Swaraj held meetings with top leaders, including Myanmar’s Foreign Minister and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Apart from bilateral issues, the situation in Rakhine state came up in her discussions. Here, Swaraj’s stress on the safe and sustainable return of the Rohingya is most important.

A close analysis of the use of the word “sustainable” suggests India is echoing similar desires to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is insisting on the safe and sustainable return of the refugees, thus urging the long-term resolution of the problem. Swaraj also reiterated India’s support to Myanmar in addressing issues in Rakhine. Further, she expressed India’s readiness to help Myanmar in implementing the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission. To facilitate the sustainable return of the Rohingya, India had signed an agreement with Myanmar in December 2017.

Bangladesh has been receiving Rohingya migrants at regular intervals since the early 1980s. However, the flow of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar increased significantly starting in August 2017; around 700,000 have crossed the border, the largest influx of refugees in recent history. 

The Rohingya crisis has been a test of India’s neighborhood diplomacy since it involved two of India’s close neighbors, Myanmar and Bangladesh. India was hesitant in taking any bold stance as it did not want to displease either neighbour.

Officially, India and Bangladesh maintained a cordial relationship, but there was a feeling of despair among the people in Bangladesh regarding India’s approach. The present move by India might have come late, but certainly it is a force multiplier. Repatriation of the Rohingya is one of the burning issues facing Bangladesh and even more so for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is up for re-election later this year. 

Considering the importance of the India factor in Bangladesh’s internal politics, India’s role in the Rohingya crisis will be under microscopic scrutiny in Bangladesh, and could decide the country’s election. It’s worth noting that Hasina is often accused by her opponents of favoring India. And in the short term, India’s upgraded stance will help to create a better atmosphere for Hasina’s scheduled visit to West Bengal later this month, where she is likely to meet Modi.

The present statement by India should not just be used to defuse sentiments in Bangladesh, however. Rather it should mark the beginning of a more active Indian stance. 

India needs to work on a long-term policy on the Rohingya issue; however, its interests need to be factored in. Resolution of the Rohingya crisis will require continuous efforts.

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee works in the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi. The views expressed here are her own. This article was published on The Diplomat and has been shortened for readability.