It has been observed that one important pillar of Modi’s foreign policy geo-economics is the policy of “neighbourhood-first,” (read: improving relations with the immediate neighbours, as peace in South Asia is essential for realising the development agenda). But India’s handling of the current Rohingya refugee crisis is putting a huge question mark on that policy.
For now, Delhi’s stance is strikingly different from the stance it had taken earlier. India could have taken a stronger position on this by initiating a dialogue between Myanmar and Bangladesh to resolve the ongoing crisis, but instead, it is pursuing its Act East policy (read: Strengthening business ties with ASEAN members and considering Naypyidaw as Delhi’s gateway to Southeast Asia).
In addition, Delhi wants Naypyidaw to act against certain non-state actors moving out of the north-east.
Big player, big responsibilities
India has always seen itself as a big player in the region of South Asia but it has also long wanted to be seen as a global superpower and coveted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
It is, therefore, upset about its diminishing influence as China exerts itself in a region that India considers its own turf, its neighbourhood.
But if you are going to call this your neighbourhood and want to be a big player in it, then you must also be willing and prepared to take charge when duty calls.
This is a massive humanitarian crisis and India will be watched very carefully for how it handles this
The Rohingya crisis is, then, a highly critical issue for India: It is a humanitarian crisis going on in its own neighbourhood and, as the big player, India, will be looked at to shoulder some of the burden.
These refugees are basically India’s neighbours, in desperate need of help, spilling over from a country that India has warm and friendly ties with.
India should formulate a refugee law which will help with transparency and oversight of the refugee population. The point is, if India has a refugee law that requires systematically documenting and registering the refugees as they come in, in the long run, it will have a way of controlling them.
Without such a system in place, things could get chaotic because a porous border and economic reality make a movement of population inevitable. Therefore, why not prepare better for it with a proper refugee law?
Can India look the other way?
India has a history of helping people, including two great migrations which India handled in a successful manner. In 1971, it accommodated 10 million Bangladeshis fleeing war, but they did not stay back afterwards.
So, the argument that people come only to stay is not necessarily true. When peace was restored in their own country, most Bangladeshis went back.
Secondly, the Tamilians from the Sri-Lankan migration were hosted in Tamil-Nadu for a long time.
And of course, India is currently hosting the largest troupe of Tibetans.
The point I am making here is that Delhi needs a targeted approach.
Delhi should work with Dhaka, provide us with assistance, and in the meantime, ratchet-up international pressure on Myanmar.
But once a refugee is already in India, it should take care of them and only send them back when conditions in Myanmar allow it.
Although many people in India may be thinking that every Rohingya is a terrorist and the influx of people coming in is a massive security threat for them, I can assure you that the international community is not looking at it like that, and neither is it true.
So, to turn them away would make India look really bad in the eyes of the international community.
The international community sees it as one of the worst humanitarian crises outside of Syria in a long time. As of now, 500,000 people have fled their homes in four weeks. You don’t get such a coordinated exodus without some very strong push-out factors. And satellite imagery shows that 240 villages in Rakhine state have been burned to the ground.
This is a massive humanitarian crisis and India will be watched very carefully for how it handles this.
Sharif Hasan is currently working as a field researcher on behalf of Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS), University of Dhaka.