For a modern nation to establish itself on foundations of primordial racial attachments is hazardous. An intent to reverse the vast human migrations of the 19th century and after, when added to this toxic mix, is a recipe for heinous crimes.
Since 1982, after one wave of mass expulsions of the Rohingya from its western Rakhine province, Myanmar has operated a three-tier citizenship law. Citizenship by birth is a narrow privilege held by eight “national” races and ethnic groups that can establish a presence in the territory of modern-day Myanmar before 1823, when the British conquest began. That formulation held the field till 1990 with all its ambiguities, when a list of 135 ethnic groups entitled to the lesser privilege than the “national” races was published.
Statelessness is by definition not a measurable condition. Official censuses carried out by national governments leave out the stateless since they are not citizens. They remain a vast inchoate mass, whose extent can only be gauged at the moment of their displacement, when they enter the statistical records of a refugee agency.
When Myanmar began another furious round of expulsions of the Rohingya in August, the initial impulse of the Bangladesh government was to stop the fleeing masses at the border. That strategy was soon reversed and three weeks into the mass expulsions, with their number touching an estimated 3,00,000, Bangladesh began the official registration of refugees.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intent to visit Myanmar on his way back from a five-nation summit in Beijing should have been a tough call for India. Aside from the moral dimension, pragmatism also suggested that Bangladesh’s increasing warmth towards India over a decade of the Sheikh Hasina regime should not be dissipated.
But Modi went ahead with his visit, banishing all inconvenient thoughts with broad strokes of the national security brush. In a joint statement released after the visit, India “condemned” the terrorist attacks reportedly carried out by Rohingya militants in Rakhine, tiptoed around the grossly disproportionate response of the Myanmarese military and applied the false salve of development upon the denial of dignity to an entire people.
Back home in India, the government was pursuing a considerably less benign agenda. Under pressure from dead-end politicians seeking populist glory, police in various States had begun identifying and rounding up Rohingya refugees. Even as Modi touched down in Myanmar, Kiren Rijiju, the Union minister of state for home, was with extreme insouciance, describing Rohingyas as illegal immigrants who would be deported.
There was no feasible destination the refugees could be sent to, since returning them to a country that did not recognise their existence would be flagrantly violative of any standard of responsible conduct. It took the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to state the obvious: that India could not “carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations”.
India reacted with offended hauteur, pointing out that enforcement of national law should not be confused with a “lack of compassion”. Meanwhile, the effort at rounding up Rohingyas had caused an upsurge of communal tension in at least two locations, Jammu and Jaipur. And the Bangladesh High Commissioner in India had furiously worked the entire spectrum of governmental authority to underline that India should not make an already fraught situation considerably worse.
The diminishing global constituency for Myanmar’s State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, would like to believe that she is acting under duress in a situation where the military retains decisive power. Nothing in her public demeanour though, has suggested lack of conviction about Rohingyas as an extraneous element to Myanmar’s national fabric, undeserving of the benediction of citizenship.
Since the ethnic cleansing of August 2016, considerably less severe than the ongoing one, Suu Kyi showed a spark of sensitivity to international opinion by appointing a special commission to identify pathways to reconciliation. Headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the commission was bound by the vocabulary of the Myanmarese state, which disallows the term “Rohingya” and refers to the stateless people as “Muslims of the west”. It was also required not to stray beyond the parameters of the 1982 citizenship act in proposing solutions.
With all that, the commission felt obliged to point out that the law was rife with “deficiencies”. It created tension “between communities” and “frustration for those who are not citizens”. It was contrary to the principles of the 2008 constitution and fell short of “international standards, including those which Myanmar has approved”.
Restricted by its terms of reference, the commission proposed reforms in the way the nationality act was implemented. Yet the figures made available by Myanmarese authorities strongly suggested that relying on their good faith would be futile: no more than a dismal 4,000 applicants had gained recognition as citizens “out of a population of around one million stateless Muslims in the state”.
Though it chooses an anodyne mode of expression, there is no escape from the central conclusion the Annan commission draws: the 1982 citizenship law has to be scrapped. For India to miss that central point at a time of regional crisis is to forget basic principles. It is part of a pattern where the democratic ethos itself is under threat from an assertion of ethno-religious privilege.