Bangladesh 1971 to Myanmar 2021 – untangling India's refugee dilemma

Source :SIFY
Last Updated: Tue, Apr 13th, 2021, 12:08:27hrs
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Officially PM Narendra Modi was in Bangladesh on March 26 to commemorate the 50th declaration of their independence. Yet the elephant in the room was the anniversary of a genocide that pushed India into its worst refugee crisis and later into a war. Coincidentally, 500 miles from where the PM was, a similar crisis has been unfolding with Myanmar’s military Junta having so far killed at least 500 civilians.

Yet, a day later, Colonel Ketan Mohite, India’s defence attaché, took part in Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day Celebrations in Naypyidaw, the same day the Army killed 100 protestors. Can you imagine Indira Gandhi sending an official to shake hands with Yahya Khan in 1971?

This was following a clear policy of Junta-appeasement by the centre. On March 10, the Home Ministry had sent a letter to the chief secretaries of Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh who share 1623 Kms of unfenced border with Myanmar reminding them that they had no power to grant refugee status and that India isn’t a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 protocol.

Nonetheless, refugees had been trickling in. On March 26, Manipur issued a now rescinded circular to ‘politely’ send migrants back.

Hence it was a surprise to see that on April 2 India finally condemned the military violence in Myanmar in unequivocal terms in the United Nations. The refugees at Manipur’s borders are also being treated better by the administration.

Though few governments ever keep human rights on their radar during their foreign policy considerations (blame it on the skeletons-in-the-closet-syndrome), this flip-flop by the Indian government – unlike Indira Gandhi who wanted to go to war immediately in 1971 – is based on hard geopolitical realities and some internal hang-ups of the current Indian regime.

The BJP and RSS’ abject hatred of Muslims caused them to support the Junta crackdown of Rohingya’s even before they came to power. After they ascended Delhi’s political throne in 2014, they have been ruthless with the few Rohingya refugees in India, mainly because they are Muslim.

That is also why they love Aung San Suu Kyi since the ‘Nobel Peace Prize’ winner has defended the genocide of Rohingyas. Yet, from a geopolitical standpoint, India cannot love Suu Kyi too much for her proximity to the Chinese. She has not only met Xi Jinping but the Chinese President has repeatedly praised her, personally congratulated her on her victory in November 2020 which led to the Junta crackdown this year and the Chinese people love her.

India prefers the military Junta over her because they do not seem to overtly like the Chinese as much. Thus the Junta in power is better for India and some policy hawks claim that it means a crackdown on the NorthEast militant hiding in Myanmar jungles even though history does not support this contention.

One cannot be sure of the reasons behind India’s 2nd April UN turn but GoI would do well to remember 1971. The initial refugee at the border then was a trickle. But as the Pakistani army intensified its brutality, it turned into a downpour with an estimated 10 million refugees crossing into India.  

The crackdown inside Myanmar – though nowhere near as brutal as in 1971 – has been escalating. In 2 months over 500 protestors have been killed. As protests refuse to die, this toll will go up. There are also rumours that the military is taking the opportunity to crack down on those ethnic minorities who have been fighting the military in what has been dubbed the longest civil war in the world.

This ‘civil war’ is a headache for India. Myanmar is awash with weapons with most ethnic groups having their well-trained armies. The Karen National Liberation Army of the Karen people have around 15,000 soldiers. The Arakan Army formed in 2009 by the ethnic Rakhines, has around 7,000 soldiers. The Kachin Independence Organisation has over 13,000. There are thousands of other soldiers scattered across the country warring with the Army, some of them supported by the Chinese.

Despite this, Myanmar has seen its share of piecemeal peace that had led to an equilibrium of war-peace under which life managed to go on despite the violence around. It was this shaky equilibrium that was busted by the military attack beginning February 1. This threatens to turn a low-intensity civil war raging for seven decades, into open civil war. If we take the example of Syria where their civil war has imploded into an unprecedented refugee crisis for the Middle-East and Europe, Myanmar’s crisis may lead to a huge influx of refugees into its five neighbouring countries with India possibly facing the major brunt of it since much of the rebel groups are situated in the North of Myanmar bordering India.

India was economically ill-equipped to handle refugees in 1971. 50 year later it is in a worse state.

India is so cash strapped that on March 31st the finance ministry issued an order to steeply cut interest rates on PPF and small savings schemes. Perhaps someone reminded them that even Vladimir Putin’s mighty reign developed major cracks in 2018 after he reformed the national pension system. A day later that order was recalled but experts are pointing out that considering India’s finances, it is only a matter of time – perhaps after the state elections – that the government might implement serious interest cuts for it has few other options left to raise the money needed to run the nation.

The COVID19 crisis and the badly implemented national lockdown a year ago, has ripped through the Indian economy and a refugee crisis at its border could cause irreparable damage. Hence, though late, the criticism of the Junta crackdown in Myanmar is a step in the right direction for India and along with allies like the USA, could help put pressure on the Junta to relinquish power.  

Perhaps PM Modi can a leaf from PM Gandhi’s handling of the 1971 crisis. When Maneckshaw declined to go to war immediately against the better equipped Pakistani army, with help of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) she did two things: train the guerrillas inside East Pakistan to defend themselves and embarked on multiple global tours to put pressure on a world unconcerned about Bangladesh. She was believed because her humanitarian aid to the refugees and the burden that India bore stoically, put her on moral high ground.

India today cannot claim such an unassailable moral authority because of the current government’s fetish with islamophobia. Take the BJPs Citizen Amendment Act which is similar to the 1982 Citizenship Law made by the military Junta in Myanmar that made Rohingya’s non-citizens.

Perhaps that is also a lesson for PM Modi that at least for geopolitical reasons, it must abandon its hatred of minorities in the nation. Because though governments may not care about human rights in peacetime, during times of strife it is from the moral shoulders afforded by human rights that they fire salvos upon enemy nations. Take China. Global media had been reporting on the excesses against the Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province for years but only since the US-China conflict became overt, has human rights there finally become an issue.

How India handled the 1971 Bangladesh crisis not only declared India’s arrival on the world stage but has also shaped the nation’s destiny for the next 50 years. The current crisis in Myanmar can also be a time for reflection and change for the Modi regime. If it truly wants India’s domination on the world stage, wants to keep the threat of belligerent China at bay, it would do well to do some internal course corrections and throw off its xenophobia in the national interest.  

(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

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