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Why India is attacking the rights of Rohingya refugees

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Rohingya refugees carry their belongings as they leave a Rohingya refugee camp in Jammu on March 7, 2021 (Rakesh Bakshi AFP)

Over the past three decades, the borders of the concept and practice of security have expanded dramatically – and vaguely, inasmuch as anything and everything now embodies the potential to be constructed as a security threat.

There has been intense interest in the movement of people and the nature of security techniques that seek to contain or steer them. As a result, migration has been increasingly articulated in terms of general insecurity, and human mobility has been increasingly constructed as a threat.

This threat construction gained fresh momentum after the launch of the “war on terror”, which ushered in a new age of global Islamophobia. Muslim migrants became the new threat around which the security discourse revolved, constituted as “culpable” or “threatening” subjects.

Over the past decade in India, especially after the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, an (in)security discourse has effectively led to the othering of the minority Muslim community. This othering did not start with the BJP, but rather has its roots in British colonialism. However, this historical process has overtly intensified during the past decade under BJP rule.

This prejudicial othering of Muslims has been institutionalised through active entanglements with the discourse and practice of “national security”. The BJP has consistently used propaganda to project Muslims as an internal enemy of Hindus, thus effectively turning them into a dangerous other.

Expanding on this discourse, the BJP also advocates for a defence of the ethno-national identity, Hindu, against the threat of “foreign invasion” by Muslim migrants. Within this background, the Rohingya have been at the receiving end of state violence in myriad ways.

The Rohingya are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group indigenous to Rakhine State on the western coast of Myanmar. According to researcher Naved Bakali, “the co-dependent relationship between private and structural Islamophobia facilitated a pathological trajectory” that resulted in the 2017 Rohingya genocide.

Anti-Muslim racism

The securitisation of migration must be discussed in parallel with the securitisation of Muslims to aid a better understanding of the status and experiences of the Rohingya in India. For the Rohingya, an intersection of both of these group identities – migrant and Muslim – shapes their experiences.

This discussion must take place within the growing trend of anti-Muslim racism, and the equally growing discourse of national security in India. For the Rohingya refugees residing in India, the persecution they faced in Myanmar continues in their supposed “safe haven”.

Rohingya refugees are dependent on the humanitarianism of the courts and the state, instead of a structural rights regime

Indeed, this persecution in India was institutionalised by the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which fast-tracked citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries who arrived in India before 2015 – but excluded Muslims. It also excluded the Rohingya from Myanmar; they are thus technically categorised as “illegal migrants”.

This institutionalised Islamophobia empowers the government to detain Rohingya refugees until they are deported back to Myanmar. This form of constitutional othering has serious consequences for the 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India living under a highly securitised environment, with no rights to access healthcare, housing, education and other government supports.

During the early phases of the Covid-19 pandemic, Rohingya refugees struggled to access vaccinations because of a lack of documentation. Rohingya women are not provided with prenatal and postnatal care, and their children face barriers to education. With no documentation, it is also difficult to find jobs, relegating the Rohingya to the precarious informal sector, where work can also be tough to secure. Pertinently, Rohingyas have also lost jobs due to the government narrative that they are a “security threat”.

Rights diminished

India is not a party to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has been working in India since 1981, the process is precarious and uncertain, and there is no national legislation on refugees.

This has meant that Rohingya refugees are dependent on the humanitarianism of the courts and the state, instead of a structural rights regime. The Indian state has not put forward an official rationale for not ratifying the refugee convention and protocol, but an analysis of informal statements suggests that one of the reasons is the notion that these provisions do not address larger issues relating to “security”, and could thus be invoked by terrorists.

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In this way, India has enmeshed its “national security” discourse with its approach to the refugee question.

In 2017, the Indian government alleged that some Rohingyas in the country had active ties with “terror organisations”, such as the Islamic State. The country began registering and monitoring Rohingyas in India, with plans to deport them.

Although Indian courts have held that the principle of non-refoulement is encompassed in the country’s constitution, the Supreme Court in 2021 authorised the deportation of more than 150 Rohingyas detained in Jammu after the government argued it was necessary on national security grounds.

In effect, this securitisation is diminishing the rights of Rohingya refugees as guaranteed to them under international human rights frameworks, such as the right of non-refoulement, notwithstanding India’s status with regards to UN conventions.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Misbah Haqani is a global public health researcher. Her work lies at the intersection of health, subjectivity, precarity, and politicisation.

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