Mohammad Salimullah’s life has come under the spotlight in the most unpleasant and unwanted circumstances. A Rohingya man who fled state-orchestrated persecution and violence in Myanmar, today he speaks against the collective demonization of an estimated 40,000 other Rohingya like himself in India and for their rights. Salimullah is a co-petitioner in a case at India’s Supreme Court, opposing the Indian government’s proposal to identify and collectively expel all Rohingya people in the country. The Indian government has described these people, many of whom have been recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as “illegal immigrants” and as a threat to national security. This paranoia has not only led to the smearing of Rohingya as “terrorists” but risks stripping their lives of dignity and safety. When it comes to India’s legal and moral obligations, the government looks the other way, and its actions feed into the rising tide of Islamophobia in the country.
Salimullah writes in his petition of the everyday brutality inflicted on Rohingya people by the Myanmar Army. And this he contrasts with the hospitality he says was extended by Indians “who have been treating the Rohingya Muslim community and its members with compassion and consideration (whenever they are in India).” Despite not being a state party to the UN Refugee Convention, India has often provided refuge for people in need — be it the Tibetans, the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Afghans, or people feeling violence from what was East Pakistan in 1971 or the Chakmas. Though there have been some instances of discrimination and violence against refugees, many have managed to find safe refuge in India.
But India’s current position on refugee rights appears to be a mixture of fear, bias and hatred. It welcomes Hindu refugees from India’s neighbouring countries, but shuts the door on Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim,
in the name of national security.
This August, after attacks by a Rohingya armed group on dozens of security forces posts, Myanmar’s security forces have engaged in an unlawful and disproportionate campaign of violence against the Rohingya, which has led 4,36,000 of them to flee to Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein has said, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country.”
Amnesty International has documented evidence of a mass-scale scorched earth campaign of what can be described as ethnic cleansing, with the Rohingya targeted for their ethnicity and religion. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity that include murder and forcible deportation of civilians. And if India expels Rohingya refugees, they would almost certainly face the risk of similar abuses. This is why Amnesty International India has launched a campaign to defend the rights of the Rohingya people, called ‘I Welcome Rohingya Refugees’.
At the Supreme Court, the Indian government maintains that the principle of non-refoulement — a fundamental principle of international law that prohibits countries from sending back refugees to a country where their life or well-being would be at risk — is not binding on it since it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. That interpretation is incorrect. The principle of non-refoulement is a part of customary international law, which is binding on all countries, regardless of whether they have signed the UN Convention. If India expels Rohingya people, it would therefore go against its obligations under customary international law. If there are concerns about security, then the government must investigate individual suspects, and not seek to punish an entire community.
Two of India’s north-eastern states, Assam and Manipur, have issued circulars saying that the police should ‘push back” Rohingya who try to enter India, and there are reports that this is already taking place in the state of Tripura.
India should listen to Salimullah and stop trying to expel Rohingya to Myanmar or prevent them from coming to India. This is the only position that would be lawful, moral, and in tune with India’s tradition of welcoming refugees.
(Arijit Sen works for Amnesty International India)