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India extends relief to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: History, humanitarian operation and three-way diplomacy

When I went to Kakinada last week to visit friends and learn about coastal Andhra culture, I imagined the region's historic maritime trade was all but forgotten. No student at the three colleges I spoke at had heard of the Satavahanas, who ruled coastal Andhra Pradesh at the turn of the Common Era. The priest at the Bhimeshwara Swami temple at Draksharamam narrated fantastic tales of valour from mythology. The Satavahanas, who?

They were the greatest Indian rulers of their time. History records that, during Satavahana rule, Andhra Pradesh was well-connected to the wider world. Roman coins found in the region show how India enjoyed a thriving international trade. All this is forgotten.

File image of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Reuters

File image of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Reuters

One encounter raised my curiosity about a forgotten history. It was the meeting with the collector of East Godavari district, Kartikeya Misra. He was to yield information that connects history to the present, domestic politics to foreign affairs, and memory to actual living. How would a district collector, harangued by the daily missteps around him, do that?

Misra told me about the call, on 22 September, 2017, from the Ministry of External Affairs, for "time-bound and urgent" steps to conduct a humanitarian relief operation. "The government gives top priority to this, please ensure that it is done properly," he was asked.

The district administration was to help National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED) with procurement, packaging and loading of relief materials for Rohingya refugees in Chittagong. "Within forty-eight hours, the material was sourced, packed in gunny bags with a message of friendship in Bangla from the Government of India, and transported on INS Gharial to Chittagong on 25 September," Misra said.

By showing quick reflexes, Misra and his team had rejuvenated the past. The significance of the shipment was only to be felt later. Diplomatic tempers in Bangladesh and even Myanmar had been calmed. With deadly diseases hitting the refugee camps, the Rohingya issue cries aloud for resolution. What better than a humanitarian response?

Who says that India does little for connectivity with the nations to the east? This act, concerning two important neighbours, was not some Kabuki clothed in fake news. For Bangladesh, it was an act of solidarity, and for Myanmar, it deflected attention from the criticism of its handling of the Rohingya issue.

By offering solace to the refugees, India took some of the moral burdens off Myanmar's shoulders. India earned points in Bangladesh while maintaining its strategic interests in Myanmar. This was smart diplomacy that addressed all the three nations' interests. It was an example of liberal internationalism, never mind that humanitarian relief is the least storied of India's multiple responses to the Rohingya crisis.

India's domestic constituency has barely awakened to the import of such acts. Even if the Kakinada shipment reinforces our historic links to the east, and brings back memories of our seafaring, local perceptions remain fuzzy.

With this operation, Kakinada connects the local with the regional, reinforcing our interconnected destiny. Kakinada also contributes to India's diplomatic outreach. Among all I spoke to, only the district collector understood this.

Connecting local produce to humanitarian instincts, and the state government to the central government was the actual play in this operation. After it was over, the feeling gained ground that coastal states should be pivots of India's new diplomacy. Cooperative federalism is good for India's cohesion.

Distress is cruel, without borders. It cuts open land masses and oceans. Humans are wired to compete and play power games, but they are capable of also showing community spirit. Who would think that a city like Kakinada would play such a humanitarian role?

Thus, connectivity is not just an aspiration. It is easy to criticise the government for not backing up promises with action. But the Ministry of External Affairs understands the importance of states to its diplomatic outreach. The creation of its States Division was no accident.

Recall India's prompt humanitarian response to the tsunami of 2004 and the fortitude of the resilient Tamil Nadu populace that faced it. What happens in Bangladesh or Myanmar impacts India, but what happens in Kakinada also affects the fate of humans in Chittagong and the calculus of the neighbouring governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The author is a retired ambassador and vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society.


Updated Date: Jan 10, 2018 11:31 AM

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