India's stand on Rohingya crisis laudable: Three-pronged policy covers security, humanitarian concerns

Centre's affidavit at the Supreme Court on Monday on the issue of deportation of Rohingya Muslims from India puts to rest some needless confusion. The NDA government has expectedly taken a stringent stand. According to media reports, Centre has told the apex court that there are enough intelligence inputs to consider the illegal immigrants as "a serious security threat to the country", pointing out that the issue has become a witches' brew of terrorism and Pan-Islamic assertiveness with Pakistan's ISI and Islamic State operatives thrown into the mix.

There is no point denying the massive humanitarian crisis that stares at us. As a responsible state, a major player in Asia and an ascendant power, India must shoulder its quota of responsibility.

But as this writer has argued variously to define a multi-layered crisis solely through the prism of human rights would be a cardinal error that may eventually destabilize the entire region.

Rohingya refugees at a camp for the refugees in New Delhi, India. AP

Rohingya refugees at a camp for the refugees in New Delhi, India. AP

We need only to look at what's happening at the Marawi region of Philippines where the Islamic State, after suffering territorial reverses in Iraq and Syria, have owned a local insurgency movement and is trying to create a southeast-Asian base. The Rodrigo Duterte government, with some aid from the US and Australia, is fighting a "ferocious street to street combat" to expel the terrorists from the city of Marawi.

The violence has already displaced nearly 250,000 in southern Philippines. Over 400 people, including security forces, terrorists and civilians have been killed. The situation has forced a top US military commander to sound an alert about Islamic State's growing footprints in Asia. According to admiral Harry Harris, "Marawi is a wake-up call for every nation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific… We must stop (IS) at the front end and not at the back end where the threat can become even more dangerous," he was quoted by SBS News, as saying recently in Brisbane.

Amid this cauldron in Philippines, global jihadist attention is now increasingly focusing on Myanmar as the Rohingya crisis threatens to spiral into the latest rallying point for a pan-Islamic uprising. India must be very careful in treading these waters, and its policy must be based on sound strategic logic.
While trying to solve a humanitarian crisis, New Delhi must remember that Rohingya policy must be rooted in defence concerns and driven by careful diplomacy, realpolitik and human touch — not moral sermons from western powers and United Nations who have no skin in the game.

The contours of India's policy on what could be Indo-Asia-Pacific region's biggest security nightmare are also becoming clearer, and it appears that the Narendra Modi government has taken a three-pronged approach with focus on security, realpolitik and sensitivity. Let us take a look at each aspects.

Security

The Centre's submission in Supreme Court on Monday is the clearest indication that it does not wish to compromise on national security. It promised to share evidence with the Court that terrorist elements among the Rohingyas are active in Delhi, Hyderabad, Mewar and Jammu. The Centre's contention is that touts operating on India's eastern border are arranging identity papers for the illegal immigrants, while some Rohingya Muslims are "using the 'hawala' route to raise money for illegal activities", according to a report in The Times of India. The report also mentions that the Centre has asked the court not to interfere on deportation of Rohingyas since it is a policy issue and falls within the executive domain.

This is an important point. Deportation of Rohingya Muslims have become a political issue in India and is being played out on predictable lines. Casting the debate within majority-minority framework might serve political purposes but we may have to pay a heavy price for the myopia.

In February 2013, SD Pradhan, who has served as chairman of India's Joint Intelligence Committee, had pointed out that Pakistan-based terrorist groups are slowly creating a bastion in Mynmar's Rakhine state to open another front against India.

To quote from his piece in The Times of India, "Rohingyas are not only in Myanmar but are also present in Bangladesh and India. The growing radicalisation of Rohingyas and emergence of new terrorist groups linked to Pakistan-based terrorists outfits do not bode well for Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. The important aspect is the role of ISI in actively guiding and assisting these groups to recruit and train Rohingyas for terrorist activities. Last year (2012) two terrorists (Noor-ul-Amin and Ali Ahmed aka Abu Jibral) were arrested in Bangladesh, who confirmed ISI’s support in training and financial assistance to Rohingyas."

It is clear that Indian intelligence services were alert to this danger at least since the last five years. But there is more. Myanmar media alerts us about ISI's deep involvement in fuelling the insurgency crisis in Rakhine state.

Quoting Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence sources, Myanmar's Mizzima has reported that "three long duration calls" between Rohingyas and Pakistan's ISI were traced to Hafiz Tohar, military wing chief of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) on 23rd and 24th August just before Rohingya insurgents had launched a pre-dawn attack on Myanmar's security forces, triggering the latest round of violence.

Tohar, founder of Aqa Mul Mujahideen (a Myanmar-based terrorist outfit) received training in Pakistan from Hafiz Saeed's Lashkar-e-Toiba after being recruited by Abdul Qadoos Burmi, the chief of Harkat ul Jihad al Islami -Arakan (HUJI-A). AMM had apparently merged with ARSA. The report quotes further from Bangladeshi media to point out that an ISI officer and Begum Khaleda Zia, the Bangladesh Opposition leader, "discussed ways to bring down the Sheikh Hasina government in Dhaka and boost the Rohingya insurgency in Rakhine".

To argue therefore, as some activists in India have done, that Rohingya issue is innocent of jihadism threat is incorrect, misleading and dangerous.

Realpolitik

India already is in a diplomatic tight spot over this issue because if it publicly chides Myanmar over violence in Rakhine state, it may push the key ASEAN state further into Chinese lap. Meanwhile, Beijing has already backed Myanmar's military offensive against the Rohingyas, as reported in The Australian

This is the reason why the joint statement during Modi's visit to Myanmar carried no reference to the Rohingya crisis except from the point of view of national security. Besides, it would have been difficult for India to lecture Myanmar on tackling insurgency when it is faced with a similar predicament back home in Kashmir.

While taking this approach, however, India ran the risk of putting Bangladesh in a tight corner. Dhaka is battling to cope with massive influx of Rohingya refugees (some numbers put it at over 400,000). New Delhi's refusal to show public solidarity with stateless Rohingyas and decision to deport illegal immigrants have played out massively in local politics. Partly to strengthen Sheikh Hasina's hands and prop up a key ally in strategically sensitive state, India has since, albeit privately, conveyed its concerns to Bangladesh on the violence.

According to reports in Bangladeshi media, a phone call went from external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to Bangladesh prime minister where she offered India's unequivocal support.

India has also issued a new statement on violence in Rakhine state, calling for "restraint and maturity", words that were missing in the original joint statement. This policy — of placating Bangladesh and backing Myanmar publicly while privately asking it to rein in the military offensive — is the most sensible among some very difficult options before India which cannot afford to ruin its ties with either nation.

Sensitivity

As far as the humanitarian angle is concerned, India has launched Operation Insaniyat — a food aid programme— under which it is shipping food, medicines and other relief materials daily to Dhaka which is fighting an almighty struggle. On Thursday, the first day, 53 tonnes of aid including rice, pulses, sugar, salt, cooking oil, tea, noodles, biscuits, mosquito nets etc., were sent.

India is also committed to developing the Rakhine region in Myanmar, a reference to which was made in the joint statement. This three-pronged approach has been topped by a strong rebuke delivered to the UN, where India criticized the world body's "tendentious judgments based on selective and even inaccurate reports." The Rohingya policy is still a developing one, but India has so far shown maturity and prudence.


Updated Date: Sep 19, 2017 06:42 AM

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