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Rohingya Muslims in India Part II: As governments squabble over their post-colonial identity, refugees have nowhere go to

Editor's note: Over 40,000 Rohingya live in India as refugees. The Indian government has recently decided to deport them. In part two of this three-part series, Ajay Kumar focusses on their connection with India. Part three looks at the legal trouble India may face regarding their deportation.

Indian immigration into Burma created a lot of resentment among the local population.

The influx of cheap migrant labour lowered standards of living and also reinforced Burma's status of being under colonial administration.

At the outset of hostilities in 1939, Burma was under threat from Japanese invasion.

 Rohingya Muslims in India Part II: As governments squabble over their post-colonial identity, refugees have nowhere go to

Representational image. AFP

As the Japanese advanced on Burma, they were supported both by the local populace and the Burma National Army (BNA), a local force which was raised to fight against British and enjoyed the support of ethnic tribes.

For their part, the British armed the Muslims in northern Arakan to fight against the ethnic Rakhine who harboured Japanese sympathies. This resulted in atrocities being committed by both sides and left deep communal divisions that linger till this day.

But helped largely by the Indian Army, the British managed to squeeze the Japanese from Burma. By the time the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the British reoccupied Burma and created the British Military Administration.

Due to political reasons, the British found themselves unable to prosecute BNA leader General Aung San for war crimes and treason.  So they chose to negotiate. On 27 January 1947, the famous Aung San-Atlee Agreement was reached, which paved the way for Burmese independence. Aung San managed to unite Burmese minorities at Panglong in February 1947 and the Union of Burma was soon birthed.

Burma's formation gives insight into the Rohingya situation. Burma was founded on ethnic identity rather than a constitutional one. Article 10 of the 1948 Burmese Constitution enshrines the principle of citizenship by descent from one of the ingenious races of Burma.

Section 3 of the 1948 Union Citizenship Act of Burma makes it clear that to be an indigenous race of Burma, you have to have been settled there prior to 1823 AD, the year prior to the outbreak of the First Anglo-Burmese War, which resulted in parts of modern Burma being occupied.

Needless to say, neither the 1948 constitution nor the Citizenship Law of Burma recognised the Rohingya as Burmese citizens or nationals. The 1982 revision to the Burmese nationality law didn't recognise them as citizens either.

As events were unfolding in the 1940s, a movement calling for the Muslims who resided in Arakan to join Pakistan (East Pakistan) moulded itself into the Arakan Muslim League. However, Jinnah declined to support it, stating he was unconcerned with Burmese affairs. Which led to an armed insurgency seeking a Muslim homeland in the region. That movement was put down by the army.

This operation resulted in many refugees fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh. After the India-Pakistan War of 1971, many refugees fled Bangladesh and returned to Burma. The Rohingya thus found themselves in a peculiar situation: They can't be Bangladeshi as the government doesn't consider them Bengali. However, the Burmese government insists the Rohingya are Bengali migrants and therefore they cannot be Burmese. The Rohingya are effectively a people without a state.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

Over time, the Rohingya have started asserting themselves as an ethnic group of Burma and demanding equal rights. They claim descent from the sultanates that briefly occupied the region and have tried to build a narrative that ties them to the area. This has been subject of intense public debate in Burmese academic circles, with many accusing them of revisionism.

Many have been confusing them with ethnic Rakhine Muslims who predate the First Anglo-Burmese War. But though some sections of the media have tried to paint this as a Buddhists versus Muslims debate, this isn't a religious issue.  Many ethnic Rakhine are Muslim. At the core, this is an ethnic issue. The Rohingya have their own language, which branches out of the Indo-Aryan language family.

Ethnic Rakhine, the major population of the Rakhine state, (which is what Arakan is called) speak Arakanese or Burmese, both branches of the Sino-Tibetan language family. These ethnic populations evolved on both sides of the natural boundary that separates the subcontinent from the rest of Asia.

The issue, an ethnic one, has resulted in large-scale violence being inflicted on the Rohingya, much of it sponsored by the State. Without being accepted as citizens in a country that they have inhabited for generations, the Rohingya face threats to their life, liberty and property every day.  They live in constant fear and in conditions that do not befit the dignity that that human beings are entitled to.  The violence is, in part, led by the Burmese military who wish to use the communal situation to ensure their relevance.

This situation has resulted in a large-scale refugee crisis which has engulfed neighbouring states since 2012. States such as Bangladesh and Thailand, which share a border with Burma, are bearing the brunt of it. But refugees are also pouring in on boats. The world has often woken up to images of desperate refugees on wooden planks.

Over time, many of these refugees have also made their way to India, which is home to over 40,000 Rohingya.

Our government calls them illegal migrants.

 Read Part I of the series here

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Updated Date: Aug 24, 2017 11:44:43 IST