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‘Rohingyas, India is not for you’: An Examination of the Political Debates on Rohingya Refugees in India

By Vineeth Mathoor and Sunil Kumar PM 


It is quite common to show that one of the most notable characteristics of Indian tradition(s) is its flexibility to adopt and accept various cultures, people and civilizations. The civilizational tolerance and openness of India is identified today as the reasons for India’s ‘long humanitarian record’. These terms and arguments are political and imaginary but they are always projected as the esteemed symbols of Indian civilization(s). Scholars as well as politicians, public intellectuals and activists show various examples from Indian history to argue that India as a civilization has always embraced different faiths and accommodated people in distress by giving them asylums. For instance, speaking at the ‘Parliament of the World Religions’ at Chicago in September 1893, Swami Vivekananda argued that Indian civilization is like an ocean accepting numerous streams of water from thousands of rivers. Vivekananda pointed out the example of Jews who took asylum in south India way back in the 2nd century A.D following the Roman persecution on them. To an extent it seems correct to argue that Indian civilization(s) have accepted different cultures and today they all are part of what is known as Indian civilization. In ancient and medieval history, we have the examples of Aryans, Scythians, Parthians, Greco-Bactrian, Huns, Turks, and Mughals coming to India and acclimatizing in the Indian environment.

In this paper, the term ‘modern refugee’ refers to those people who sought asylum in India after the transfer of power in 1947. As a modern nation, India has been involved in the refugee issue from its very moment of birth; India provided asylum to Hindu and Sikh refugees coming to India at the time of India’s partition violence in 1946-48, Tibetan refugees following the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 and their subsequent establishment of the ‘Tibetan Government in Exile’, Bangladeshi Chakmas in 1971, Sri Lankan Tamil refugees influx to India following the LTTE crusades during 1985-2009. Of course, there had been political debates in India in the cases of above-mentioned refugees and we can see that Indian official policies and public sentiments nodded to accommodate these refugees. But we can notice a change in the attitude of political debates with regard to Rohingya refugee influx to India as issues of xenophobia, national security and Islamophobia are expressed in these debates. These debates show that contemporary Indian political approaches towards Rohingya refugees is not based on India’s tradition of accommodating refugees or humanitarian aid to the people in distress. Rather, they express the dominant socio-political consciousness in India.

Origin of Rohingya Catastrophe

Even laymen observations will notice that post-9/11 international politics is going through subjugation, conflicts and human rights violations in many parts of the world. While the fall of despots in the middle-eastern countries has given birth to new political orders across the globe, one of the significant developments is the rise of what can be termed as hard politics. By ‘hard politics’ we mean that international bodies, powerful nations and neighbors tend to take muted reactions while inhuman catastrophes are meted out by despotic regimes, terrorist organizations and military juntas in various parts of the globe. We see that oppressive, inhuman and undemocratic regimes coming to power in various parts of the globe by suppressing ethos of democracy, well-being and equality. The development of military junta in the Buddhist country of Myanmar and the subsequent development of authoritarianism can be cited as perfect examples of ‘hard politics’. As we know, the establishment of military junta and Buddhist theocracy in Myanmar has resulted in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. Ill-treatment of Rohingya Muslims began in the 1970s but it turned out to be cataclysmic violence recently. Human Rights Watch reported in 2012 that state-sponsored communal violence has displaced 125,000 Rohingya people in Myanmar. Today, under the state-orchestrated catastrophe Myanmar treats Rohingya Muslims the way Hitler treated Jews. As Rohingyas are considered to be a threat to national security, the State of Myanmar is persecuting them. The immediate cause for Rohingya expulsion took place when a Rohingya militant group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), attacked army outposts in October 2016. Following this, the military junta of Myanmar committed inhuman atrocities on Rohingyas and they started to flee to other nations. The influx of Rohingyas to various parts of South Asia had alarmed South Asian countries by 2015 and they started taking precautions to handle the issue.

In India, Rohingya influx started to create official and media attention by late 2015. While considering the influx of Rohingyas to India, the Indian Government refused to permit them stating that it can be a “threat to national security”. The Home Minister of India, Mr. Rajnath Singh stated that the case of Rohingya Muslims needed special attention because they were not refugees but illegal immigrants.[1] The NDTV reported Home Minister saying, “They have not come here after following proper procedures. No Rohingya has applied for asylum. They are illegal immigrants.”[2] Though the Indian Government stand on Rohingya Muslims insisted in refusing their entry, around forty thousand Rohingya had already settled in India. These Rohingyas settled in the various Indian states in North East Regions, West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir create legal battles in India. A petition has been filed by two Rohingya immigrants, Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir in the Supreme Court of India to stop central government from deporting the Rohingya Muslims. But the Government of India is not willing to accept the Rohingyas; hence it has requested the Supreme Court to not intervene in the affair as it is concerned with national security. As of now, the question of Rohingya refugees’ stay in India is waiting for the apex court’s decision.

India’s Refugees: Tibetans Buddhist to Rohingya Muslims

While we noticed that as a civilization India has always been open to refugees of various streams for the last four thousand years, the historical openness of Indian civilization cannot be taken as a reference point to argue that contemporary Indian foreign policies should be framed according to India’s ancient civilizational openness. On the contrary, the contemporary situation of ill-treatment of Rohingya Muslims can be situated within the broader framework of the factors that constitute changes in the approaches towards refugees in India. As we noticed, following the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947-48, India was home to millions of refugees, mainly Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Those who have crossed the borders of India settled down in the country and have been amalgamated within the Indian social fabric. Similarly, following the Tibetan crisis in 1959, nearly one lakh Tibetan Buddhists crossed the borders of India and took asylum. Remember that, while Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhism, came to the Indian border, the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself went to receive the Dalai Lama with all traditional forms of respects. In addition, the Indian Government has taken initiatives to provide proper settlement opportunities for the Tibetans in the two Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. Today, even after nearly sixty years, the Tibetans have successfully resettled in India and continue as Tibetan Buddhists. Similarly, following the India-Pak turmoil in 1971 in Bangladesh, India accommodated millions of Bangladeshi Hindus and provided them asylums. Correspondingly, successive Indian governments agreed to give asylum to Sri Lankan Tamils during the LTTE turmoil from 1980 to 2009.  

Quite interestingly, we note that unlike the situations in 1948, 1959, 1971 and 1980s-2009, the Government of India is not favorable to the refugee problem of the Rohingyas and this enables us to ask some serious questions about the institutional lacuna in addressing the Rohingya issue. It seems that two sets of arguments can be brought forward to analyze the Rohingya refugee issue and the Indian Government’s response to it. The first set of argument leads us to think that Independent India’s refugee issues until that of Rohingyas were concerned with four religions – Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs. These religious groups, except Islam, are considered to be within the folds of Hinduism and no serious communal issues exist among them or with Hinduism. Therefore, it is quite clear that welcoming the Buddhists or Sikhs to India looks like welcoming the sisters back home and no immediate threat is imagined. But the accommodation of Muslims in the political conditions of 1946-48 shows that India possessed secular social consciousness and imagined no threat in welcoming Muslims from Pakistan. Within the first set of analysis we need to recognize that, on the one hand Rohingya issue is an outsider problem for India as they are outside the borders of India’s cultural history, though Burma was also a part of Indian British Empire and many Indians migrated to Burma during colonial times. On the other hand, it is concerned about Islam in contemporary India. The political consciousness of India does not demand a secular institutional framework and it is suspicious about the numerous threats to India’s emerging Hindu cultural fabric. In addition, Indian intelligence agencies have reported that various Islamic outfits in the country, along with Islamic State, Pakistan’s ISI, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, etc., can make inroads into the Rohingya community in India, threatening India’s socio-political balance. These debates further complicate the issue and at the end Rohingya Muslims are viewed as a potentially harmful community and therefore to be kept outside the country.

The second set of argument is connected with ‘hard politics’ because we can see that no neighboring country is willing to accommodate Rohingya Muslims on grounds of internal economic and security reasons. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, etc. have refused to accommodate the Rohingya Muslims even though some of these countries are Muslim majority nations. This is because under hard politics nobody wants to take risks and the concept of human rights are sidelined for self-interest. Similarly, for India hard politics means two things. First, India cannot leave its Myanmar possibilities – Myanmar is India’s gateway to Southeast Asia and it is in the best interest of India to have ‘good relationship’ with the Myanmar government. Second, being a democratic country, successive Indian governments have to act, at least on some occasions, according to the whims and fancies of the dominant consciousness. This dominant consciousness in India is not favorable to Muslims today, leave Rohingya, and this development has following reasons.

Indian Politics at the Crossroads

One of the markers of Indian society, especially after the 1980s, is the growing influence of religious sentiments in the public as well as private spheres of people. In other words, the development of religion-based politics and the growth of fundamentalist political outfits have created a pro-religious social consciousness in India. In the 1980s, the dissemination of religious sentiments were expressed through the debates and movements on Ram Janma Bhumi issue (1986), Shah Banu case (1986) and Roop Kanwar incident (1987). However, throughout the 1990s, the right wing political factions in India had succeeded in creating a soft-Hindu feeling across the nation and Hinduism has been hijacked for political intentions. It was followed by wide-spread communal violence and retaliations in various parts of India – demolition of Babri Masjid (1992), Bombay serial bomb attacks (1993), Coimbatore massacre (1998), etc. expressed the growing communal tensions in India. If the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 can be seen as an ideological victory of Hindutva politics, the rise of the BJP led NDA government to form government at the Centre for sixteen days in 1996 was a practical victory of Hindutva in Indian politics. Throughout 2000s, Hindutva political parties were using every means to extend their influence on the one hand and various Islamist outfits intruded into Indian political systems on the other. One of the important events that surfaced in Indian politics was the anti-Indian feeling in Kashmir and the subsequent exodus of Hindu population from the Kashmir valley since the late 1980s. While thousands of Hindu Pandits were left distressed in Jammu as part of Kashmir militancy, the image of assaulted Hindu pundits received worldwide attention as a cautionary model for Islamic supremacy in India.

It was in this period of political turmoil that the case of Rohingya refugee earned momentum. For the contemporary Indian government, backed by the RSS and various Hindu Right wing groups, the Rohingya refugee issue is more political and cultural than humanitarian. Moreover, we need to realize that India is ruled by either BJP or BJP-led NDA governments at the center and the majority of Indian states. These governments promote the Hindu culture of their choice and create a stereotyped image of Hinduism. In this image, Hindus are seen as a hunted community who have lost their kingdoms and treasures to the Islamic rulers since 9th Century AD. In such a schema of political imagination Islam is taken as a threat and Islamophobia appears to be the order of the day. It is this nature of the discourse that sees the Rohingya refugees as a ‘national threat’. The arguments put forward by the various anti-Rohingya camps in India advocate that the influx of Rohingya Muslims would be fatal to the nation as they have terrorist links and they can imbalance the population growth of Indian states. So, the general cry of human rights issues associated with the Rohingya problem is sidelined, and the issue is read with rightwing nationalist feelings. It is natural that in the changing social structures of contemporary India, Rohingyas are seen first as Muslims and then as illegal infiltrators but not as human beings or refugees. Therefore, in a society influenced by the ideologies of hyper-nationalism, middle-class values and Hindu revivalism, it is quite normal to be anti-Rohingya.  


The condition of Rohingya Muslims and their attempts to seek asylum in the democratic and secular republic of India show that ideologies of religion, culture, and civilizations govern modern institutions. In other words, we need to recognize that in contemporary world the theory of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ put forward by Samuel Huntington cannot be written off easily. The government of independent India’s unwillingness to accommodate Rohingya Muslims shows the growing religious sentiments in the country and that India is redefining its identity as a Hindu country. Of course, there are independent legislature, judiciary and media but to what extent they would be able to resist sectarian ideologies in future poses a great question. It is not to say that Hindu politics is the only responsible factor for India’s state of affairs today. On the contrary, the rise and growth of various Islamic movements and the momentum they gain among the Muslims leave the Hindu population in ambiguity about the secular possibilities.

As things are complicated in India with the stand of central Government that Rohingya problem is an issue of national security, the survival of the Rohingyas in India depends on the Supreme Court verdict. However, even if the Supreme Court of India defends the rights of Rohingyas, it is quite difficult for the central Government to support the Rohingyas because it will have to face the fury of RSS and associated groups. Moreover, the government has to reconsider any such moves as it would doubtless irritate the growing Hindu sentiments in India. This partly explains the slack attitude of the Indian government in handling the refugee issue and its Operation Insaniyat. The second level of arguments shows that it is not because the BJP government is in power that the Rohingyas are not given asylum. We need to realize that even if a secular, non-BJP government was in power in India, it would not be very easy to overcome the dominant social ideology. The dominant social ideology created over the last three decades formulates that India is the only existing Hindu Nation and the nation has to respect Hindu ethos. Of course, this is sectarian but that’s the sad reality.

[1] Amy Kazmin, “India’s Rohingya Refugees Face New Deportation Threat,” Financial Times, September 10, 2017, content/6df8f4ea-946e-11e7-a9e6-11d2f0ebb7f0.

[2] NDTV Report dated September 21, 2017 available at

Dr. Vineeth Mathoor and Sunil Kumar PM teach at the Post-Graduate Department of History, NSS Hindu College, Changanacherry, Kerala. Dr. Vineeth has completed his studies at Hyderabad Central University and JNU, New Delhi. Sunil Kumar is working on his PhD thesis on Colonial Modernity and the Railways in South India. He can be contacted at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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