From the Viewsroom

India’s Rohingya dilemma

Venky Vembu | Updated on January 10, 2018


Compassion for the persecuted must not override pragmatism

In an episode of the BBC television series, Yes, Prime Minister, bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby counsels his PM that in the conduct of foreign relations, it is safer to be “heartless” than “mindless”. The history of the world, he says, “is the triumph of the heartless over the mindless”. India faces much the same moral dilemma as it grapples with the fallout from its decision to deport thousands of Rohingya Muslim immigrants back to neighbouring Myanmar. But the enterprise is fraught with impediments. For one thing, the military rulers of Buddhist-majority Myanmar cite contested 19th-century history in defence of their refusal to accept the minority Rohingya as citizens, which effectively renders the refugees stateless. For another, the ongoing crackdown by the Myanmar army in Rakhine state — where the Rohingya population is concentrated — bears the markings of ethnic cleansing. This has triggered a fresh wave of exodus of about 2.5 lakh Rohingya into neighbouring Bangladesh in recent weeks. Many of them may eventually land up on Indian shores, but the principle of non-refoulement restrains India from deporting them to territories where their lives would be imperilled.

Down the ages, India has provided a safe haven for persecuted minorities from many parts of the world; in that sense, compassion is hardwired into India’s civilisational DNA. Yet, in today’s changed world, and given India’s developmental stage, a policy of keeping an ‘open door’ for persecuted refugees is borderline mindless. Pragmatic considerations of security and the economic and political consequences of inorganic population accretion through illegal immigration are not inconsequential, as the demographic and political history of the NE informs us. That seemingly heartless consideration should, however, not inhibit New Delhi from persuading Myanmar’s military rulers, and the morally diminished Aung San Suu Kyi, from setting their own house in order.

Associate Editor

Published on September 12, 2017

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