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Why We Don't Feel For The Rohingya And Why We Should

05/06/2015 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT via Getty Images
Rohingya migrants stand and sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. The boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, according to an AFP reporter at the scene, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images)

Many Indians probably do not feel much sympathy for Rohingya Muslims, shunted out of their homes in Myanmar and turned away at border after border.

Newly assertive in our nationhood, we are voicing concerns about illegal Bangladeshi immigrants seeping in through our porous borders. We are - if the increasingly voluble political rhetoric and acrimonious inter-faith clashes in our country are any bellwether - worried about religious extremism and Islamic radicalisation. We are worried about ghettoisation. We are worried about a Hindu majority being diluted by other, more vociferous religious forces.

And the Rohingya are often blamed by Myanmar for much the same thing. They are a minority community in a border area with separatist demands. They are spurring fears that Myanmar's Buddhists may soon become a minority in their own country. According to Myanmar's government, they aren't even native to the country. Rather, they're said to be recent immigrants into the Rakhine province from neighbouring Bangladesh, and as such, are being denied Burmese citizenship. They're being accused of extremism and violence against the indigenous Buddhists. They have been associated with violent uprisings in the past, and have variously made demands to unite with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and for a separate Islamic state to be established within Rakhine.

"The Rohingyas seemingly refuse to assimilate, and what's worse, have taken part in terrorist agitations against the state... it seems unlikely that the majority of us will be able to feel much sympathy for the Rohingya cause."

Viewed from the above prism, there is little to emote with. The Rohingyas seemingly refuse to assimilate, and what's worse, have taken part in terrorist agitations against the state. Bearing in mind the upheaval caused by similar separatist uprisings on our own shores, it seems unlikely that the majority of us will be able to feel much sympathy for the Rohingya cause.

But this isn't the radicalisation of a dominant, powerful demographic. The Rohingyas aren't a politically influential ethnic group. They aren't financially strong, they don't have powerful backers. There aren't any countries that are willing to rehabilitate them. They have no home apart from the land that denies them statehood.

And when you dig deeper, a murky picture emerges. The Burmese dismiss the Rohingyas as recent arrivals from across the Bangladeshi border. But Muslim settlements in the area have existed since the rule of the British, and for well over a century. Indian settlers were encouraged to move to the sparsely populated Rakhine lands to provide cheap farm labour to British plantations, and today's stateless Rohingya population stems partly from this historic influx.

For generations the Rohingyas have existed as Burmese. There have been agitations, in much the same way as Kashmir or states in the Northeast of India have seen agitations. It is true that these agitations have sometimes been violent. It is equally incontrovertible that the Muslims in Rakhine have also suffered violence at the hands of Burmese Buddhists. And in another comparison with India, it is impossible to imagine India denying Kashmiris their Indian identity in the wake of sectarian violence. It feels strange, and more than a little regrettable, then, that the Burmese Buddhist majority can so easily seek to erase any Muslim claim on the Rakhine province.

Called one the most persecuted minorities in the world by the UN, the Rohingyas aren't allowed Burmese passports. They are not featured in any census. They aren't allowed to vote in elections. They aren't allowed the same access to education other Burmese enjoy. They are often used as forced labour. They have restrictions on marriage, and on having children. There are restrictions on where they can live. If Myanmar's government had its way, they simply wouldn't exist. Given the limits that are placed on the Rohingyas, it is little wonder that they find themselves easy prey to institutional brutality or extremist violence.

"[F]or all the fears that India shares with Myanmar's Buddhists - of radicalisation and of a failure to assimilate - we owe it to our history of tolerance to feel for these people."

And recently, as tempers between the communities have frayed, life has become ever more restrictive for the Rohingyas. Following communal violence in 2012, many are limited to camps where abuse proliferates. It is understandable then that many fall prey to people smugglers and choose to risk their lives on a perilous sea journey to an unknown country. They hand over life savings to ruthless traffickers; they suffer in cramped, sweltering conditions for months; they are starved and beaten; they are buffeted from shore to unwelcoming shore and are denied the refuge they so desperately seek; and still somehow this seems better than continuing in a country that denies them their very identity.

The world's media has been awash of late with accounts of cramped boatloads of refugees being denied shelter by country after country. Indonesia and Malaysia have promised temporary refuge to Rohingya immigrants, but this isn't a long term solution to the problem.

Myanmar needs to be made to see - while the world's attention is on it - that religious extremism isn't the answer. Neither is genocide. Nor is keeping silent in the face of atrocities, as sometime political dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is choosing to do.

And it is India's role, both as a secular democracy and as the regional power we claim to be, is to make this clear.

So for all the fears that India shares with Myanmar's Buddhists - of radicalisation and of a failure to assimilate - we owe it to our history of tolerance to feel for these people. Not for their politics or their religious views, but for their pitiably precarious position. For the identity they are denied and for the uncertain future they are faced with. This is the least we can do as humans, and as adherents to the peaceable philosophy the Burmese Buddhists claim to hold so dear.

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