How India's Opposition Can Stand Up for Rohingya

After a fire broke out at Rohingya refugee camp in New Delhi, India on June 13, 2021. Credit - Pankaj Nangia—Anadolu/Getty Images

In July 2023, Indian authorities led a Rohingya refugee couple to burial grounds in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Their 40-day-old daughter had just died in the refugee detention center where the couple was also held, following refugee-led protests in which police deployed teargas against detainees. As their daughter was buried, they watched on with handcuffed wrists, tethered to police escorts.

Video of the incident caused a stir in India, but it was just one tragedy in the broader campaign of intense persecution Rohingya refugees have faced from the Hindu nationalist government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Muslim Rohingya came to India fleeing genocide by the military in neighboring Myanmar, but now has to contend with death threats, police brutality, arbitrary arrest, deportation, and dehumanizing hate speech from leading figures within Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

The hatred of the Rohingya is pervasive in India. Despite them comprising only around 0.02% of the country’s 200 million Muslims, 6% of all Indian anti-Muslim social media posts and 5% of surveyed anti-Muslim in-person hate speeches were specifically targeted at Rohingya in 2023, according to the Washington, D.C.-based India Hate Lab research group.

As of late May, an additional 45,000 Rohingya had fled a new surge of violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state (40,000 were already in India), including reports of beheadings, mass arson, and forcible conscription into Myanmar’s government forces. With further migration into India likely, the issue of the Modi regime’s treatment of Rohingya refugees takes on renewed urgency.

India stands at a crossroads. It can continue to persecute Rohingya refugees in violation of international law, or it can set out on a new path, providing safe haven and pathways to citizenship for a minority group fleeing crimes against humanity.

Fortunately, India’s progressive opposition is at last in a position to demand change. The progressive INDIA coalition’s gains in just-concluded elections mean that Modi will have to govern in coalition for the first time in more than a decade. Facing national and international censure internationally for his anti-Muslim campaign speeches, Modi must also contend with renewed pressure from outside India.

India’s progressive forces and the international community can use this momentum to push back against the Modi regime’s past abuses and secure reforms that benefit the Rohingya settled in India—along with the many more likely to seek refuge in the future.

Such efforts must begin with attempts to repeal Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a landmark piece of Hindu nationalist legislation that specifically excludes Muslim migrants from obtaining Indian citizenship.

So long as the CAA is in place, Rohingya will be excluded from the same pathways to citizenship given to Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians fleeing persecution in nearby countries. Without citizenship rights, Rohingya will continue to lack legal protection against the abuses of the Indian government.

The opposition must also push India to finally sign onto the international laws enshrined in the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, which guarantee the rights of refugees to seek asylum and prohibit deportations to life-threatening countries. To adopt these widely accepted laws would be a major gain for a country that has largely, according to experts, pursued an “ad-hoc and arbitrary” refugee policy driven more by short-term geopolitical thinking than respect for legal norms.

Such measures would help to legitimize a nation frequently criticized for its capricious treatment of refugees and equip it with legal tools to face challenges that it is likely to face in the future. That includes the possibility of a mass exodus from flood-threatened Bangladesh, where close to 1 million Rohingya are now living, after they fled Myanmar.

As the situation in Myanmar once again devolves into chaos, it is crucial to implement these changes now. India must release the hundreds of Rohingya refugees currently held in jails, stop deporting Rohingya to a nation that is profoundly unsafe, stop demolishing Rohingya homes and places of worship, and stop attacking a people that has fled genocide. With Modi’s grip on power finally challenged, there is no better time to stand up for India’s Rohingya.

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