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A controversy erupted yet again, where the Rohingyas take the center stage. India's refugee policy is thus back in the spotlight after the central government and its constituent minister’s statement were in contravention, publicly. India and its selective ill-treatment of certain communities is not novel, this issue, however, is garnering more attention because of its international significance. What exactly is the issue? Who are the parties involved? And what is the way forward? 

This article will focus on India’s policy on Rohingyas in light of the recent developments. 


Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri recently tweeted that the ministry is working on plans to allot EWS (economically weaker section) flats and security to the Rohingya community residing in the “not so affluent” parts of the capital. However, mere hours after his tweet, the Ministry of Home Affairs took to Twitter and abridged his statement by saying that there are no such plans and the refugees would be held in detention camps until they were deported. This caused quite a stir both on social media and in the ongoing political discourse. Hardeep Singh Puri later deleted his tweet. 


Rohingya Muslims are essentially stateless “illegal” migrants from Bangladesh. Rohingyas first arrived in India in the 1970s after fleeing persecution at home, and have been scattered across India since. However, a significant influx of Rohingyas was witnessed in 2017, after the 2016 genocide in Myanmar. The Rakhine State and Myanmar thus, using military force, sent members of the communities fleeing across the border. The result of this international political paralysis has resulted in the Rohingyas living in temporary, shabby quarters, fighting for survival. Myanmar officially denies the existence of the Rohingya, a largely Muslim ethnic group that has lived in northern Myanmar for over a thousand years, instead labeling them “Bengalis,” illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. There exists an anti-Rohingya sentiment in India too, especially since the current presiding power came to power. In fact, in 2017, after the mass migration, The Bhartiya Janata Party along with miscellaneous Hindu extremist groups, launched a campaign in Jammu and Kashmir, demanding that all Rohingyas be expelled from the area. Having not signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, Indian law regards all Rohingya refugees entering India as "illegal immigrants”, aiding the BJP-led government’s cause. 

According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 40,000 Rohingyas are in India - at least 20,000 of them are registered with the UN Human Rights Commission. Many human rights activists have heavily criticized the government’s attempts at deportation instead of offering asylum but to dismay. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees and asylum-seekers primarily live in urban India - 46% are women and girls, and 36% are children.

India’s Process of Dealing with Refugees 

India does not have a codified or formal policy, law, or legal framework to operate within when it comes to refugees. As mentioned previously, the UN Refugee Convention 1951, is an instrument describing the treatment of refugees and is possibly the closest to a document of guidelines the country posses. Even in the now-deleted tweet, Mr. Puri said "India respects and follows UN Refugee Convention 1951 and provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion or creed." However, as mentioned, India is not a signatory to this convention, thus it has no obligatory sanctity over the government. The country thus deals with refugees in an ambiguous, ad-hoc, and arbitrary manner, which is where the problem precisely lies. 

Because of this arbitrariness and an absence of documents with the refugees, it is nearly impossible to process them and protect them by employing state tools and machinery. They thus, find it difficult to access housing, healthcare, education, and formal employment. 

Anti-Rohingya Sentiments

Ever since Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party led by Narendra Modi, formed the federal in 2014, islamophobia has been institutionalized. Anti-Rohingya sentiments are a subset of this formalization.

The party and its loyal followers lobby for the expulsion of Rohingya Muslim refugees by associating them with being catalysts of terrorism and leaders of crime syndicates. 

India's forced return of Rohingya refugees recognized by the U.N. to Myanmar, where they could be in harm's way, is outrageous, unacceptable, and must stop. 

The Rohingyas are thus being forced to choose between two evils and most choose the “lesser” evil, i.e. persecution by the Indian state over systemic murder by the Rakhine state. These crimes against humanity, however, need to be acknowledged and penalized and the wrongdoers should be punished. Myanmar is currently facing probable charges awarded by the International Court of Justice for allegedly violating the U.N. Genocide Convention. 

Legal Aspect 

As mentioned above, India doesn't have a procedure that allows refugees to seek asylum, and those entering the country without a visa are treated as illegal immigrants under the Foreigners Act or the Indian Passport Act. In layman's terms, both these acts propound that those in contravention will be prosecuted and ultimately, detained and deported. 

Thus, legally, the only constitutional provisions protecting the refugees, which override all others are Articles 21 and 14. Article 21 propounds the right to life and liberty, which can be curtailed only in rare, exceptional circumstances. Article 14 on the other hand, provides protection against arbitrary abuse of power. 

In 2019, the ruling government, led by Narendra Modi passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which offers amnesty and expedites the path to Indian citizenship for non-Muslim "illegal immigrants" from neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.

But the law was widely criticized owing to its discriminatory nature and underlying islamophobia and triggered protests across the country. Political parties, civil society, and Muslim groups said the law attacked the secular nature of the constitution. 

Treatment of Refugees 

Because the country has adopted such an ad-hoc policy, not all refugees get the same treatment. This implies that the treatment of the refugees is dependent upon geopolitical and other political considerations. For instance, after the 1971 war, India hosted thousand of Bangladeshi refugees, because it furthered the Indian agenda and inclinations.

Even in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lankan refugees were given an allowance by the state government and groomed for employment opportunities. After the end of the civil war in 2009, Tamil refugees could consult an agency like the UNHCR and decide whether they wanted to return.

Since immemorial, India has expressed its support for the Dalai lama by giving refugees to Tibetan immigrants who followed him into exile after a failed anti-china uprising in 1959. In 2018, after PM Modi's summit with Chinese President XI Jinping in Wuhan, India's foreign ministry discouraged government officials from attending events where the Dalai Lama or Tibetan officials were present. Thus, India's ill-treatment of the Rohingyas is simply a conscious choice in order to energize their right-wing Hindu base. 

Development of Fair Policy and Way Forward 

Red Tape and diplomats claim that the influx of refugees is an issue of national security. They further justify the deportations by ensuring that the conditions in their home cadre are safe and not hostile. In some cases, the Supreme Court stepped in to stop deportations if it found that they did not pose any threat or if sending them back could put their lives at risk, however, these cases are a rarity. 

India is in dire need of a formal legal framework that allows refugees to register themselves and get access to state protection. The constitution theoretically extends to these immigrants, however, this should be made a reality, which is tangibly applied in every such case. 

Pushing Rohingya back across the border to Myanmar where their lives will be in danger will be in breach of the right to life and simply inhumane. 

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