Can the world handle another Rohingya crisis?

India is looking at the world’s largest statelessness crisis. Nilanjana Bhowmick asks, have we learned nothing from the ongoing dispossession of Rohingya Muslims?

Arrested Rohingya people leave a Hlegu court, outside Yangon, Myanmar, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang
Arrested Rohingya people leave a Hlegu court, outside Yangon, Myanmar, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang

In late February, Muslim localities in the Indian capital came under attack from Hindu mobs. Over 40 people died; the damage to property and livelihoods was extensive. As Delhi burned, US president Donald Trump was fraternizing with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in a state banquet just a few kilometres away. Earlier, when asked about his position on the violence in Delhi, Trump had said he did not discuss ‘individual attacks’ and those were ‘up to India’.

The violence in Delhi was a politically instigated majoritarian attack against Muslims, who have been indefatigably protesting anti-Muslim measures brought in by Modi’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

In December 2019, this Hindu nationalist government had passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to fast-track citizenship for all non-Muslim refugees from the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Prior to that, Modi’s government had renewed a citizenship register in the northeastern state of Assam that stripped 1.9 million people of citizenship, with massive detention camps being built to hold these new non-citizens.

Following widespread protests, Modi replaced the National Register of Citizens with the National Population Register – a census programme that critics argue will lead to the same result. In a nutshell, the two Registers can divest Indians of their citizenship and the CAA will not allow Muslims to re-apply for it. The European Parliament warned that India has established ‘legal grounds to strip millions of Muslims of the fundamental right of equal access to citizenship’.

We are looking at the world’s largest statelessness crisis. Have we learnt nothing from the Rohingya calamity just three years earlier?

In 2017, around 800,000 Rohingyas fled to neighbouring Bangladesh, following a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state – where most of this Muslim ethnic minority community lives – by the Myanmar army. A UN investigation team condemned the army’s actions, which included widespread arson, looting, rape and extrajudicial killings, a crime against humanity and possible genocide.

Myanmar’s population – mostly Buddhists – is around 50 million. Around 1.3 million is Rohingya. India has 200 million Muslims.

What happened in 2017 in Myanmar was a culmination of decades of religion-based oppression. After widespread human rights abuses and oppression through the 1970s, the Rohingyas were officially deprived of citizenship with the help of a new citizenship law in 1982. Following severe riots between Muslims and the majority Buddhists in 2012, most Rohingyas ended up in internal displacement camps.

The 2014 census left them out from Myanmar’s population register. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government restarted a citizenship ‘verification’ process in Rakhine State, which had been aborted earlier. All of these built up to the genocide and mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar in 2017.

Back in Delhi, BJP politicians have been inciting sectarian violence for months as they unsuccessfully fought to win the Delhi elections. The attacks on Muslims took place while the city’s police – which is controlled by the central government and not the local Aam Aadmi Party administration – stood and watched. It was a pogrom; possibly the first of many to come.

This should worry world leaders – because if pogroms were country-specific, then the Rohingya crisis would be just ‘up to Myanmar’.