The Rohingya Find No Refuge in Prime Minister Modi's India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the World Economic Forum in 2008.Credit: World Economic Forum - Photo by Norbert Schiller

When Indian Prime Minister and head of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), Narendra Modi visited Myanmar in the beginning of September, he expressed that India shared Myanmar’s concern regarding “extremist violence” in Rakhine Province, despite the fact that the Rohingya who live there are being actively forced to flee from their homes. The Rohingya are a minority group in Myanmar, a country with a Buddhist majority. The Rohingya are mostly Muslim and live in the province of Rakhine, in the west of the country. The Rohingya are not considered to be Burmese by most of the country, instead, they are referred to as “Bengalis,” which alludes to their religion and the notion that they are supposedly illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The Rohingya have previously been under attack in their home; this time, the Rohingya have been under attack by both civilians and the military. The present attack and exodus has been described as a reaction to the killing of 12 members of the Burmese security force by Rohingya militants.

In India, Modi’s government issued its plan to deport over 40,000 Rohingya refugees, including at least 16,000 who have been registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). When an appeal was filed on behalf of two of the refugees to the Supreme Court of India opposing the deportation, the Home Ministry filed an affidavit listing reasons why the Rohingya refugees should be deported. One of the reasons given is that the Rohingya pose a “threat to national security” due to their supposed ties with extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

The Modi government has been coherent in describing the Rohingya as a security threat, both inside and outside of India. This begs the question, however, of how a minority group with limited resources and recognition can threaten a country which actively exercises its power and influence in the region.

Before Modi was elected into office in 2014, he was the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat, known for its festivals, vegetarianism…and the 2002 communal riots. The riots were the result of an attack on Hindu pilgrims in which a train and its passengers were burnt alive in the city of Godhra, Gujarat by a mob of approximately 2,000 people. This led to riots around the state, resulting in over 1,000 dead and 2,500 people injured. Modi and his supporters were accused of not only condoning the violence but initiating it by issuing lists of Muslim-owned residences and businesses.

The stench of the riots has followed Modi into Federal office, though he was officially cleared of any wrongdoing in 2012. As Prime Minister, Modi has admitted to being a "Hindu Nationalist" and his supporters have repeatedly proclaimed that India is a Hindu nation, home to Hindus only. This may help to explain why the Modi government views the Rohingya as a "security threat"- the influx of Muslims to India, however small, threatens the Modi government’s ideal of India as a Hindu State or Hindu Rashtra.

The idea of a Hindu-state has been around for decades and envisions India returning to its "original" ideological and political society, before foreign invasion by the Mughals and the British. Hindu nationalism also advocates for the dissemination of the "Hindu-way of life" or Hindutva, which will protect the interests of the Hindu people, as well as Hindu values, morals, culture, and traditions. The Hindu way of life is not only religious but political, social and cultural. It protects the interests of the people, according to its supporters. Extraordinarily, proponents of Hindutva claim that it does not push Hindu fundamentalism, but rather that it aims for a secular society which unites the nation through shared values and culture.

Rohingya Rakhine StateRemains of a house in Rakhine state.Credit: Moe Zaw (VOA), via Wikimedia CommonsIt is no secret that Modi believes in Hindutva, which is evidenced by his silence on the beef-ban in many Indian states and the resulting violence against Muslims, as well as his choosing a self-professed Hindu-nationalist and priest to govern India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. It is not a stretch then, to claim that Modi and his government aim to deport the Rohingya Muslims not because they are a security threat, but because the Modi government is essentially Islamophobic. 

India has been known to take in refugees from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan (though Afghani refugees are not officially recognized). Most of these refugees are Hindus who are fleeing their homes due to religious tensions and violence. The Rohingya may be a minority group fleeing violence, but the fact that they are Muslim does not fit into the ideal of Hindutva. Accepting the Rohingya into India would mean acquiescing to a "foreign" influence, which does not sit well with the ideal of the Hindu state. Even support for the Rohingya is not welcomed by the BJP, Modi’s political party. Benazir Arfan a member of the local BJP in her city, was suspended from the Party after appealing on social media for a rally to protest the plight of Rohingya.

The current reaction to the Rohingya crisis points not only to the intolerance of the BJP and the Modi government, but their insecurity. They have a clear plan for India--turn it into a Hindu state as efficiently as possible. The arrival of Muslim refugees at their doorstep not only challenges their flawed plan, but also heightens their Islamophobia. The Modi government targets the weak and defenseless to become the king of the playground. Like all bullies, however, the government is threatened by shifts or perceived shifts in the delicate balance they have created for themselves. Taking in 40,000 refugees may not seem like much, especially considering India’s population, but to the Modi regime, 40,000 more non-Hindus is 40,000 too many.

What Modi does not realize is that his anti-Muslim, anti-Rohingya stance puts the country at risk as it angers the Muslim community, not just in India but around the globe. Since the aggravation of the crisis, Muslim countries have come together to call for action. More gravely, extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaida could begin to view India as an earnest target. Indeed, a member of Al Qaida recently called on Muslims to protect their “Muslim brothers.” While the message has yet to take root, India should be wary of the threat. Furthermore, Modi’s decision to not welcome or defend the Rohingya will only create more divisions in India and across the region, and therefore increase insecurity. However, Modi’s ideal of a Hindu State and Hindu nationalism seems to make him blind to the contradiction within this ideal.

Rutvi Ajmera holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. She currently works in Canadian immigration law and specializes in working with economic migrants and families. She hopes to continue working with immigrants, especially in the area of integration. She is mainly interested in how public policy shapes human experience and how state and non-state actors shape global events.