Geo-politics behind India’s U-turn on Rohingyas

Geo-politics behind India’s U-turn on Rohingyas

P K Balachandran,

Geo-politics appears to be behind India’s U-turn on Rohingyas. On Thursday, New Delhi swung from voicing unreserved support to Aung San Suu Kyi’s tough militaristic policy on the Bengali-speaking Muslim community to strongly approving Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s view that continued military action by Myanmar against the Rohingyas will destabilize Bangladesh economically and politically with grave implications for the entire region.

From wholeheartedly endorsing Suu Kyi’s view that the Rohingya issue is essentially an Islamic terrorist plot with security implications for both Myanmar and India, New Delhi is now saying that international pressure will be brought on Suu Kyi to take a more “restrained” (humanitarian) and “mature” approach to the issue.

Late at night on Thursday, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, rang up Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to say that India is pushing Myanmar both “bilaterally and multilaterally” to take back the refugees. According to Bangladeshi officials what India is saying is that Myanmar must stop atrocities against the Rohingyas and take the 400,000 displaced back.

India rushes aid

Earlier in the day, Indian High Commissioner in Bangladesh, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, handed over 53 tons of relief material to the Bangladesh authorities.

Sensing great disappointment with, and anger against India in Bangladesh, Shringla met Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar in New Delhi on Wednesday and secured sanction for the supply of humanitarian assistance to the Rohingyas.

The supplies arrived Chittagong on Thursday and the Indian High Commissioner himself distributed the relief material among the displaced Rohingyas at Cox’sBazaar..

Preceding this, last Saturday, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in New Delhi, Syed Muazzem Ali,  had worked on Indian Foreign Office officials and secured a statement from South Block saying that Myanmar should approach the Rohingya issue with “restraint and maturity  with focus on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces”.

“It is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the state is restored expeditiously,” the Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar had said.

Indian High Commissioner in Dhaka, Shringla’s was then called to New Delhi urgently to brief the Foreign Office in South Block. The security-conscious officials at the Home Ministry in North Block were also briefed as, after all, it was the Deputy Home Minister, Kiren Rijiju, who had declared the  40,000 Rohingya refugees in India are “illegal immigrants” who ought to be thrown out.

Reasons behind change

While the immediate reason for the policy change can be attributed to diplomatic pressure from Bangladesh, there are deeper causes.

Although China continued to back Myanmar on the Rohingya issue, India felt isolated, with every country including its strategic ally, the United States, condemning Suu Kyi. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Chief, Prince Zeid, had also criticized the Indian government’s plans to deport Rohingyas.

A stage had been reached at which India had no option but to abandon its policy of copying China in every sphere in a bid to outdo it. It had to take an independent stand based on a cool calculation of its own interests.

If New Delhi failed to back Bangladesh’s plea that if Myanmar did not stop military action and take back the Rohingyas Bangladesh would be under tremendous economic strain, the consequences to India itself would be multifarious and highly detrimental.

And if the Bangladeshi economy were to break down, the common Bangladeshi would blame India for it. That would go against the India-friendly Sheikh Hasina in the next Bangladeshi parliamentary elections.

Bangladeshi Islamic militants, who are now kept on a leash by strong police action, will gain popular support to the detriment of Hasina’s Awami League and to the advantage of the not-so-India- friendly Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

Sheikh Hasina herself might go easy on the Islamic militants to retain public support. She may have no incentive to take stern action against Indian Jehadists seeking shelter in Bangladesh. Indo-Bangla security cooperation, which has been working well for India so far, might be a thing of the past.

And finally, Rohingyas, now pouring into Bangladesh, may spill over into India (as they are already doing) and cause communal tension in West Bengal, ruled by the   anti-Modi Chief Minister Mamata Banerji.

In short, a problem in distant Myanmar might become a domestic headache for the government of India and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Economic stakes in Myanmar

Furthermore, India’s ambitious economic projects in Myanmar, like the deep-water port in Sittwe and the road linking Mizoram in India with Thailand passes through the now troubled North Myamnar. Sittwe is in Rakhine State – the home of the Rohingyas.

These projects, taken up to counter growing Chinese influence over Myanmar, will grind to a halt if the area continues to be restive and violence-ridden.