How should the Northeastern States of India respond to Rohingya Refugees?

The ongoing genocide against Rohingya has shaken people around across the world. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have left behind their villages where their houses were burnt to the ground and the horror of killings follow them to whichever direction they move in search of safe place. Myanmar has chosen to remain silent despite calls from the UN and human rights organisations. Its neighbouring country- India is also being slammed by the UN for its plan to deport Rohingya refugees. Modi’s recent visit to Myanmar where he avoided the mention of genocide against Rohingya, and India’s dissociation from the recent “Bali Declaration” at the ‘World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development’ in Indonesia in condemning the genocide against Rohingya, tell of India’s position towards Rohingya.

India is yet to ratify the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. However, India has a history of hosting refugees, and it is lauded for its track record in instilling the sense of humanity for instance the case of Tibetans in India, or say Myanmarese being given temporary shelter in northeast of India in late 1980s. States in North east of India- Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland share border with Myanmar. Looking into geography in relation to present situation, Mizoram is closer to Rakhine state of Myanmar than other states in the northeast of India. A Christian dominated state- Mizoram which takes pride in being a beacon of helping the needy and imparting teachings of Christianity, is silent when it comes to fleeing refugees at its backyards. It throws a question on how faith can be blinding in this hour of crisis. The porous Indo Myanmar border along Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram have cases of people crossing from one side to other side of the border from the past. In the present situation, the question of “security” arises when most of Rohingya refugees are fleeing from their villages in Rakhine state to Bangladesh.

A region that has diverse ethnic communities, has witnessed and experienced several conflicts from the past. Xenophobia and ethnic politics are prevalent in the region. The former is coming to the fore in recent years if one looks into how Adivasis (tea tribes) and Muslims are treated and subjected to. In this part of northeast of India, Tripura a communist state that champions itself as a crusader of social justice could use this moment to attend the needs of Rohingya refugees.

It is perplexing to think of other neighbouring states in northeast of India who use this moment of crisis to locate the degree of oppression they are in, and measure that they are equally oppressed and that they can do little or nothing to help the oppressed group- Rohingya. The pattern of response from these states signal that they are all closing doors on Rohingya refugees. This position is symptomatic of lack of sympathy and solidarity for neighbouring community who are also oppressed. However, from the past experiences, the fear for mainstream societies or to put it simply the apprehension towards the others has its basis to an extent on the relationship between the part of this region with the nation state, and to put into context- Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) playing a central role in conjunction with how indigenous people are subjected to in the path of development. Natural resources and prioritisation of native people when it comes to socio – economic and cultural aspects take centre stage as a means in protecting themselves from the onslaught of development and urbanisation. So, the fear for the others is partly rooted in this notion.

It is safe to say that this fear has found its place in the current situation in regards to Rohingya crisis. Yet factors like apathy towards people from Bangladesh and the labelling of certain Indian citizens in Assam as “illegal immigrants” are also playing its role in building up people’s perception and apprehension towards Rohingya. It becomes apparent if one looks into the steps taken in keeping vigilance along the Indo Myanmar border and statements from public figure. Word expressed in describing Rohingya fleeing their villages is confined to “illegal immigrants” instead of referring to situation they are in as “refugees”. For instance, Kiren Rijiju’s recent statement in his call for deportation of Rohingya wherein he labelled them as “illegal immigrants” is representative of its party approach towards Rohingya. Meanwhile, BJP ruled state Manipur and Congress ruled state Mizoram are implementing measures in patrolling the Indo Myanmar border to keep a check on the influx of Rohingya refugees.

It is difficult to make sense of how people who have been subjugated to state excesses in the states of Mizoram, Manipur or even Nagaland turn to closing on doors for Rohingya. The excuses that they are broken, vulnerable and insecure lack a conviction for a simple fact that in the time of humanitarian crisis one cannot pretend to be in an oblivion state. How would that pertain to Bangladesh which is one of the world’s poorest countries? Also, one is not expected to flag their cards that they are in similar situation in the name of security when humanity come knocking at the doors. Refugees in crisis like this are on a lookout for a refuge and basic needs like food, water, clothes etc, and they are currently not in a situation to go back to their villagers where persecution drove them away. The minimum one can do is as per one’s capacity in extending help for the Rohingya which could be in the form of providing temporary shelter until situation normalises, provide basic necessities, or to support them through donations/aid. These are not a means to an end, yet they are very crucial considering the immediacy of their needs. A pressure must also be built towards the Myanmar government in holding them responsible for the crisis and accountable in rebuilding Rakhine state by welcoming back Rohingya.

In this light, well meaning people and civil societies in Northeast India must plead the government to help the Rohingya, and they must also stay guard of non-indigenous people’s phobia against Muslims. Humanitarian assistance should be prioritised to lessen the plights of Rohingya. For academia- the discourse on state and stateless society lays bare in front of our eyes. James Scott’s romanticisation of stateless society in his book “The Art of Not Being Governed” is limited in a sense that the reality of Rohingya and other ethnic groups like Chakmas, Hajongs etc are in the other end of his scholarship. The unfolding of stateless people and the strives to gain citizenship status are one of the many complexities in South Asia and South East Asia which is seen as a challenge to the state and people.

Featured image : Adam Dean for The New York Times


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Richard Kamei Written by:

Richard Kamei, PhD Candidate, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.


  1. Chinglen Kshetrimayum
    September 14, 2017

    There is a saying in Manipuri “Mana manaba uchek singna chaktaminei” which roughly translated as “similar birds gather foods together”.
    How do you respond to these statement?

  2. Chinglen Kshetrimayum
    September 14, 2017

    There is a saying in Manipuri “Mana manaba uchek singna chaktaminei” which roughly translated as “similar birds gather foods together”.
    How do you respond to this statement?

  3. Gerard
    October 2, 2017

    I’d rather be heartless and not agree on letting the muslin refugees in our country. I can tolerate Christianity and Christians can very well do the same thing. However, with Muslims on the rise, I would hate to see them here.

    I know I’m being too hasty on judging the outcome of future events but people will be people. Its good for Muslims to kill an individual if they do it in the name of their god. I would definitely be slayed for being secular.

    If you’re still not with me, then you should know that the population of the largest community gets it way in this country. Take a look at village councils in India, where a person can be lynched if he is known to perform witchcraft (which i would say they have something against him personally)

    It is also through these village councils that people are encouraged to gang rape women when they have done something which is against the society. This is a terrible world that we’re living in. Don’t foolishly pity others.

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