India’s Apex Court recently ruled in affirmative the deportation of about 170Rohingya refugees who were detained in Jammu’s Jail. Critics have been uneasy with this decision, for this sharply contradicts the principle of non-refoulement – a principle that places human lives on the highest pedestal and prevents states from returning refugees to those places where their lives will be threatened. Simultaneously, critics have also been vocal about their displeasure with the current dispensation that is no longer willing to extend its magnanimity vis-a-vis refugees. This shattering reality marks the defeat of human right champions. In the light of these attacks, it is necessary to evaluate the current Supreme Court decision vis-a-vis International Law and whether India is justified in taking the stance that it has taken.
International Law on Refugee Rights
International regime has given the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the 1967 Refugee Protocol that inter alia define who a refugee is. The definition clearly enumerates those who have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion in their country of nationality or in their country of residence. The definition also covers stateless people in its ambit. Convention also envisaged the right to non-refoulement which affords the basic right of refugees to not be returned to the place where they are likely to face persecution on the abovementioned grounds. This is a natural corollary to the very foundation of refugee law, for in the absence of provision of non-refoulement, the instrument would be a mockery. Suffice to say, non-refoulement remains the basic provision and has obtained the status of customary international law. In fact, its incorporation in numerous international instruments as well as regional instruments has underscored the significance States attribute to human lives. To scholars, the concept of non-refoulement has attained the status of jus cogens or peremptory norm of general international law from which no derogation is permitted. In fact, as per UNHCR’s experience, states, including non-parties to the convention, have overwhelmingly accepted the practice of non-refoulement.
However, this fundamental norm is subject to exceptions. The first exception is when the said person is a threat to the national security of the state in which he has taken refuge. This remains an important parameter since national security weighs heavily in a state’s radar, and any such threats would necessitate measures such as expulsion or deportation. However, the threats must be assessed and weighed against the threat to one’s life in case of refoulement. Lauterpacht and Bethlehem have suggested certain criteria such as, whether there is a prospective threat to the security of the country of refugee; whether there is a threat to the country of refugee and not to a third country or international community at large; and whether there exists a reasonable threat, the criteria for which must be set high, bearing in mind the adverse consequences of refoulement; and whether the said measures are proportional to the said threat.
The second exception is when the person has been convicted by a final judgement of a particularly serious crime and constitutes a danger to the community. For the purpose of our analysis, the first exception requires focus.
India’s Position vis-a-vis Refugees
India has been a gracious host to the refugee communities that have sought refuge in its territory, despite it not having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or Refugee Protocol. Tibetans who sought refuge in India after a failed revolt against Chinese in 1959 were allowed a government in exile and have received active support from the Indian government since. Similarly, many Sri Lankan Tamils, who fled the war ravaged country have been living in India with the support of the government. India has also accepted many of the refugees who escaped the wrath of Pakistan in the months preceding the Bangladesh Liberation War. Fair to say, India’s record on sheltering refugees has been exceptional and has been consistent with the principles enshrined in its constitution, granting the right to ‘life and liberty’ admirably.
However, India’s stance on Rohingyas has taken a different road. While India prides itself on being the champion of individual rights and rightly so, its response was largely muted during the 2017 military crackdown in Rakhine. And its current stance to deport Rohingyas is in consonance with its initially muted response. But that can largely be attributed to the threat that India had already perceived vis-a-vis these refugees.
Rohingyas and Extremist Nexus
Scholarship on this issue has pointed to an early connection between Rohingyas and extremist organizations. A Paper by European Foundation for South Asian Studies has highlighted the nexus between the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and extremist groups. This group, which was founded in 1980s by Mohammad Yunis, had links to Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in the 1980s-90s. Many of the members (of RSO) received training at Afghan facilities in the early 1990s. Afghan instructors have also trained RSO in camps in Bangladesh, a claim that can be corroborated by a 2005 Congressional Research Service Report on Terrorism in South Asia. The same report pointed out the connections between Al-Qaeda and Rohingyas. Another organization, Harkarah al-Yakeen (HaY), founded by Ataullah Abu Amar Janani, that later changed its name to Arakan Rohingyas Salvation Army (ARSA) was also noted to have connections to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where they received training. It has further been noted by a 2016 report of the International Crisis Group that ARSA has clear links to elements in Pakistan.
The fact that Rohingyas remain a fertile ground for terrorism and can be used by non-state actors to further their political agenda has been noted by Lt. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy (Retd.). In fact, a piece by The Week has pointed that Lashkar-e-Taiba has been making inroads in the refugee camps and has been providing the youth with arms, ammunition and training. The growing terrorism in Bangladesh and its spillover effect in the Rohingya community had already alarmed Indian security officials. However, with many of the Rohingyas living in India, more specifically in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, doubts have been raised. Of course, the first question remains, why Jammu and Kashmir despite its distance to Myanmar? Shouldn’t Rohingyas instead seek refuge in the Northeast, which is geographically closer? A clear answer is not present.
What is apparent is that many of these refugees in the Union Territory have been receiving training from Pakistani terror groups. The same European Foundation for South Asian Studies report has pointed out that many of the Rohingyas have fought alongside Pakistani terror outfits in the Indian Administered Kashmir, which is an imminent threat to India’s national security. Besides, there is a clear proof of Pakistani based terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) lending support to Rohingya terrorist outfits such as Aga Mul Mujahideen (AMM). This, coupled with their proximity to Pakistan, via Kashmir, has naturally heightened India’s security concerns.
Pakistan’s enthusiasm to use proxy wars as a way to seek revenge from ‘Hindu India’ has frequently disrupted peace in the region. India, unfortunately, has suffered the brunt of Pakistan’s ill-decision making. With Pakistan effectively losing respect in the international community due its active support for terrorists, it has channelled its funding to many of these refugees through Bangladesh. This concern has been backed by South Asia Democratic Forum’s Director, Siegfried O. Wolf, who has pointed out to Inter-Services Intelligence’s support for camped Rohingyas in Bangladesh who can serve Pakistan’s long term goal of annihilating India.
This brings India to the position where it stands. India has credible evidence to showcase that its national security has been heavily compromised due to the nexus between Rohingya Refugees and Pakistan backed terror groups, and that its decision is hinged on national security imperatives. The presence of these refugees in the fragile Union Territory of Kashmir has added to India’s concerns, given the precarious state of affairs of the UT especially since the revocation of its special status. Global Terrorism Index 2020 has pointed out the same reality – India’s biggest threat comes from Islamist terrorist groups. Thus, India stands very well within its rights to turn back the said refugees who pose a glaring threat to India’s national security, and it does not amount to a violation of customary international law on non-refoulement. Nor does it diminish India’s credibility as a magnanimous host that tries to uphold the tenets of ‘life and liberty.’ To the keyboard warriors, this marks the death of ‘democracy’ at the hands of a communally blind government, but to the patriot it is another rightful step in safeguarding the country’s integrity.