Silence Then, Silence Now: Lessons For India From Its Response to 1990s Bhutanese Refugee Crisis


If India fails to stand with the Rohingya today, will it be able to claim tomorrow that it is rightfully with the people of Baluchistan or Tibet?

Bhutanese refugees in Sanischare camp. Credit: Reuters

Bhutanese refugees in Sanischare camp. Credit: Reuters

If a nation’s resilience is tested by its response to the crisis in its surroundings, then India isn’t the super power it tries to project itself as. A superpower must have enough will to, as Uncle Ben suggested to Spiderman, take “great responsibility,” and should not just assemble state-of-the-art artilleries to flex in its Republic Day parades.

India’s typical response to the Rohingya crisis shows that it still has to build a moral compass to navigate its foreign policy and its foreign policy has hardly changed since the 1990s, even superficially, in the manner in which it deals with urgent humanitarian crises in its neighbourhood and beyond. Like now, India, in the 1990s, had failed to defend the rights of the Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin when they were chased out by the royal government. It even gave tacit support to the Bhutanese royalty by ignoring several appeals by human right groups and activists. The Bhutanese refugee crisis wasn’t an out of the blue thing but a build-up of a series of events since 1988 when Bhutan conducted its southern population census targeting its Nepalese population. With the census, Bhutan re-classified several thousands of its citizens as illegal migrants.

Also Read: Images Capture Rohingya Grief as an Infant Dies Crossing the Myanmar Border

Going further, it introduced several repressive measures including its ‘One Nation, One People’, or Driglam policy, wherein the Nepalese population were forced to wear the northern traditional dress and adopt the culture of majority. It removed the Nepali language from the curriculum of schools. Bhutanese’s refugee activist Tek Nath Rijhal’s Torture Killing Me Softly is a grueling account of the period of his suffering in Bhutan’s prison for raising concerns over the plight of these Nepalese.

It must be noted that Bhutan doesn’t share its border with Nepal and when these refugees reached the Indian border, India ‘arranged’ trucks to see them off to Nepal. Since then, these refugees have been living in temporary settlements in south-eastern Nepal. In 2006, the process of the third country resettlement began, and by 2015, just about 20,000 refugees were left in the camps. What is so unsettling about the whole crisis is that even when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and countries like the US, Australia, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Norway took reasonable interest in the crisis and its aftermath, India remained aloof. There were several rounds of talk between Nepal and Bhutan but India preferred to look the other way. Had India intervened immediately, the crisis would have long resolved. If it had refused to carry the refugees to Nepal, things would have been very different today.

A woman walks among debris after fire destroyed shelters at a camp for internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine State near Sittwe, Myanmar May 3, 2016. Credit: Reuters

It couldn’t take a stand because the Indian establishment was briefed by its security apparatus, which ironically guides most of its foreign policy decisions, that getting involved in the ‘internal’ matter of a sovereign country could be counterproductive and China could find an opening into territory of India’s influence. This ‘trespassing’ has been India’s biggest fear ever since 1962 and as a result, India’s regional policy mostly looks like a deformed child with multiple useless limbs. What we see now is an India that isn’t either morally above China in its treatment to minority groups or has anymore influence over its neighbours than China. Bhutan is fast drifting towards China (which resulted in the Doklam standoff) and Myanmar is happy playing the China card. Similarly, most Nepalese in Nepal see China as their real friend and Sri Lanka is busy ratifying the Rajapaksa era treatise with China.

It’s time India gets into a course correction mode. The Rohingya crisis is a great opportunity for India to set its house in order. By taking a stand similar, if not stronger, to the UN Security Council, India can put the clock back to the right time. Instead of defending the indefensible, as it did in its response to observations on Myanmar made by the UNHCR at the 36th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, it should make it clear that as a democratic country, India stands for the equal rights of minorities across the world and deplores any breach of such values.

Also Watch: Is India’s Position on the Rohingya Refugee Crisis Tenable?

India should come out of its policy bottleneck where every act of its generosity is for immediate self-aggrandisement rather than long-term gain. It should ponder over the question again and again that if  it fails to stand with the Rohingya today, will it be able to claim tomorrow that it is rightfully with the people of Balochistan or Tibet?

‘Operation Insaniyat’ will have no insaniyat if it only means to provide ‘rice, pulses, sugar, salt, cooking oil, tea, ready to eat noodles, biscuits, mosquito nets’ to the poor Rohingya and doesn’t act to ensure the rights of these people. When the crisis ends – and it surely will one day – and Bangladesh looks back, it should not find, as Nepal did two decades ago, that India had left her to face the crisis alone. If that happens, India will no longer be able to enjoy the position it does in South Asia.

Vishnu Sharma is a journalist based in New Delhi. He has written on India-Nepal relationship and other issues related with democratic transition in Nepal.