Chaos Over Rohingya Resettlement Is a Warning: India Can't Afford Two Communal Parties

It is embarrassing that a number as small as 40,000 should be called a threat for Hindus or a drain on national resources.

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The excitement after a senior minister’s announcement that the Union government was making arrangements for decent accommodation for Rohingya refugees in Delhi died very soon. And we must say, right at the outset, that the aggressive opposition by the Aam Aadmi Party to this humane gesture also played its role.

The announcement by Urban housing minister Hardeep Puri that new provisions for Rohingya refugees were being made was received with disbelief. Was the government thinking of changing its critical stance towards the refugees from Myanmar – people it had considered ‘illegal’ till now? Puri announced that Rohingya refugees would be allotted low-cost flats in western Delhi’s Bakkarwala area, with basic amenities and round-the-clock police protection.

That it was a well thought out decision was clear from Puri’s tweets. In a follow-up tweet, he said,

“India has always welcomed those who have sought refuge in the country. In a landmark decision all #Rohingya #Refugees will be shifted to EWS flats in Bakkarwala area of Delhi. They will be provided basic amenities,UNHCR IDs & round-the-clock @DelhiPolice protection.”

He also tagged the Prime Minister’s Office, leaving no doubt that the decision had blessings from the top.

Also read: How a Sweet Little School Play on Religious Diversity in Lucknow Was Given a Nasty Communal Spin

Puri’s announcement made people wonder if the devil could really have a change of heart. After all, it was the BJP which had turned the Rohingya – who are recognised by the United Nations as victims of genocidal violence in Myanmar – into a spectre to scare Hindus that they were soon going to be outnumbered by Muslims, who would be used as a vote bank by secular parties. The party and its leaders have repeatedly said that they will expel the Rohingya from India as soon as possible. So what changed for the BJP that it was now willing to adopt a more humane approach towards a Muslim group who had been forced to flee their homeland?

Unfortunately, the question lost its relevance because the Union home ministry moved fast to publicly shoot down Puri’s announcement, saying that the only plan the government had was to hold the “illegal” Rohingya in detention centres pending their deportation.

In the meantime, the Aam Aadmi Party jumped in to accuse the BJP of conspiring to settle the “dangerous” Rohingya permanently in Delhi. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia issued an angry statement lambasting the BJP and the Union government for this “vote bank politics”. AAP leaders said that the BJP wanted to have a permanent vote bank in the Rohingya, as the Congress had done by settling Bangladeshis earlier. Party spokesman Saurabh Bharadwaj also joined Sisodia, and both said that if the BJP wants to settle the refugees, they should do so in BJP-ruled states.

The AAP’s stand is outrageous. It is trying to compete with the BJP to cultivate “nationalist” voters by invoking the figure of a threatening outsider, in the form of Rohingya and Bangladeshis, from which the party will save Delhi’s voters.

How do the Rohingya become a threat to “Indians” – or Hindus, who are the real target for this propaganda? How can they be used as a vote bank? What is their actual number in India and Delhi? The Hindustan Times reports that “there are about 16,000 UNHCR-certified Rohingya refugees in India. The government estimate puts the figure of Rohingya refugees living in India beyond 40,000 with maximum concentration in and around Jammu.”

How many of these are in Delhi? According to HT, “As of early this year, around 1,100 Rohingya lived in Delhi … working mainly as manual labourers, hawkers and rickshaw pullers…”

How can some 1,000 people, driven out of their homeland and living a miserable life in Delhi, become a vote bank and a threat? How do nearly 40,000 refugees pose an existential threat to Indians? We know that the politics of the BJP needs an inner threat, in the form of Muslims. Rohingya or Bangladeshi is used as a code word for Muslims. It has used this imaginary threat repeatedly, in nearly all elections, thus making all Muslims suspect. It justifies the National Register of Citizens process using this excuse. All of us know who the real targets are when Rohingya or Bangladeshis are attacked.

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AAP’s stand on the Rohingya is consistent with the party’s tendency to villify Muslims in different contexts. It attacked the Tablighi Jamaat at the start of the pandemic, making all Muslims vulnerable; it distanced itself from the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement and called the Shaheen Bagh protest a BJP conspiracy; it remained a mute spectator when Muslims were being attacked in the Delhi violence in 2020. It tried to portray the murder of a Hindu boy, Rinku Sharma, in Delhi in February 2021 as communal by claiming that he was killed for having raised the slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. This was a lie, but party leaders repeated it. If we consider its latest outburst – at the possibility of Rohingya refugees being given dignified housing – it seems obvious that AAP is using communal dog whistling to try and capture the Hindutva vote bank created by the BJP in the past 70 years.

Recently in Gujarat, the rapists of Bilkis Bano and murderers of her daughter and other family members were released. AAP has maintained a silence on the issue, presumably because it fears annoying Hindus as Gujarat goes to the polls.

It is shameful that the BJP and AAP are making the Rohingya more and more insecure. The international community agrees that they have been persecuted by the Myanmar regime in their homeland and have been driven out. The regime is being tried in the international court for this “crime against humanity”. A tiny country like Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million Rohingya refugees.

It is embarrassing that a number as small as 40,000 should be called a threat to Hindus or a drain on national resources. We claim to be a country which shelters threatened identities. The CAA is justified on the same ground. And yet we are told that some 40,000-odd Rohingya are an existential threat to India.

The drama that unfolded on Wednesday not only exposed the brutal face of India, but also came as a warning – India cannot afford to have two communal parties competing with each other in a race to the bottom.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.