Edited by Sabyascahi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar
Last week there were desperate scenes at refugee camps as Bangladesh tried to repatriate a group of Rohingya Muslims to Rakhine from where they had fled to escape a Myanmar army crackdown last year. The United Nations refugee agency had all along insisted that doubts persisted about their safety and conditions in Myanmar, and that they shouldn't be forced to return. Bangladesh, which has taken in more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims over the past 15 months, gave in after protests at the Cox Bazar camps and put off the repatriation move for the time-being.
Why are the Rohingya reluctant to return? After all, questions have been raised about conditions in the refugee camps, the cramped quarters, poor sanitation and the uncertain future of people living in them. In The Rohingya in South Asia: People Without a State, we get a fair idea of the magnitude of the crisis. Edited by Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar, it explains why the Rohingya are "now the world's most persecuted minority without citizenship."
In Myanmar, they became a "stateless population" in 1982 when the revised Myanmar Citizenship Law excluded them from the list of 135 national ethnic groups. But the fact is even before this, as they write in the introduction, for decades Muslims in Arakan (now called Rakhine), and particularly the Rohingya, have been subjected to "excessive violence, human rights abuses, and forced resettlement both within Myanmar and across borders..."
Last year, once the military operation began - the Myanmar government said it was targeting militants; the UN human rights chief saw it as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing" - hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh in rickety boats, many losing lives at sea. Most refugees said their homes and livelihood had been destroyed in Myanmar, and was wary of undertaking the journey back.
Fieldwork in Bangladesh
In 'Stateless, Floating People', Sucharita Sengupta traces the Rohingya journey, not merely from Myanmar, but from Bangladesh to other Southeast Asian countries across the 'kalapani' of the Bay of Bengal. Her fieldwork in Bangladesh shows that it is usually members of the second and third generations of Rohingya, between the ages of 18 and 21, who try to leave Bangladesh for countries like Malaysia and Thailand, and even to India.
In 2015, after 32 shallow graves were found in a remote district of Thailand, the enormity of the situation became apparent. "What was unveiled was a petrifying picture of death, a smuggling-trafficking nexus and torture on the high seas and border detention camps," she writes. Their plight in India is another story which Sahana Basavapatna brings to light in 'Where Do #IBelong?: The Stateless Rohingya in India.' Reports say there are over 40,000 Rohingya dispersed all over the country.
The 'other' in India
According to Basavapatna, in India, the "image of the Rohingya is uneviable: foreigner, Muslim, stateless, suspected Bangladeshi national, illiterate, impoverished... and the other..."
Rohingya are said to have been trickling into India since the 1970s and remained largely under the radar. But in 2012, when some 4,000 Rohingya protested in Delhi against living conditions, it "caused much alarm and made this stateless community visible."
The Rohingya demanded UNHCR documentation that would recognise them as refugees and give them access to some protection. The government may have launched the Refugee Status Determination system that will scrutinise asylum claims and issue long-term visas, but the experiences on the ground tell a different story, with a large number being arrested for violation of the Foreigner's Act, 1946, and a majority living in "deplorable conditions in slums or unauthorised colonies." The book provides an account of Rohingya life in Delhi, Jaipur, Mewat, Jammu, Hyderabad and West Bengal.
Following the law
What are the refugee laws in India? Will being recognised as a refugee give them a better life?
While India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, what about customary international laws, like the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids a country receiving asylum-seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution? That the Rohingya live desperately in India is apparent. This October, seven Rohingya men, arrested in 2012 for illegally entering Assam, were handed over to Myanmar authorities at Moreh, the border town in Manipur.
Read together with The State of Being Stateless: An Account of South Asia (edited by Paula Banerjee) and Azeem Ibrahim's searing portrayal of an acute marginalisation in The Rohingyas: Inside Myammar's Hidden Genocide, this book is another reminder that the world needs to "make a decision about them."
The Rohingya want the world to give them back the land that they can call their home, but in reality, argue Basu Ray Chaudhury and Samaddar, they are being pushed to 'oblivion of rightlessness'.
The reviewer is senior deputy
editor, The Hindu