Under international law deportation is defined as: ‘Expulsion is an act by a public authority to remove a person or persons against his or her will from the territory of that state. A successful expulsion of a person by a country is called a deportation.’
A study of expulsion of people across the world show that mass deportations are rooted in racism and prejudice which get institutionalized by laws and courts. For instance, in 1893 the US Supreme Court held in Fong v US that the US Constitution did not apply to deportation. In other words, Immigration authorities could develop practices to identify, round up and deport non-citizens without constitutional review.
Indians have faced mass deportations in several parts of the world, including Myanmar. Burma (as it was then) deported Burmese Indians in the 1960s. Several hundred thousand Indians were forced to leave the country after their properties were expropriated. It is estimated there were some 300,000 people of Indian origin who were deported.
But many chose to remain. They integrated into Burmese society, took to Burmese dress and language and even names. However, in 1982 Burma passed a citizenship law based on racism which deprived Burmese of South Asian origins of their citizenship; this included Burmese Indians and Rohingyas who were considered ‘Bengali’ and thus foreigners.
The statistics are unreliable but it is estimated 250,000 Indian-origin Burmese continued to live in the Zeyawaddy region. This was the area where Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian National Army had taken shelter during the anti-colonial movement.
The Burmese Indians who chose not to leave their homes in Burma became stateless. Between 1949 and 1961, out of 150,000 applications for Burmese citizenship by persons of Indian origin, less than a fifth were accepted. Burmese Indians and Rohingyas were designated as ‘resident foreigners’.
The Burmese Indians had no support from India and the only organization which devoted itself to helping them was the Sanatan Dharma Swayamsevak Sangh (SDSS), the Burmese arm of the RSS. The Hindu nationalist government has made deep ideological alliances with the Buddhist military regime.
In 1990 India encouraged Burmese activists to take refuge in India after the military crackdown there. These Burmese activists were helped and supported by many of those Indians who had been expelled in the 1960s. They still spoke Burmese language and had nostalgia for their days in Burma.
They blamed the military junta, not the Burmese people, for their suffering. And when the Burmese took shelter in India after the crackdown in 1990, it was those Burmese Indians who came forward to help the refugees. Many of these Burmese refugees chose to be resettled in the West with the help of the UNHCR but many went back to their country when Myanmar began its slow and painful transition to democracy.
But Myanmar did not finally transit into a full-fledged democracy. In February 2021 the military took over power once again; the election results were nullified and political leaders were jailed. The people of Myanmar were out on the streets protesting against the military and they were being shot down in the streets in every part of the country. Many took shelter in Thailand and others came to India; confident they would get a warm welcome.
Among those who took shelter in India was a large number of elected Members of Parliament. However, the Central Government in India passed an executive order that all these Myanmar refugees were to be treated as ‘illegal migrants’ liable to be arrested, detained and deported – even if their lives were in danger if they were sent back.
The two states in Northeast India with borders with Myanmar, Manipur and Mizoram, defied the Central Government’s orders and allowed the refugees from Myanmar to stay in the state. This was because the people in Mizoram and Manipur have links to Myanmar; many communities have been divided by the arbitrary international borders made by the British.
Among the refugees from Myanmar who have taken shelter in India are some 40,000 Rohingyas. The Rohingyas from Myanmar have been especial targets of India’s new policy. India has decided to treat them as illegal migrants and catch them to deport them back to Myanmar; even if they are recognized as refugees by the UNHCR.
Some Rohingyas have gone to court claiming their right against deportation or the right to non-refoulement. The courts have recognized the right as a part of the right to life ensured to foreigners under the Indian Constitution. But the Central Government has said in affidavits filed in the courts that such a right does not exist and have continued to deport Rohingyas.
The deportations of the Rohingyas from India have been harsh because many times families have been separated. For instance, 12-year-old Rubina last saw her mother a year ago when she was being taken away by policewomen in India’s Jammu region. Her mother, Hasina Begum, was among 170 Rohingya refugees who were detained and sent to a detention centre as part of a refugee verification process. It was after a year that Rubina learnt that her mother had been deported. https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/india-begins-deporting-rohingya-refugees/ Some Rohingyas who resist deportation by filing cases have found themselves in jail for years.
This new policy of treating all foreigners who enter India without travel documents as illegal migrants is aimed at all such foreigners. Recently the Chins from Myanmar who are mostly Christian by faith have been arrested and deported.
The Bureau of Immigration denies the legitimacy of the UNHCR’s right to recognize people as refugees. The Indian Government claims that since India is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees it is not obliged to honour rights of refugees. However, India sits on the executive council of the UNHCR.
As a result even those who are refugees under the mandate of the UNHCR have been arrested, detained and deported. These include UNHCR recognized refugees from Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and Myanmar. When human rights activists tried to ascertain how many UNHCR-recognized refugees have been deported under the Right to Information Act they were told it is a state secret.
So, the deportations continue. And the fear is that amendments made in the Indian citizenship law may lead to the deportation not only of foreigners but also of citizens of India because India has come very close to defining citizenship based on religion; just as Myanmar’s citizenship laws are rooted in race.