AS I WRITE THIS, on a boat, in the middle of the sea, are Muslims who belong neither in Burma, nor in East Pakistan, nor India, Bangladesh, Indonesia or Malaysia. In a forgotten past, they were part of the kingdom of Arakan, or Rohang—hence, they are Rohingya. They have a narrative of their origins which asserts that they are descendants of Arab sailors or traders from the ninth century, that they have lived for centuries on the eastern shores of the Bay of Bengal, that they have forever moved between Chittagong in present-day Bangladesh and Pathein in present-day Burma. The kingdom of Arakan, which flourished from the fifteenth century along the northeastern Bay until it was subsumed by Burma in 1785, was acquired by the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War, which ran from 1824 to 1826. The Japanese occupation of Burma in the Second World War caused hundreds of thousands of Arakenese to flee towards Chittagong, but this was a short migration in their telling.
As India moved towards independence, Arakanese Muslims attempted to join the new Pakistan. Some migrated to East Bengal—later named East Pakistan—in 1947; some followed in 1952, some in 1965—as riots, persecution and famine created more and more displacements. As they crossed from Burma to Pakistan, each country accused the other of perfidy and dissidence. After the bloody war of 1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh, Burma claimed that the Rohingya were Bengalis fleeing into its territory from the Chittagong hills and that Bangladesh should take them back. In 1978, Burma launched a major military action to eradicate these Muslims, called the King Dragon Operation. Over 200,000 fled from Burma to Bangladesh. They were asked to go back.
The Rohingyas live at the edge of a post-Partition subcontinent, where an endless partition has been playing out for nearly a century. They are imagined to be citizens of the other half of a partitioned polity: they belong not here, but there. Hence, their presence here is illegal, and they are immoral, bereft of citizenship or even humanity. Their story is not unique in the subcontinent. Similar histories can be seen elsewhere—in Marichjhapi, Sylhet, Assam, Ladakh, Baltistan, Baluchistan, Sind. In these varied political spaces, there are constant forced migrations of communities by the state, efforts to settle or to expel them, as well as indigenous claims for re-partitioning the land. What we consider to be frontiers or borderlands are spaces where partition is continually enacted, or, at the least, imagined.