India’s dealings with Myanmar and Afghanistan shortchange national interest

Rohingya refugees pray inside a half-burnt mosque 0n 14 June 2021 after a fire destroyed a refugee camp in Delhi. Danish Siddiqui/REUTERS
04 February, 2023

On 20 December, five ships of the Indian Navy approached a boat that had entered India’s territorial waters. The boat had been adrift for weeks, since both its engines broke down on 4 December. It contained nearly two hundred Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who were in dire condition, with 26 of them having died. The navy reportedly moved in after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repeatedly appealed to Indian and Indonesian authorities to help the asylum seekers. It provided the refugees with food and water but towed them towards Indonesia, which eventually allowed the boat to land.

Myanmar’s inhuman treatment of a persecuted Muslim minority does not seem to move the Indian government, which only sees them as a security threat. The government calls the estimated forty thousand Rohingya refugees—sixteen thousand of whom have been registered by the UNHCR—“illegal immigrants” and regularly threatens to deport them. An anti-Muslim angle of Hindutva ideologues is likely at play, but the policy is also devised to appeal to the military junta and hard-line Buddhist nationalist opinion in Myanmar.

The alchemy of diplomacy is in finding the space to promote India’s constitutional values without sacrificing its strategic interests. While engaging with the reprehensible regime in Myanmar, New Delhi can still admonish the junta into doing the right thing. But, in Myanmar, as in Afghanistan, India has short-changed its interests and drained away the moral content of its position.

A desire to cosy up to the junta appears to be the reason the Modi government did not even raise questions when bombs dropped by the Myanmar Air Force to target Chin rebels landed on Indian territory. Locals from Farkawn, a town in Mizoram’s Champhai district located about ten kilometres from the border, told The Guardian that two bombs fell on the Indian side of the border on 11 January. This was confirmed by other eyewitnesses and the local police chief.