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How Delhi decides on migrant crises

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Communal tensions and outrage over the demolition drive in Jahangirpuri generated a curious response from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). In what is probably a bid to make political gains in Assam, the AAP blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for “illegally” placing “Bangladeshis and Rohingyas in different parts of the country to provoke riots”, perhaps signalling its willingness to play communal politics for electoral gains. But on a closer look, the statement highlights the growing divergence between India’s domestic political and regional strategic priorities.

India’s response to conflict-generated migration has been central to its regional diplomatic toolkit and power projection. In the absence of a dedicated refugee policy, such responses are driven by political preferences and compulsions. Not just India, most host countries’ decisions on whether, when, and how to respond to a mass influx of migrants i.e., to tolerate, accommodate, or repatriate them with or without the United Nations support, are shaped by their domestic political and international strategic priorities — not humanitarianism.

Humanitarianism would fail to explain India’s aversion to the Rohingyas, but toleration for the displaced Chin communities. Both are fleeing a murderous Myanmar junta, then why treat them differently? It is logical to focus on the religious profile of these communities i.e., the Rohingyas are Muslim, and the Chin are Christian. In a Hindu nationalism-dominated India that champions the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, welcoming persecuted non-Muslim minorities, the former is anathema, and the latter to be tolerated (mainly as a concession to the Mizoram National Front, a regional ally of the BJP).

But putting an analytical premium on ruling-party ideology risks missing out on the broader interaction between domestic political and international strategic logics of a host State’s response to migrant crises. For instance, a Congress-led India, ideologically less hostile to Muslims, was not necessarily open to mass influx of conflict-generated migrants. Instead, it sought solutions that aided repatriation or third-country resettlement, and often failed at achieving such results barring, perhaps, in 1971 (and some other cases), when a migrant crisis triggered the Bangladesh liberation war.

Recent studies on India’s response to such crises show that it is essential to locate where each crisis is positioned within a specific situational strategic context, i.e., how each problem helps or hinders the host State in generating (geo)political profit. It also lays bare that host States, not just India, have complex understandings of conflict-generated migrants i.e., not just as economic liabilities and security threats but also as potential assets in the social, economic, security, and strategic domains.

As Kelly Greenhill argues in Weapons of Mass Migration, forced displacement is a “widely deployed but largely unrecognized instrument of state influence”. For a country that experienced mass displacement, communal violence, and trauma during Partition — processes that fundamentally shaped India’s domestic political fabric and regional geopolitical fault lines — it is surprising how little conflict-generated migration features in the study of India’s foreign policy and security strategy. What makes this gap glaring is that India has, in the past, and for different reasons, covertly or overtly armed or supported sections of most (if not all) migrant communities that sought shelter on its soil.

Such toleration and support for migrant communities helped India balance its domestic political and international strategic priorities. India’s hosting of the Tibetan government-in-exile, including the Dalai Lama, is a powerful case in point. India’s domestic political opinion has consistently been supportive of the Tibetan cause, and offers India certain leverage in relation to Beijing. Not supporting fleeing Tibetans in the 1950s and 1960s, was not an option for India’s leaders, given its negative domestic ramifications.

Pre-emptive barriers to entry for the Rohingyas and partisan advocacy against their “illegal” presence in Jammu, Delhi and Hyderabad further domestic religious political agendas. But this is accompanied by behind-the-scenes diplomacy with Bangladesh, which bears the brunt of the Rohingya crisis and remains critical of the CAA. It also requires engagement with Myanmar’s junta, which is increasingly tilting in China’s direction.

These cases, supported by India’s accommodative response towards the Chakma community fleeing persecution in Bangladesh, as well as accommodation of Indians displaced from Uganda in the 1970s, and from Burma and Ceylon in the 1960s, demonstrate that India’s relations with the home State and the social composition of migrants determines the international strategic priority of each crisis (high or low). Similarly, the ruling party’s ideology and State absorption capacities inform the domestic political priority of each crisis (again, high or low).

As Indian policymakers realised in the case of the Chin migrants, far from depleting State resources, they’ve offered India leverage in Myanmar’s complex and fast-evolving battlefield. The Chin National Front targeted the junta the hardest in recent months, and most of its officers and cadres operate from Camp Victoria, a stone’s throw away from the Mizoram-Chin border. So instead of complicating India’s national security, they’ve fought anti-India People Liberation Army (Manipur) combatants inside Myanmar.

India’s failure to offer visas to Afghan allies in 2021 and the “othering” of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas raises the question: Has religious partisanship overshadowed India’s international strategic priorities for good? Unlikely. The fact that CAA hasn’t been fully implemented and doesn’t preclude India from welcoming Muslims means that India will decide on such issues on a case-by-case basis. These decisions are ultimately shaped by situational strategic contexts, and if circumstances dictate, India’s leadership may shed ideological blinkers in favour of national interests and regional power projection.

Avinash Paliwal teaches at SOAS University of London and is the author of My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal

The views expressed are personal

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