An official document has emerged that prohibits both the district administration and civil society in Manipur from giving food or shelter to refugees from Myanmar. The document happens to be a confidential one sent by the Special Secretary (Home) for the Manipur government to the deputy commissioners of certain districts in Manipur.
Manipur and Mizoram share not just long borders with Myanmar but also cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties.
However, not all faith in humanity is lost as the document does not forbid the provision of medical attention, albeit only in cases of “grievous injuries”.
But manners still reign supreme as the instructions laid down require the refugees fleeing Myanmar for fear of their lives to be turned away “politely”. Following severe backlash, this order was later withdrawn with the explanation that the contents had been “misconstrued”.
This makes one wonder how mainstream news channels would have reacted if the refugee spoke Hindi or some Indo-European language. There may be a new ruling dispensation at the Centre at this time but the ethnicity and linguistic identity of the people holding power in New Delhi has always been the same.
Such is the case with mainstream television media as well. The gaze has always been that of a Hindi-speaking Indian.
However, this isn’t the first time the nation is faced with a refugee crisis. This nation was in fact born with a refugee crisis but even after the dust of the Partition somewhat settled, India still kept its doors wide open for refugees from all neighbouring nations.
After China invaded Tibet, Tibetan refugees including the Dalai Lama were given asylum in India in 1959. When East Pakistan’s struggle for liberation gained steam and the Pakistani Army aided by the Islamist Razakars cracked down heavily on the Bengali natives, it was India that gave refuge to at least 10 million Bengalis.
In fact, this land’s past is testament to how welcoming we’ve always been. Both Zoroastrians and Jews who fled from their own land fearing persecution were given refuge by rulers in what is now Western India.
PM Modi chooses to look away from Myanmar
Isn’t this the very government that was so concerned about persecution in neighbouring countries? To the extent that it was willing to put its own citizens in jeopardy, for refugees as long as they don’t subscribe to Islam?
Well, most Myanmarese people seeking shelter must be either Buddhist or Christian, so they very much meet the criteria. So why are they then being turned away? This is the time for the ruling dispensation to live up to its tall, ideologically motivated claims. Those that invoke the Sanskrit saying Vasudaiva Kutumbakam, which translates in English as “The World is One Family”, must now walk the talk.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi chooses to look away. He can also afford to do so because he and his loyal cadre of news channels know very well that the woes of those from the Northeast have no buyers in mainland India.
Had the refugees spoken a language closer to Hindi or had those from the Northeast mattered more in the larger national imagination, New Delhi couldn’t just have turned a blind eye.
This was evident when the recent reduction in the interest rates on small savings schemes was withdrawn, the current government does respond to public outcry but only when it can hurt them electorally. In this case, there is no visible public outcry.
Mizoram has so far resisted every order from the Centre to turn away refugees. For the Mizo people, it’s not merely a border issue but more of a cultural and ethnic one, for the Chin people in Myanmar are culturally related to the Mizos.
Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga has also said that it is his government’s duty to provide food and shelter to the refugees.
He has even held talks with both New Delhi and Myanmar and has also expressed displeasure at the Centre’s instructions. To much respite, the refugees have been receiving ample local support, especially from organisations like the Mizo Zirlai Pawl and the Young Mizo Association.
After weeks of mincing words, India has finally made an official condemnation of the violence against pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar.
But if pragmatism is the Centre’s excuse for its delayed condemnation and ambiguous stance on the issue, it must be reminded that as a nation born out of a peaceful struggle for independence and democracy, our constitutional morality requires us to stand shoulder to shoulder with pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar.
Digbijoy Ghose is a student of Deviprasad Goenka Management College of Media Studies, Mumbai