Rohingya become pawns in India's political game

BJP's threat to deport Muslim migrants viewed as a bid to appease Hindu voters before national elections
Rohingya become pawns in India's political game

United Hindu Front members protest to demand the deportation of Rohingya Muslims in New Delhi on Aug. 5. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party has promised to deport Rohingya migrants if it wins an election in Rajasthan state. (Photo by Sajjai Hussain/AFP)

The rhetoric of India's pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against Rohingya Muslims is seen by activists and political commentators as an attempt to garner Hindu voters ahead of the 2019 national elections.

The BJP-led federal government has been pitching for the deportation of 40,000 Rohingya who migrated to India more than a year ago, describing the ethnic Muslims as "a national security threat."

In its latest move, the BJP in its Nov. 27 manifesto for elections in Rajasthan state promised deportation of Rohingya if the party comes to power. It also promised to offer citizenship to Hindus who had to leave Pakistan because of persecution.

The deportation threat "is mere posturing by the BJP as it intends to galvanize the Hindu vote bank ahead of next year's elections," Christian leader Joseph Dias told ucanews.com.

"Speaking against the Rohingya, who are ethnic Muslims, helps the BJP project itself as champions of Hindu interests," he said.

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More than a million Rohingya have fled Myanmar, mostly since August 2017, to escape what a United Nations fact-finding mission found was genocide. A U.N. report in August called for Myanmar military officials to face genocide charges over their campaign against the Rohingya.

Most of the Rohingya in India are living in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Telangana, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan. At least 16,500 are registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

For the past two years, Hindu groups have been targeting the refugees in Jammu and Kashmir, accusing them of enjoying the patronage of Pakistan-based terror groups that want to free Kashmir from Indian rule.

India has been offering asylum to Hindu religious minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh. "Just because the Rohingya immigrants are Muslims, you cannot demand their deportation," Dias said.

Rights activist Praveen Mishra said the BJP is attempting to exploit Rohingya people to win a political advantage.

"The Muslim identity of the Rohingya helps the BJP's brand of Hindu nationalism. The religious side of the story suits the BJP as the polls get nearer," Mishra said.

The BJP and its supporting Hindu groups are campaigning to make India a nation of Hindu dominance, which among other promises helped the party win 282 seats in the 2014 general elections and come to power in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi also promised massive policy changes to create economic growth, development of the rural sector, and employment opportunities for youth.

However, after four years leading the government, the BJP is accused of instigating violence against religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims besides failing to check rising prices and unemployment.

In its April 25 report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom accused the BJP of failing to address sectarian violence despite government statistics showing a sharp increase in such violence over the past two years.

"In 2017, religious freedom conditions continued a downward trend in India. India's history as a multicultural and multireligious society remained threatened by an increasing exclusionary conception of national identity based on religion," the report said.

Social activist Abdul Rashid Mir, who works among Rohingya in Jammu and Kashmir, said the BJP is trying to use the refugees as a scapegoat for its failures.

"For the past two years, we have seen how these ill-fated refugees have been harassed by the government. The more they are harassed, the more the BJP thinks it could gain popularity," Mir said.

He said Rohingya people worry each time the government announces deportation plans because they face death back in Myanmar.

Mohammad Ishaq, a Rohingya in Jammu, said police personnel often come to their streetside shanties and collect biometric details and other data in a veiled threat of preparing them for deportation.

"They harass us and our men and children with questions. But we have no other option than to suffer it," Ishaq told ucanews.com.

The BJP will not deport Rohingya migrants as it would violate international conventions, said rights activist Sarita Bhargav based in New Delhi. But the BJP will keep alive the threat of deportation as it helps the party, she said.

"The BJP is using them as bait for the voters. It will continue do so during the polls scheduled to be held in April 2019," Bhargay told ucanews.com.

Hindus form 966 million or 80 percent of India's population of 1.2 billion. Muslims account for 172 million or 14 percent while Christians comprise 29 million or 2.3 percent.

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