Opinion World

Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Help

Bangladesh has set an example with its response to the Rohingya crisis. India must stand firm in support.

“Bangladesh is not a rich country .. We have 160 million people in a small geographical land. But if we can feed 160 million people, another 500 or 700,000 people, we can do it. We can share our food. And our people are already doing it.” — Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina in a recent interview to Al Jazeera English.

Leaders have a powerful ability to bring out the best or the worst from others. The ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis is one such moment which calls upon leaders to make this choice: inspire their countries to take the high road or seek refuge in small-minded insecurities. Thus far, only one leader has chosen the first option: Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina.

Sheikh Hasina and the government of Bangladesh have led from the front, displaying exemplary generosity in responding to this humanitarian crisis. Bangladesh is now providing shelter to an estimated 800,000 Rohingya refugees. Half of them arrived in a matter of 20 days — following the Myanmar Army’s violent crackdown in the Rakhine State, which began on Aug 25. It is reported that the Cox Bazaar district administration has been constructing camps, roads, drinking water facilities, and relief distribution points on a 2000-acre forest plot to keep all the Rohingya who have so far entered Bangladesh in one place. The government has also played a stellar role in coordinating aid and assistance from international organisations such as UNHCR to ensure that assistance reaches the affected population. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the people of Bangladesh are deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize this year.

How can India help?

It is not within Bangladesh’s capacity to stop the conflict or indeed even manage the fallout. It is in India’s interests and within India’s capabilities to pay a constructive role in supporting Bangladesh deal with a crisis in the common neighbourhood.

The costs of non-involvement will be high for India. It is far better for refugees to be given sanctuary on the Bangladesh side of the border at a place close to their homes — allowing for their faster and easier return — than to end up in a situation where they engage in risky voyages and land up on the distant shores of India and South East Asia.

New Delhi must focus on ensuring that Bangladesh is successful in hosting, managing and, once the crisis passes, repatriating the refugees back to Myanmar. Bangladesh is an important neighbour and Sheikh Hasina is a pro-India leader — it is in India’s interests to ensure that she emerges politically stronger as a result of her courageous stance on this issue.

The Bangladeshi prime minister has invested tremendous political capital in the ongoing crisis. The ‘Rohingyas-are-a-terror-risk’ narrative that has dominated the Indian discourse finds resonance in a many Bangladeshis as well. And yet, Sheikh Hasina’s government has chosen to respond in a calm, calculated, and generous manner in responding to the immediate humanitarian crisis.

India’s policy response must cover several dimensions. First and most urgent is the matter of providing humanitarian relief in an adequate and timely manner. Operation Insaniyat is a good starting point. Under the first effort of this relief operation, an Indian Air Force (IAF) plane reached Chittagong on 14th September with 50 metric tonnes of relief assistance. It is further reported that India aims to provide 7000 tonnes of relief materials to Bangladesh. In 2008, India’s Ministry of External Affairs created a separate budget line for international disaster relief, allocating US$10-30 million a year on such efforts since then. The time is right to make Bangladesh the focus of India’s disaster relief efforts over the next few months.

Second, India must enlist the support of South East Asian countries in managing this humanitarian crisis in the common neighbourhood. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN and, so far, both the grouping and individual member-countries have yet to make significant contributions to managing the conflict and the fallout. Indian diplomacy must enlist the support of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand to weigh in politically on their ASEAN counterpart in Naypyidaw to stem the crisis, and extend financial support to the relief effort.

Third, Indian government can also help channelise money and technical assistance to Bangladesh from Indian NGOs and corporate donors. The Bangladeshi government has also started biometric identification of all Rohingya refugees. This project is expected to take many years to complete. The Indian government can offer its help in this exercise as well.

Finally, the Indian armed forces must cooperate with their Bangladeshi counterparts to better secure the maritime and littoral areas, and engage in joint rescue and relief operations. Intelligence and security cooperation between the two countries is also necessary.

What about the Rohingyas in India?

The Indian government must differentiate its stance on the stock of Rohingya refugees living in India and the recent flows of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. The former has a long history, and there are genuine political and security concerns over their presence in India. However, this is the worst possible time to consider their repatriation. The Indian republic’s values do not allow it to send vulnerable people who have sought refuge in its borders back into mortal danger. At this time, New Delhi must focus on bolstering Bangladesh and coordinating an international response to the humanitarian crisis.

About the author

Nitin Pai

Nitin Pai is co-founder & director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. His policy research covers defence economics and the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Pai is a graduate of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (National University of Singapore), Nanyang Technological University and National College (Bangalore).