By Lekshmi Parameswaran
What is statelessness and who defines it were among some of the intriguing questions discussed and debated while discussing the book, “The Rohingya in South Asia”, brought out by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, at the India International Centre in New Delhi. Dr Meenakshi Gopinath, former principal of Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi, while introducing the book, termed Rohingyas Asia’s new “boat people” who have become "stateless" in South Asia and the human rights violations they are facing not just in their country of origin but the entire sub-continent.
Ranabir Samaddar, Director, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, emphasized that the issue of Rohingya should be viewed as a larger phenomenon indicating the global existence of a stateless population. “The Rohingya issue tells us why the current understanding of statelessness is inadequate. The protracted state of displacement where the country of origin do not wish to take them back and the drive for making sanitized citizenship is on points to a problem that cannot be solved by the state,” he said. An interesting aspect that he brought to light was how the state is creating a section of population that is important for the country’s economy but are politically invisible.
Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, professor of political science,Rabindra Bharati University, Santiniketan spoke about the precarious situation that the Rohingyas in India are facing and how the Rohingya community is turning into “Asia’s Palestinians”. Pointing to the situation in Bangladesh refugee camps, he said 60,000 girls aged between 6-18 years are unable to go to school because for the families “modesty is more important than education”.
Rita Manchanda, journalist and human rights activist, said, “The cycle of being rendered stateless, displaced and pushed out is continuous. There are huge concerns about insecurity, ability to access etc.” While speaking about the plight of Rohingyas, she said the discomfort seen in India to debate the topic has to do with what is happening in Assam and “our inability to deal with the specter of Bengali migrants outside the paradigms of national security and Islamophobia.”
Sanjay Chaturvedi, Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi urged everyone to think more critically about state, statecraft and statelessness. “We all live in a climate of excessive realism and excessive geopolitics,” he opined. He said, if Rohingya crisis is an indication of the kind of future that humanity is heading towards, there is a need to liberate our critical imagination so that we get out of the territorial trap.
Paula Banerjee, Vice Chancellor, Sanskrit University, Kolkata reiterated the point that there is an effort to “sanitize and purify” the states. “A community is accepted only when it voluntarily gives up its political rights. Rohingyas do not consider themselves as stateless. But by terming them so, we are taking away their rights of being a human being. When we talk about displacement in terms of climate change, security etc, we are dehumanizing a subject,” she said. She further stated that the Rohingyas are displaced because they are vulnerable, and their situation will remain precarious so that the labour prices remain low. In her concluding remarks, she said, “The greatest right that a refugee has is the right to return. We have taken away from Rohingyas the right to be nostalgic.”
(Lekshmi Parameswaran is Researcher, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)