Why you should care
This David vs. Goliath battle echoes an increasingly global tussle over fundamental democratic values.
It was night by the time the whispers reached Mohammad Yunus. The Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, had killed a group of men they had taken from Yunus’ Rohingya village earlier in the week. Now, they were returning with a fresh list, went the village rumor. And Yunus’ name was on it.
Yunus, his wife and their four children ran through that spring night in 2009. It was the start of a nine-month journey across the border into Bangladesh, through rivers and forests, a second national border and seven Indian states before they reached the northern Indian city of Jammu. There, they began a new life, poor — Yunus worked as a day laborer — but confident that the world’s largest democracy was at least a safe haven.
This is a country that treats even birds and animals well. And we’re human.
Now, their faith is being tested, and Yunus finds himself at the center of a national debate that many Indians believe goes to the core of the country’s identity. For centuries, India has opened its doors to refugees fleeing persecution. Followers of the Zoroastrian religion in the 8th century and the Baha’i faith a millennium later relocated to India after being targeted in what is now Iran. At least 5,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust found a home in India. The Dalai Lama escaped there on a donkey after China’s crackdown on Tibet in 1959. More than 10 million refugees from what was then East Pakistan came to the land of Mahatma Gandhi in 1971, during Bangladesh’s war of liberation against Pakistan. Sri Lankan Tamils and Afghan refugees fled the ravages of war to India through the 1980s and 1990s.
But the Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered the deportation of the more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees living in India, citing intelligence warnings of a security threat to justify the expulsion. That order has been challenged at the country’s Supreme Court, and the petitioner holding up a mirror to India? Yunus, a stateless man.
“This is a country that treats even birds and animals well,” Yunus tells OZY. “And we’re human.”
The 42-year-old’s salt-and-pepper beard and weary face belie his age. But Yunus doesn’t lack for spunk. Rohingya Muslims — most of whom have yet to receive Myanmar citizenship despite evidence that the community has lived there for well over a century — started trickling into India at the end of the last decade, after the first wave of clashes with Myanmar’s Buddhist majority. But the brutal violence against Rohingya Muslims this year, which U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein has called “textbook ethnic cleansing,” sparked an exodus. A majority of the more than 700,000 refugees who fled Myanmar in 2017 have stayed in Bangladesh, but a fraction entered India. Many came to Jammu, where a Rohingya settlement had formed. That’s when Hunar Gupta, a lawyer belonging to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), filed a petition in the High Court of the state — Jammu and Kashmir — in February seeking to expel the Rohingyas. Yunus heard on the radio that Gupta’s petition had triggered a broader debate, with experts divided on whether India could deport the Rohingyas. He decided to fight back, and teamed up with Colin Gonsalves, one of India’s best-known human rights lawyers.
Gupta points out that the Rohingya refugees are staying in India illegally, and the government therefore has a right to deport them. That’s the central argument that the Modi government has adopted, in its order that followed Gupta’s petition. The government has also claimed evidence of links between some Rohingya refugees and terrorist outfits. Gupta argues that the geography of Jammu, where most Rohingya refugees are based, makes even the slightest security risk something the government cannot ignore (the city lies close to India’s de facto border with Pakistan, its archenemy). He denies charges of religious discrimination because the Rohingyas are Muslims, a community the BJP has long had a strained relationship with, though he makes clear that he views all Rohingya refugees as a threat. “Unlike the past refugees who came to India, these people are not our friends,” he says.
But two Indian High Courts and the Supreme Court have indicated that India is bound by a fundamental principle of international law called non-refoulement, which bars the deportation of refugees if their lives are under threat in their country of origin. None of the past sets of refugees who have made India their home came “legally,” with visas. And Yunus and his lawyers insist not one Rohingya refugee faces actual charges of associating with terror groups — and the government has so far not detailed the evidence it claims to have. “Let them point out one case related to national security,” says Yunus.
Yunus’ battle, says Gonsalves, will have implications for all refugees in India and, more broadly, for the country and the values it cherishes. “This is about the soul of this country,” says Gonsalves.
Back in Jammu, though, it’s about survival. Earlier this year, hoardings emerged across the city exhorting its residents to hunt out and expel the refugees from the region. And in the squalid slum that the city’s Rohingyas call their home, Yunus says many have quietly started leaving their mud huts — heading to other cities like Delhi and Hyderabad in search of anonymity, if not asylum.
But Yunus says he is determined to not slink away, and that he retains hope in the Indian judiciary. “I’ll be shot dead if I go back to Myanmar,” he says. “Here, I can at least fight.”