Examining India’s Stance on the Rohingya Crisis

By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke


When a nation feels that it is threatened by outside forces paving way for incursions into their sphere of influence, that nation will undertake any means to stop it. Myanmar, being predominantly a Buddhist nation felt that Rohingyas (a Muslim community) have started occupying their sphere of influence resulting in decrease and freedom of Buddhist community. For several decades, the issue of Rohingyas as a classic example of ethnic genocide exists in the books of refugee crisis. The Southeast Asian Buddhist nation sharing borders with India, China, Thailand, Laos, and Bangladesh whose diverse population include Buddhists, Hindus, Chinese atheist government, and Muslims have resulted in international outcry for both helping Rohingyas and as well as ditching them. This paper attempts to examine the India’s stance on Rohingya crisis divided into a three-phase stages.

Background Brief on Rohingyas

The Rohingyas are Muslim minority group who claim their native to be Myanmar’s Rakhine state. However, the Myanmar government’s verdict on Rohingyas stated them as undocumented immigrants originated from Bangladesh. According to Human Rights Watch, the Rohingyas are denied of Myanmar citizenship, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, movement, and employment including land ownership in Rakhine state.

Although stateless, they represent largest Muslim population in Myanmar. As of 2017 nearly 1 million Rohingyas were either displaced or began to flee from Rakhine state to Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The recent military coup that occurred last year disposing of National League for Democracy (NLD) by Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military) made the situation even worse for the Rohingyas. Many scholars have argued that unstable political system in Myanmar has been major contributing factor of this unsolved crisis since 1970s.

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Examining India’s stance on the Rohingya Crisis

It is a common notion for Indians lending their hands towards helpless. From monarchical period India has long records of understanding stateless people and taking them inside their country by granting refugee status. The most famous Buddhist leader Dalai Lama was also given political asylum status by past Indian government and tolerating his Tibet government in exile which he set up in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. India and Myanmar share diplomatic ties tracing back into historical, religious, and cultural dimensions. India and Myanmar signed a treaty in 1951 known as the ‘treaty of friendship’. The visit of late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to Myanmar in 1987 further strengthened the diplomatic relations between India and Myanmar. India has several ongoing economic projects (including Rakhine state) and trade activities with Myanmar.

Refugee crisis can be disastrous if not managed properly. That is the reason, India needs to equip itself with refugee management tactics while taking care of not corrupting the good bilateral relations with Myanmar. India is forced to act towards Rohingya issue due to its power projection status among Asia and rest of the world.

First Phase


India’s response to Rohingya crisis started back in 2012, when violent conflicts erupted between Myanmar’s government and Rohingyas in the Rakhine state. India intervened the conflict, but its support was mediated more towards Myanmar. Salman Kurshid, the then external affairs minister visited Myanmar’s Rakhine state to inspect the ground situation and later announced a US$ one million as humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas. Later that same year current UN Secretary General (the then UN high commissioner for refugees) Sir Antonio Guterres visited India leaving a token of appreciation for its long-standing tradition of understanding and helping refugees. Antonio on behalf of the UNHCR and New Delhi policy makers sat for a discussion about finding a solution to Rohingya crisis. India by that time had already allowed few thousands of Rohingyas to enter the country and settle down at Jammu & Kashmir.

The Rohingya issue started burning at an alarming rate in 2015 when Myanmar’s neighbouring states such as Thailand, Indonesia, and distant state Malaysia turned down permission for the boats carrying the Rohingyas to enter their territories. Several communities across the world made outcries towards India for lending her hand to Rohingya Muslims. By that time India saw a shift in power at central level (from Congress to BJP). This led to India dealing the Rohingya situation very differently.

India’s reply to the crisis can be divided into three stages. The first stage occurred during 2012 to 2015, where one can see events of India mediating its support between Rohingya Muslims and Myanmar’s government. India’s approach towards the crisis was shaped by combination of factors such as geopolitical, economic, and security interests. India’s actions of opening its borders to Rohingya between 2012 and 2015 was a result of gaining international image and sustaining its governance leadership position at the regional level.

India forecasted the threats to its diversified economic projects in the Northeast region further stretching till Myanmar via the Rakhine state. India felt that any deviation in its support against Rohingya Muslims during the early phase would result in turbulences in achieving its economic objectives. India through its state-owned oil company ONGC invested nearly US$ 121 million in Shwe gas fields to draw energy supplies to meet the country’s growing oil demand. The Shwe energy project was located offshore from Myanmar’s disputed Rakhine state. Another concern for India was that if the nation mediated towards Rohingyas then its ambitious plan to build a road connectivity corridor from North-East India to Myanmar would have adverse effects on its progress. India further planned to enhance the corridor with development of port Sittwe and in-land waterway in the Kalandan River.


In 2014 India and Myanmar authorities signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) regarding border crisis management. The growing violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar made them to migrate towards Bangladesh and later into India. Most of these immigrants began crossing the borders illegally. This made a loophole for terrorism activities such as illegal cross border smuggling to grow rapidly. The MoU between the two nations provided framework for security cooperation and intelligence sharing to strengthen their respective borders. The framework included details such as intelligence sharing on subjects related to insurgency, undocumented immigrant crossing, wildlife, arms, and drug trafficking. Both the nations agreed to help Rohingya Muslims who were deserted in borders towards safety shelters.

The then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) comprising of Congress at the central level promoted staying of Rohingyas in India without any hassle. In-fact all the events that occurred positively in the first phase of the India’s response to Rohingya crisis back in 2012 was due to the decision of Congress government. The UPA government had a mutual agreement with state government of Uttar Pradesh to accommodate thousands of Rohingya Muslims in their lands belonging to local government. Under the regime of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Rohingyas were considered as refugees and given better employment opportunities, regular donations, identity cards from UNHCR which granted them with additional humanitarian assistance from several international organisations. They were enabled to cross the borders without being questioned by the border police.

Now the question arises as why India allowed a lot of Rohingyas to stay inside the country during the period of 2012 to 2015. It was due to a lot of money in form of donations began to flow inside the country under Congress regime. Once Rohingyas entered Indian territory, the then government accepted them and granted refugee status to receive huge sum of funds from UNHCR and several other international organisations who were ready to support them. The next question is did those funds reach Rohingyas? What did the government do?

While some funds were indeed used to uplift the welfare status of Rohingyas, most of the incoming funds fell into the hands of politicians or NGOs who focus on refugee welfare. Hyderabad, the capital of Telangana’s state is also home to 4000 Rohingya Muslims. There has been recorded incidents stating refugees from camps were detained on several charges such as forgery, cheating, criminal breach of trust, and online money swindles. These collected funds through online campaign never reached to other refugees but instead used for living lavish lifestyles by the few culprits from Hyderabad camps While Rohingya’s small offences came into light, politically backed up money transfer labelled as Rohingya humanitarian assistance is shredded into secrecy.

Second Phase


The response to Rohingya crisis took a different turn when BJP led central government came to power. Their agenda was fully focused on strengthening India’s national security both internally and externally, so as a result their outlook on Rohingya crisis was different from UPA led government who supported Rohingya and delivered huge sum of humanitarian aid when ex-external affairs minister Salman Kurshid visited Myanmar. The first phase of response was heavily influenced by geopolitics and economic interests apart from UPA’s own agenda. During mid 2015 to late 2016 there were no major progression in events stating India’s actions towards Rohingya crisis as they were busy in setting up the big actions which are felt in India today. The second phase started in late 2017 as violent clash erupted in Rakhine state between Myanmar’s military and Rohingyas backed by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army which led to 1 million Rohingyas displaced. Once again there were large incoming groups of that community into various parts of northeast India. The authorities found that large numbers (estimated to be forty thousand) of Rohingyas were undocumented while only sixteen thousand were holding government issued refugee registered cards.

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All the views and opinions expressed are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled “Research Papers on Defence & Strategic Studies Vol. 1”. Image Credit- Google Images.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the founding-editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He currently works for an International Law Enforcement Organisation based in Singapore. He can be reached out via email at anirudh.r.phadke@viyug.com

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