India’s Citizenship Policies Find Parallels in Neighboring Myanmar

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing at the public meeting, at Botad, in Gujarat. Photo courtesy of PIB India.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing at the public meeting, at Botad, in Gujarat. Photo courtesy of PIB India.

Guest post by Bidisha Biswas and Srobana Bhattacharya

Since December 2019, India has been embroiled in protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). The country’s Hindu nationalist government is insisting that the policies are meant only to define the parameters of Indian refugee and citizenship policy. Critics allege that the measures are thinly veiled attempts to reduce Indian Muslims to second-class citizens and, eventually, to detain or expel them. Reports of police brutality against peaceful protestors, the exclusionary rhetoric of several leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the construction of migrant detention centers lend credence to critics’ claims. If the Indian government forges ahead with its plans, what might the future hold? The political history of India’s neighbor, Myanmar (also called Burma), provides some clues. 

Myanmar, a multi-ethnic, majority Buddhist country, has long been subject to international condemnation for discriminatory treatment of its Rohingya Muslim population. Myanmar gained independence from British rule in 1948, a few months after Britain exited India. At the time of independence, India had leaders who were committed to building a country that was inclusive and democratic. This was not the case in Myanmar, which was immediately plunged into a bitter internal power struggle. This eventually led the military to seize power in 1962. 

The military junta enacted a series of policies targeting the Rohingya. In 1978, Operation Dragon King began identifying, prosecuting, forcibly relocating, and expelling those deemed “illegal migrants.” As a result, more than 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh. A 1982 law stripped the Rohingya of citizenship and the 1983 national census deleted them from the list of the country’s ethnic races. The term Rohingya was replaced by Bengali. Myanmar declared that, since the Bengalis had come to Myanmar after 1823 from what is now Bangladesh, they had no right to be in the country. 

In 1989, Myanmar initiated a citizen verification program—again targeting the Rohingya. By 1991, more than 250,000 Rohingyas had been forced into Bangladesh. More recently, continuing state-sanctioned violence has forced out hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, resulting in close to a million refugees being housed in Bangladesh. International observers, including a UN fact-finding mission, believe that the remaining Rohingya in Myanmar face genocide.  

Where does Myanmar find itself today? In 2018, Myanmar’s per capita GDP was $1,326. In contrast, Bangladesh’s per capita GDP was $1,750; and India’s was $2,020. This places the country on the lower end of the region’s economic spectrum, largely an outcome of international sanctions. Recent economic trends are not promising. Despite Myanmar’s rich history and architectural treasures, high paying Western tourism has slumped, largely due to global headlines about human rights abuses. The European Union is considering withdrawing its GSP status (the Generalized Systems of Preferences is a trade preference program), which would greatly harm Myanmar’s large garment manufacturing sector. International discussions about Myanmar are dominated by the humanitarian impact of the Rohingya crisis. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has been discredited internationally.

Myanmar and India have certain notable parallels. Many Buddhist residents of Myanmar view Muslims as infiltrators, a position codified into government policy. Similarly, Hindu nationalist leaders regularly refer to Muslims in India as infiltrators. The changes to India’s citizenship policies, targeted violence against Muslims, and the construction of detention camps bear striking similarities to the Myanmar case. India is unlikely to face the kind of international isolation that Myanmar has; still, its actions have already borne international costs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi puts great cache in his international reputation as a strong, dynamic, business-friendly leader and his government has often spoken of expanding India’s soft power. Yet, many international actors, including the United States Congressprominent news outlets, and economic analysts, have expressed concern about rising intolerance in the country. Global news about India is now dominated by coverage of the protests and accompanying violence, much of which has been explicitly or implicitly state-sanctioned. This collides with India’s push for more robust economic ties with other countries and its long-standing pursuit of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

A little-known offshoot of the Indian government’s proposed policies is the likely impact on its eastern neighbor, Bangladesh. It is widely believed the main target of the CAA and NRC are the large numbers of Bengali Muslims currently living in Assam and West Bengal. Under the CAA, Bengalis who are not Muslims would be given a pathway to citizenship; Muslims would not. If large numbers of Muslims are identified as being “illegal” and expelled, the obvious destination for them would be Bangladesh.

India denies that this will the case, but has not offered an alternate plan for where they would be sent. Bangladesh has already said that it will not accept deportees unless they can prove Bangladeshi citizenship. The situation is analogous to the actions taken by the Myanmar government to push its Muslim population into Bangladesh. The country is already reeling from the Rohingya refugee crisis; a similar move by India could foment instability in Bangladesh and create bilateral tensions. Already, we have seen large protests in Bangladesh against anti-Muslim violence in India.  

The coronavirus pandemic adds new challenges for India. For example, Muslims displaced in the recent violence in Delhi are now housed in makeshift camps—which are petri dishes for the spread of the virus, as well as for other public health problems. India has offered financial support to regional containment efforts, but, the credibility of such gestures is undermined by the country’s domestic situation and tensions with Bangladesh.

In Myanmar, an authoritarian and secretive government has used all its coercive power against the Rohingya. India is the world’s largest democracy, with global ambitions. It remains to be seen if the country’s civil society and decentralized politics can pull India away from the path that Burma has been on.  

Bidisha Biswas is a professor of political science at Western Washington University. Srobana Bhattacharya is an associate professor of political science at Georgia Southern University.

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