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The refugee crisis gripping Asia is make-or-break for Indian leadership

  • New Delhi wants to deport the 40,000 Rohingya Muslims currently residing in India amid concerns of terror threats and the potential destabilization of ally Bangladesh
  • The matter is expected to test Indian Prime Minister Modi's leadership

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a daunting challenge as his administration looks to deport Rohingya refugees while fending off international criticism — a balancing act expected to test New Delhi's superpower aims.

Escaping what the United Nations has called "ethnic cleansing" in Myanmar's northwest state of Rakhine, thousands of Rohingya — a Muslim-majority ethnic group — have sought shelter in neighboring countries.

Rome's Muslim Community rallies during a demonstration in support of Rohingya Muslims on September 18, 2017 in Rome, Italy.
Stefano Montesi / Corbis / Getty Images
Rome's Muslim Community rallies during a demonstration in support of Rohingya Muslims on September 18, 2017 in Rome, Italy.

Around 40,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to India over the past decade, out of which 16,500 are registered with the UN's refugee agency. Bangladesh, meanwhile, has received over 400,000 new arrivals since Myanmar's military began intensifying attacks on Rohingya villages last month.

As the violence in Rakhine escalates, New Delhi — which is not a party to two major international refugee laws — now wants to deport its population of Rohingya escapees back to Myanmar on what it says are national security concerns.

This week, Modi's administration said it had evidence of terror links between some India-based Rohingya and extremist groups such as Islamic State. Met with condemnation abroad and embraced by right-wing nationalists at home, the deportation plan is currently being debated in India's Supreme Court.

"There is urgent need for deft diplomacy by India," Ashok Sajjanhar, India's former ambassador to Kazakhstan, said in a Tuesday report published by the Vivekananda International Foundation, a non-partisan think tank.

The world's biggest democracy has to "simultaneously contend with challenges in its relations with its two extremely significant and sensitive neighbors, Bangladesh and Myanmar, as well as with international human rights watchdogs," he continued.

It's a tricky dilemma for New Delhi, which is looking to compete with China as a leading Asian power.

The Rohingya crisis will test "New Delhi's place in global politics," warned Kabir Taneja, associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. "How [India] balances the age-old conundrum of moralistic decision-making and realpolitik could shape its capabilities of geopolitical influence."

Modi must play his cards right to avoid undermining India's positioning in the region, Taneja continued — especially because China has already thrown its political weight behind Yangon.

Why India wants to deport the Rohingya

The belief in New Delhi is that Rohingya refugees will increase India's terrorism exposure, which is already at high levels amid threats from Pakistan-based insurgents.

The Rakhine crisis has triggered warnings of extremist violence around the region as organisations like Al-Qaeda urge followers to avenge the Rohingya. New Delhi is particularly concerned that Rohingya refugees could be members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, or ARSA.

Officials believe ARSA, an armed militia responsible for August's attack on Burmese security forces, may be linked to trans-national fundamentalist networks, but the Rakhine-based group has rejected such claims.

Modi is also worried about the impact on ally Bangladesh, according to Sajjanhar.

Dhaka's capacity to accommodate refugees "is bursting at the seams," with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina under increasing pressure from opposition parties close to Pakistan ahead of 2018 general elections, Sajjanhar said.

Hasina has requested Yangon to take back the refugees, but Myanmar's de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday that her country would only open its doors to "verified refugees." Her country refuses to grant the Rohingya citizenship.

"India should show leadership by protecting the beleaguered community and calling on the Burmese government to end the repression and atrocities causing these people to leave," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, noting that New Delhi had a long record of helping vulnerable populations from neighboring countries, including Sri Lankans, Afghans and Tibetans.