Centre-State Dichotomy: India’s Response to the Influx of Myanmar Refugees




The continuing civil war in Myanmar, reaching a new level with the launch of Operation 1027 by the Brotherhood Alliance, is pushing thousands of humanitarian refugees into India. The Indian state’s response to the influx, however, appears in disarray. A crucial reason for that is the approach of the states bordering Myanmar —especially Manipur and Mizoram –are starkly different.

(Refugees from Myanmar in a relief camp in Aizawl. Photo Courtesy: The Telegraph)


Refugees are an inevitable consequence of conflict, and countries exposed by position or policy rarely escape the collateral damage of war. India is no exception. Strange then, given the long history of refugee movement from neighbouring states, that the best New Delhi has come up with in terms of the policy is an anti-refugee stance, especially regarding the Rohingya refugees and the Kuki-Chin-Zo tribes people from Myanmar. However, that position has faced multiple challenges from the population in the states, who live along the international border.                    

Anti-Rohingya Operations

On 20 December, the Jammu and Kashmir police launched a major crackdown in five Jammu districts (Jammu, Doda, Kishtwar, Poonch and Rajouri) against people allegedly providing shelter to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar or helping them get government documents. Nearly 40 people were picked up for questioning, following which some were arrested. Since 2021, the local leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been at the forefront of anti-Rohingya agitation, forcing the police to undertake such periodic raids. This hasn’t led to a decrease in the number of Rohingya in these districts, but it has subjected them to regular harassment. 

Similar drives against the Rohingya, deemed as ‘illegal foreigners,’ have taken place in other states as well. While rights organisations have described these measures as further victimizing those already victims, the poor refugees, several accounts have sought to paint them as threats to national security, being supposedly terrorist sympathisers and criminals. In November 2023, the Union Home Minister praised the Prime Minister for stopping Rohingya refugees from entering India. This is strange because thousands of ‘illegal’ Rohingya still reside in the country, and on one instance of possible bureaucratic lapse, the government had decided to move some of them to officially constructed apartments in the national capital, Delhi. Nevertheless, the government’s public policy remains opposed to their presence.

The Indian Coast Guard on 24 December 2023 rescued 142 Rohingya refugees, including 47 women and 59 minors, from the sea near Shaheed Dweep (also known as Neil Island) as they travelled perilously on a boat from Bangladesh to Indonesia. The boat, which had developed a technical snag, was towed to Shaheed Dweep by the marine police. The refugees were taken to Port Blair and kept in a temporary shelter by the local administration. However, that act, which earned praise from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was mostly humanitarian to save lives, without necessarily impinging on the country’s announced policy opposing if not denouncing refugees. 

Different Story in the Northeast

Hundreds of kilometres away, in the northeastern states of Manipur and Mizoram, the plight of the Kuki-Chin-Zo refugees, also from Myanmar, is different. Ever since the military coup of February 2021, thousands have crossed the porous border into Mizoram` and Manipur. Of the 1,643 kilometres of the Indo-Myanmar border, 398 kilometres are with Manipur and 510 kilometres with Mizoram. Most of the border is unfenced. The influx of refugees has significantly increased after the launch of Operation 1027 by the Brotherhood Alliance in October 2023. According to available open-source data, 4,000 refugees have entered Manipur and more than 30,000 are in Mizoram. However, local sources in Manipur cite a much lower figure of 2000, and ascribe the higher number as part of the state government’s ploy to exaggerate the influx.   

Chief Minister Manipur Biren Singh, belonging to the BJP, has often disingenuously blamed ‘Myanmarese foreigners’ for the continuing ethnic clashes between the majority Meiteis and the minority Kukis. India’s Home Minister has leveled similar accusations. Although on a few occasions Chief Minister Singh has admitted that the influx of Myanmar’s citizens into India is a humanitarian problem, the state government’s official policy remains geared towards getting rid of the refugees as a useful way to deflect attention from the ongoing realities of domestic strife.   

That objective has faced resistance from the state’s Kuki population, who have welcomed the refugees. The Kukis of Manipur are of the same ethnic stock as the refugees from Myanmar and many share familial ties. In addition, a free movement regime (FMR) that allows people from either side of the unfenced Indo-Myanmar border to crossover facilitates such movement without any obstruction. The arrangement was instituted in the 1970s and last revised in 2016. 

Under the FMR, every member of the hill tribes, who is either a citizen of India or a citizen of Myanmar, and who resides within 16 kilometres on either side of the border – an imperial legacy – can cross on the production of a border pass, usually valid for a year, and can stay for up to two weeks per visit. The Manipur government suspended the FMR in 2020, following the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet this has had little effect on either quotidian arrangements or the panic-driven movement of refugees who have fled from the violence in Myanmar. 

Open-arms policy in Mizoram

Contrary to the official position in Manipur that denigrates the refugees, the state government in Mizoram has welcomed them. Necessities and provisions have been provided. Over 6,000 children have been enrolled in schools. In September 2022, the state’s Home Minister said that the state disaster management and rehabilitation department had disbursed Rupees 3 crore as relief. NGOs, churches, student bodies, and village authorities too have pitched in to provide food and other relief materials to the refugees. The state government claimed that it had ‘more or less’ completed profiling of the refugees and issued them with identity cards and refugee certificates.

This brotherly embrace has led to a confrontation between the state government in Aizawl and the central government in New Delhi. The Mizoram state government’s appeal for financial help to assist the refugees from Myanmar, some moving from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts and close to 6,000 from neighbouring Manipur – twice displaced as they flee the ongoing ethnic clashes between the Kuki and Meiteis – has been ignored by New Delhi. On the other side, the state government, headed by the Mizo National Front (MNF), has refused to accede to the Centre’s June 2023 instruction to capture the biometric and biographic details of the refugees and complete it by September 2023. Chief Minister Zoramthanga’s stand has become a source of strain in ties between the state and the Centre. 

Mizoram’s position on the refugees appears unchanged even after a new government headed by the Zoram People’s Movement (ZPM) came to power in the elections held in December 2023. New Chief Minister Lalduhoma has said that he will provide better relief to the refugees compared to the previous government. ZPM supports the demand for Greater Mizoram that unites the Kuki-Chin-Zo tribes under one administrative unit.     

Need for a Tweak in the Official Policy

The Union government appears to be in an unrelenting mood concerning the influx of refugees. According to media reports, Delhi is set to scrap the FMR along the Myanmar border. A survey of the border areas with the help of drones has been completed and work on erecting fences around 300 kilometres of the border is reported to start soon. Visas will be required for cross-border movement. 

That proposal has met opposition from the Mizoram Chief Minister, who considers the boundary that divides India and Myanmar an artificial construct by the British that divides the Mizos among two countries. Objection is expected to be voiced by Nagaland, too, which has a similar view about the artificiality of the border. Even though border security is the domain of the Central government, opposition from the states may make the project of preserving the sanctity of the fenced border difficult. Following a meeting with Mizoram Chief Minister, the Union Home Minister assured in early January 2024 that no refugee from Myanmar would be deported until the situation normalizes in Myanmar. It is not clear, however, if the Union Government would reimburse the cost of assisting the refugees to the Mizoram government.     

It is one thing to say that India will not become the home to the continuously growing number of humanitarian refugees from neighbouring countries, and completely another to be idle about situations that result in these population movements. New Delhi’s policy of enforcing a zero-refugee regime in states like Manipur and Mizoram would need to include proactive steps that address the very conditions that continue to lead to the movement of Myanmar civilians into India. In this respect, one needs no further than the burgeoning refugee crises in Europe or North America for abject lessons in the futility of blaming the victims. 

Ironically, barring occasional expressions of concern and wish for a cessation of the violence through ‘constructive dialogue,’ India has pursued a Myanmar pro-military junta policy. As morally repugnant as it is futile, the policy, in the 35 months since the February 2021 coup, has not fulfilled any of India’s strategic objectives. The continuing fall of military posts and strategic towns into the hands of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) and the People’s Defence Forces (PDFs) has further weakened the military junta, rendering it incapable of addressing any of India’s security as well as strategic concerns. It is time to have a relook at the policy, keeping India’s interests in mind.  

(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray is the Director of Mantraya. This analysis has been published as part of Mantraya’s ongoing “Fragility, Conflict, and Peace Building” project. All Mantraya publications are peer-reviewed.)