2018 Grant Award: Nakul Grover

The political situation in Burma has been in constant peril. Since their independence in 1948, the country has fallen into the hands of a military junta that refuses to acknowledge democratic rights for their citizens. Democracy in Burma is a new concept, and as the new government embraces this reality, it assumes Buddhism as a national religion, ignoring the citizenship rights of millions of Muslims in the Rakhine State of West Burma. These immigrants, better known as the Rohingyas, have been denied citizenship for decades. The UN has described this as the most serious form of ethnic cleansing seen in history after the Holocaust in WWII. The Rohingyas have faced racism, and crimes on the order of murder, rape, and kidnapping. Entire villages have been razed by Buddhist nationalists. Most recently, they have been banished to Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most populated countries on the planet. While Bangladesh has accepted nearly a million immigrants out of Muslim fraternity, 17% of the country gets submerged every year due to climate change and monsoons.

How will Bangladesh, manacled by poverty and climate change, handle a million more people when half the nation will be underwater? There is enough proof that Southern Bangladesh will be underwater soon. Beyond its own overpopulation, Bangladesh allowed about 600,000 Rohingya Muslims. These Rohingyas have been persecuted since the ’70s as “illegal Bengalis” or “kalars” even though some of them have existed in fabric of Burma since hundreds of years. Burma positions itself as a Buddhist nation that might lose its core values because of Islamic influence. The atrocious stories of murder and rape are hard to hear, but seem normalized to those who listen.

Before I visited Bangladesh, I began a scholarly review and travels in West Bengal, India. The PLA Travel Grant helped me purchase the books and journals required for this review. I also read, at length, about the politics of Myanmar and the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy.

During my travels in West Bengal, I was able to experience the colonial remnants of the British Empire at play with the forces of immigration in South Asia, including influences of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. I also learned and spoke in the Bengali language, which prepared me for Bangladesh where it is the national language.

I did not visit the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, or Myanmar, as it was unsafe for me to physically visit the camps. They are generally overpopulated regions with disease outbreaks and crime. However, I made the most use of my time in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, to meet with NGOs that work with disaster management, climate change, and maternity and child welfare for the Burmese immigrants. When I met with a senior official who works for disaster management and climate change construction, he told me the story of a couple that has relocated twelve times because of floods in regions that didn’t see floods before. The vehicle emissions of the American people indirectly affect an illiterate family of fishermen that have not seen cars in their lifetime.

The government’s ambivalence about the Rohingya people leads to an uncertain future. As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says, “We have a hundred and sixty million people in a small geographical land, another million will not affect us. We will share our food with them.” There is food for today but no assurance for tomorrow. While the government of Bangladesh along with the UN and various NGOs recognize that the condition of the refugee camps should improve, no one can answer whether these refugees will return to Burma, continue in Bangladesh, live in camps, seek employment within the rest of the country, or be treated as “temporary residents”. Some middlemen may bribe the immigrants, promising them Bangladeshi or Indian citizenship, which can cause their lives to be endangered. The Government of Assam in Northeast India has already declared 4 million residents as illegal in the National Register of Citizens.

While my work is an extended writing project in fiction, it draws from the contemporary events and history of South and Southeast Asia. This will also serve as my thesis for the Schreyer Honors College, and over the summer I was already able to apply my learnings of culture and the systems that govern the immigrant population. I am already 150+ pages into the novel and working with my thesis advisor, Professor Charlotte Holmes.