The Rohingya Question - Part 3

3. Anti-Indian Riots in British Burma

The Burmese history is replete with accusations against the British government of following a policy of divide and rule; deliberately separating the hilly people from the Burmans/Burmese. According to historian Maung Aung, this policy had the full support of the Christian missions, who wanted to convert the hilly people to Christianity. The British government also kept the racial groups further apart by denying military training to the Burmans and Shans, and giving that privilege to Chins, Kachins and Karens. The latter fought alongside the British and Indian forces – drawn mostly from the Gurkha (Nepalese) and Sikh population - in campaign against the guerillas. The Burmese also hated that in the Anglo-Burmese wars, the Indian troops had fought side by side with the British in their regiments

The race relationship inside Burma worsened after the First World War, especially, after the Great Depression which made most cultivators poor and broke. With the general peasantry feeling victimized by the Chettiars, with nationalist sentiments running high amongst students of the newly created Rangoon University and with the Buddhist monks agitating the population against the non-Buddhists who had settled in Burma – permanently or temporarily - it was a question of time when the mass anger would be directed against not only the Chettiars but also against anyone who looked different than a Burman.

A broad rebellion of Burman peasants led by U Saya San, a disrobed monk and mystic pretending to be the heir to the Burmese monarchy (minlaung), shook the province of Burma in 1930-32. The rebellion handled by Indian, Karen, Chin and Kachin police forces, working for the government, left between 1,700 and 3,000 dead after 18 months of unrest.

A night-long riot on May 26, 1930 stirred up by ethnic Burmans in Rangoon’s Indian quarters left hundreds of people of Indian origin dead as well as nearly 2000 injured.  [iii] The problem started in the port of Rangoon where a British firm had laid off hundreds of Indian dock workers who had went on strike demanding higher pay. The British firm irresponsibly hired temporary Burmese workers to fill in those positions who were let go when the Indian coolies or dockworkers gave in and ended their strike. Next morning when the Burmese workers came and reported for work they were told by the British firm that their service was no longer needed. Some Burmese workers were angry and started attacking Indians who retaliated. It grew rapidly into an anti-Indian (including anti-Muslim) riot. Even within the first half-hour at least two hundred Indians were massacred and flung into the river. Authorities ordered the police to fire upon any assembly of five or more who refused to lay down their arms, under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Within two days, the riot spread all over Burma from Rangoon to surrounding towns, and especially to the Hanthawaddy district towns of Kayan, Thongwa and Kyauktan, where a concentration of Indian landowners and tenants had gained footholds among the predominantly Burmese lands.[iv]

Anti-Chinese riots led by Burmese mobs erupted in Rangoon’s Chinatown (near the Indian town) in January of 1931 in which 12 Chinese died and 88 were wounded. [v] The rioting spread to parts of Toungoo, Pegu and Hanthawaddy districts. As to the reason behind the riot, Robert Taylor notes, “Though the Chinese population of Burma was then relatively small, and relations between Chinese and Burmese had never suffered from the cultural and economic strains that affected Burmese-Indian relations, the indigenous population felt a mounting hostility toward any group which seemed to be prospering during the current conditions.”[vi]

Following the 1935 Government of India Acts reforms, the British granted Burma a larger autonomous status with the Government of Burma Act. However, with very few educated Burmese available to do the necessary tasks, most of the government affairs continued to be run by the Indian subjects. This attitude of the British government was resented by most Burmese who started the ‘Burma for Burmese only’ Campaign. The Burmese mob marched to the Muslim (Surti) Bazaar. While the Indian Police broke the violent demonstration, three monks were hurt. Burmese newspapers uses the pictures of Indian police attacking the Buddhist monks to further incite the spread of riots. Muslim properties: shops, houses and mosques were looted, destroyed and burned. They also assaulted and killed Muslims. It spread all over Burma and a recorded 113 mosques were damaged. The Burmese also resented the fact that all the anti-government and race riots were quelled by Indian (and Karen, Chin and Kachin) troops and police forces.

New waves of anti-Indian violence (more specifically anti-Muslim) were stirred up in July-August 1938 by the Burman population in the country’s major cities while general strikes (workers, civil servants and students) paralyzed the economy of the province. Riots began on July 26 in the capital of Rangoon and spread to almost all of southern and central Burma, including Mandalay. The rioting lasted for a month, officially causing the death of 204 people and leaving 1,000 injured.[vii] Buddhist monks took a leading role in organizing these riots. On September 2, 1938 another outbreak of anti-Indian rioting occurred in Rangoon. Although somewhat less severe and restricted to Rangoon only, the disturbance lasted for six days[viii]

On September 22, 1938, the British Governor set up an inquiry committee to investigate the reasons behind the riots. The Riot Inquiry Committee found out that the real cause was the discontent in the Ba Maw government regarding the deterioration in sociopolitical and economic conditions of Burmans.[ix] In these riots, as noted by historian Moshe Yegar, the real agenda was aimed at British government but the Burmese dared not show this openly.[x] Growing Nationalistic sentiments were fanned by the local media and disguised as anti-Muslim to avoid early detection and notice.[xi]

In March 1939 there were serious communal and agrarian troubles in Shwebo and Myaungmya. Later in the same month additional Military Police units had to be sent to Myaungmya because of Burmese attacks on Indians. Military Police units were also sent to patrol Shwebo and parts of Katha in the north because of attacks by Burmese on Muslim and Zerbadi (Indo-Burmese Muslim) villages. The troubles spread to Tharrawaddy district as well. According to an intelligence report, cited by Taylor in ‘The State in Burma’: “In fact, my firm conviction is that the basis of half of the Tharrawaddy trouble consists in the exorbitant rents charged by the Chettyars and moneylenders. This rent will have to come down if we are going to expect even comparative peace here. In fact these Chettyars who live safely in Rangoon and come to the district only to screw the last basket of paddy out of the tenants are the direct cause of crime and should be made to pay for the results.”[xii]

By April, 1939, riots had spread to Bassein, Pyapon, Pegu, Lower Chindwin, Shwebo and Myaungmya. The Burmese rioters followed a rick and hut burning campaign in an effort to drive off Indian tenants. The burning of hayricks and field huts continued mostly in Pegu and Irrawaddy divisions. Communal riots continued throughout June, July and August[xiii]

3.1. The Baxter Report
A commission of inquiry, formed in 1939 by the Governor of Burma, examined the question of Indian immigration into Burma. It was prompted by communal disturbances during the previous year due to “the existence of a serious misapprehension in the minds of many Burmans that Indian immigration was largely responsible for unemployment or under-employment among the indigenous population of Burma” (Joint Indo-Burmese Statement). The Commission was headed by James Baxter, Financial Secretary, Tin Tut, Barrister-at-Law and the first Burmese member of the prestigious Indian Civil Service, and Ratilal Desai MA.  

The Report of the Commission, more commonly known as the Baxter Report, was completed in October 1940 and was published in Rangoon in 1941 by the Government Printing and Stationery Office. The Report made recommendations which were generally accepted by the Governments of Burma and India. The Agreement provided that the existing Immigration Order of 1937 would continue at least until 1 October 1945, while Indian immigration into Burma would be subject to the new rules contained in the Agreement with effect from 1 October 1941. 

Since the Baxter Report is often cited by anti-Rohingya propagandists, including Myanmar and Rakhine government officials, to claim that the Rohingyas are a product of the British-era influx,[xiv] it is important to analyze this report in great length to understand the so-called immigration of the Indians, in general, and the Bengalis and Chittagonians, in particular.

Contrary to popular myths today, the so-called Baxter Report, however, found: “Unlike immigrants in general in other parts of Burma who commonly spend periods of three years or thereabouts in the country without returning home, the bulk of the Chittagonian immigrants in Arakan who come to reap the paddy crop go back to Chittagong when the harvesting operations are over. The nearness of their homes and the small amount of money required for the journey make this possible.”[xv]

The report also makes it clear that except in 1872 when the census was taken in August 15, in other years – 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911, 1921 and 1931 - the censuses were taken on a single date, which ranged from February 17th to March 18th, that is when paddy reaping season was nearing its end or had definitely ended and that outbound passenger traffic to Indian ports outnumbered those incoming passengers. [As noted by Michael Charney in his doctoral dissertation, it is unclear who the census takers were in 1872, and there is strong possibility that the census on Muslims was incorrect. It is worth noting here that for the Muslim population to become 58,255 in 1871 from 30,000 in 1826 it would have required a growth rate of only 1.48%, which is well below the norm, suggesting that many Muslims probably were not counted in that census.]

As to the census between 1921 and 1931, the report says, “A difference in census dates such as that between the 1921 census (March 18th) and the 1931 census (February 24th) may therefore appreciably influence the record size of the Indian population and its occupational distribution. The numerical effect would be greatest in Akyab District where the large number of Chittagonians who come annually to reap the rice crop would to a considerable extent have gone home by February 17th but to a still great extent by March 18th. In Lower Burma the effect on total numbers would be less marked but the degree to which the Indian population is engaged in agriculture or employed in other occupations would be sensibly different on February 24th than on March 18th.”[xvi]

As a newer territory under the British Raj, it is not difficult to understand such seasonal migration patterns of skilled laborers to Burma to make up for the internal demand. In the same colonial period, there were also many Burmese and other nationalities who migrated to Bengal and other parts of India. For instance, Calcutta was a favorable destination for many of these Burmese. Very rarely did any of these migrants permanently settle in territories away from their place of birth or rearing.

Consequently, the report says in Section 5, pages 3 and 4, “It is not known what proportion of Indians born outside Burma had settled down in Burma and regarded it as their permanent residence. The attempt made to distinguish between Indians permanently resident and Indians temporarily resident in Burma failed because of suspicion in the minds of many Indians regarding the motive behind the inquiry. Some part of the “born out” Indian population in Burma will of course have been long resident in the country and have adopted it as their home. But how large or how small this part may be, there is no means of ascertaining. When a special industrial census was taken in 1921 of labourers employed in a number of the principal industries such as rubber, minerals, wood, metals, rice, oil-refining and the construction of means of transport, it was found that out of a total of 62,498 male Indian labourers born outside Burma and engaged in these industries, only 2,598 reported that they intended to reside permanently in the country. Whether the same proportion would hold good for Indians born outside Burma employed in agriculture, trade, or industries other than those mentioned, it is impossible to say. Broadly however it will be assumed in this report that Indians born in Burma are permanently settled and that Burma is the country of their adoption whereas Indians born outside Burma will be regarded as constituting a population the great bulk of which regards Burma as a place of temporary residence where under the compelling force of economic necessity many Indians spend a part, sometimes a considerable part, of their lives but with the intention, or at least the hope, of eventually returning and settling down in the country of their birth." [xvii]

The report continues, “The tracing of the growth of the Indian population through the series of census reports is a matter of some complexity. It was not until the sixth census, that of 1921, that a racial classification of the population was attempted. In previous censuses the population was classified by religion only.”[xviii] It continues, “It is assumed in the following tables that the Indian population at the time of the first census in 1872 is the sum of the Hindu and Mohamedan populations as recorded in the census of that year. There is little objection to assuming that all the Hindus were Indian but it is not so true to assume that all the Mohamedans were Indian. There was an Arakanese Muslim community settled so long in Akyab District that it had for all intents and purposes to be regarded as an indigenous race. There were also a few Mohamedan Kamans in Arakan and a small but long established Muslim community around Moulemin which could not be regarded as Indian. There is no record of the numbers of any of these categories of Mohamedans in the 1872 census returns and consequently no allowance can be made for them by way of deduction from the Hindu and Mohamedan population figures.” [xix] It is worth noting here that by the phrase ‘Arakanese Muslim’ community above, mostly the Rohingya community (the other groups being Kaman, Turko-Pathans and Tambukias) are meant.[xx]

As to the classification by races in 1921 and 1931, the report says, “For these years the Indian constituent of the population is taken to be the number of persons who then returned themselves as belonging to one of the forty specified Indian races, or who were tabulated as “Indians of unspecified race” where their records though indefinite showed they belonged to an Indian race.”[xxi] It is, thus, not difficult to understand why the British authority would classify the Rohingya Muslims, more like a force field analysis, under Bengali or Chittagonian race.

In the table provided on Section 8, page 5 of the report it shows the total number of Indians (Hindus and Muslims) in 1872 at 136,504 in a total Burmese population of 2,747,158 – representing 4.9%. (As noted earlier, however, since the 1872 census was done on August 15 and not during the February-March period, which is the case for other censuses that followed, a valid comparison with other years is not possible.) In 1911, the corresponding numbers are 743,288 and 12,115,287 – representing 6.1%. As to the probable reason behind higher percentage, the report notes, “The Indian population figures for the censuses 1881 to 1911 inclusive are probably too high. There is reason to believe that some of the Arakanese Mohamedans returned an Indian vernacular as their mother tongue since although they use Burmese in writing, among themselves they commonly speak the language of their ancestors.” [xxii]

It is not farfetched to conclude from the above statement that the census process was far from being accurate, and that many Arakanese Muslims who were bi- or multi-lingual felt coerced by the British census bureau to be categorized as Indians simply because of their looks or familiarity with any of the Indian vernaculars.

Commenting on the Indian population in Lower Burma the report notes, “To the extent that the language returns in the 1881 to 1911 censuses give an Indian population higher than the real one mainly because of the inclusion of a proportion of the Arakanese Muslims, the figures are inaccurate.” [xxiii]

What is obvious from the report is that while the Indian population in Burma increased, mostly due to temporary residents who worked in the fields, factories, ports and offices, the increase within the Arakanese Muslim population cannot be ascribed to such factors, but it was an organic one by any count. [See below for supporting evidences.]

Commenting on the Indian population in Upper Burma, where the table showed that there were 62,658 Indians in 1891 and 61,645 in 1901, the report notes, “There would seem to be an error in the 1901 figure. The Hindu and the Mohamedan populations in Upper Burma then numbered together 88,670 or 2.3 percent of the whole population, an increase of 17,233 on the 1891 figure. In view of this increase, it is hardly credible that the number of persons using as an Indian vernacular as their customary speech should have diminished.”[xxiv]

Commenting on the population in the Arakan Division, which showed an Indian population of 197,990 in 1911 against a total of 839,896, the report says, “For the reasons already given, the 1881 to 1911 Indian population figures are probably too high since they are believed to include a considerable number of Arakanese Muslims. In 1911, for example, the Hindu and Mohamedan populations in Arakan together amounted to 202,320 persons or only 4,330 more than the number who returned an Indian vernacular.” It is also important to note here that the percentage of Indian population in Arakan actually show a downward trend from 1911 to 1931 going down from 23.5% to 22.7% in 1921 to 21.6% in 1931. The places where Indian population grew more than local population were Pegu, Irrawaddy and Tennasserim divisions. [xxvi] The increase in the Indian population in Rangoon was due to the fact that the city had essentially become the economic hub of Burma, which required skilled laborers and educated workers to meet the demand of a growing city for which little skilled Burmese could be found. As noted by Burmese historians like Aung, the colonial administration did not pay much attention to education of the local people, and would rather depend on Indian clerks, police, and soldiers to fill in those positions. For example, the Gurkha population (mostly employed as soldiers and police for the British government) rose by 78% from 22,251 to 39,352 between 1921 and 1931.[xxvii]

The Section 13, page 8 of the report makes it abundantly clear that an estimate of the number of persons of Indian race was no easy matter because of the lack of reliable data on Indian births and deaths and because of the substantial discrepancies between the returns of immigrants and emigrants made by the shipping companies to the Port Commissioners and the records kept by the Port Health Officers. It notes, “The probable error in any calculations based upon these data is considerable and an estimate of the size of the Indian population in 1939 can only be regarded as a rough approximation.” The report mentions that according to Dr. Bernardelli, who had used available material, the Indian population towards the end of 1939 was in the neighborhood of 918,000, and that it had declined by 100,000 since 1931. [xxviii]  Nonetheless, the report mentions about steady increase in the percentage of Indians born in Burma (except in 1901 where it fell). [xxix] This can easily be explained away by the fact that Buddhist population traditionally had a smaller growth rate compared to both Hindus and Muslims. [xxx]

The report also mentions that in 1931, the total number of Indians living inside Lower Burma was 849,000 representing 10.9% of the entire population. Of the Indians, 83.4% lived in Lower Burma, 13.2% in Upper Burma and 3.3% in the Shan States and Karenni. Rangoon and Akyab Districts accounted for 21% apiece. As to the large percentage in Akyab, which comprised one third of the total city population, the report mentions the indigenous nature of those settled communities. Outside Akyab, the other places where the Indian population lived in large numbers were Rangoon and the districts within easy reach of the capital and connected with it by rail and river, again highlighting the fact that they were there because of the attractiveness of those places as economic hubs of Burma. In Rangoon, where the Indian population was roughly 53% of the city, many of these Indians were employed in administrative jobs. [xxxi]

The 1931 census shows that there were some 252,000 so-called Chittagonians living in Burma, in addition to another 66,000 so-called Bengalis out of a total Indian population of 1,017,825. That is, approximately 31% of the Indian population was culturally identified with those in nearby Bengal and Chittagong.[xxxii]
The report also provides sex and age distribution of the Indian population inside Burma. It notes, “Except in Akyab District where the Indian community is predominantly settled, the age and sex distributions of the Indian population were in a state of acute disequilibrium due to the presence of a large excess of immigrant males especially in the age groups of 15 years and over.”[xxxiii] This statement again points to the fact that most Indians living in Burma were temporary workers who did not intend to settle there, and that the reason for Akyab having balanced sexes within the Indian population was that they were a settled community (unlike the seasonal migrants from other parts of India).

The report shows that in 1931 out of a total population of 1,008,538 in Arakan, the Indian population counted for only 217,801, of which 210,990 lived in Akyab District. It is not difficult to understand the reason: being a busy port, Akyab, by then with a population of 637,580, had become a major attraction for job seekers. Of the Indian population in Akyab, 167,000 identified themselves as having been born in Burma, and were split roughly equally between the sexes. [xxxiv] Since the number of Hindustanis and Oriyas in Akyab comprised only 6% of the total population, it is safe to assume that the Indian population there is almost all Rohingya population. A vast majority of the Indian population in Akyab was engaged in agriculture sector. It is worth pointing out here that the original Rohingya population of 30,000 in 1826 could have easily grown to 362,000 by 1931 with an annual population growth rate of 2.4%. So, it is plausible that the census was not reliable or that a majority of the Rohingya indigenous community by 1931 had moved away from Akyab to other parts of Burma. Additionally, the 1931 census figure for Akyab shows that there were 210,990 Indians, which is actually smaller than the 1922 census for combined Hindus and Muslims.[xxxv] It is difficult to explain such an anomaly considering the fact that Akyab, like Rangoon, had become an important port unless the 1922 and/or 1921 census data were unreliable, a theme that was repeated within the body of the report a number of times.[xxxvi]

The report also provides some information about the so-called Indians living – permanently or temporarily - inside Burma and Arakan when the censuses were taken.[xxxvii]

Total Indians in Burma
Born in India
Born in Burma

It can be seen from the table above that there was a major influx of Indians moving into Burma after the entire country was colonized by the British government. As already noted, many of them came with the colonial administration. A comparison with the census data in 1891 also points to the fact that the 1881 census data for the so-called Indian population born in Burma is unreliable.[xxxviii] As we have already noted above, the original Rohingya population could have grown to above 360,000 by 1931; as such the 1931 figure for the so-called Indians born in Burma may well be from the Rohingya community alone. If the data for 1891 and 1931 could be trusted, the annual population growth rate within those born inside Burma was 2.46%, which was not that unrealistic.

If this table on Burma is compared against the population sample obtained for Arakan (see the table below), we notice that until 1881, the bulk of the Indian population who were born in Burma were from Arakan, again pointing out the indigenous nature of those people. Between 1891 and 1931 the Indian population inside Arakan who were born there grew by only 2%, well below comparable numbers for other Indians, reflecting the fact that the growth was an organic one and did not have anything to do with influx from outside. It is quite possible that many of those Indians born in Arakan had moved to divisions outside Arakan. At the time of 1931 census nearly 77% of the Indians in Arakan were born in Burma.[xxxix]

It is also worth pointing out that while the total Indian population in Burma grew by 2.9% between 1881 and 1931, the same cannot be said about them within Arakan where they grew by only 1.3%. The lower-than-expected growth rate also points to the obvious fact that many of those Indians living inside Arakan were temporary workers or laborers. On the other hand, as to those Indians born in Arakan, an annual growth rate of only 2% is required to explain the growth between 1891 and 1931, pointing to the organic nature of the population growth, and not a superficial one. [As noted above, a fraction of those born in Arakan may have also moved to other parts of Burma by 1931.]

Total Indians in Arakan
Born in India
Born in Arakan

On the matter of annual increase or decrease in the Indian population in Burma due to immigration from and emigration to India, the report notes, “Unfortunately, the records are so flagrantly at variance and lead to conclusions so widely different that it seems hardly worth while trying to draw any inferences whatsoever from such dubious material.” As to the nature of such trends, the report says, “Indian immigrants ordinarily spend from two to four years in Burma before going home, the period being shorter or longer according s the savings they accumulate are greater or less. Immigrants arriving in 1927 and 1928 would expect to revisit their homes in India in about 1930 and 1931. High immigrant figures in 1927 and 1928 would therefore connote high emigrant figures about 1930 and 1931.” [xli]

As to the causes governing periodic fluctuations in the volume of Indian immigration and emigration, the report says, “Immigrants are in search of work and it would seem reasonable to suppose that they come to Burma either because employment at home is hard to find or is not sufficiently remunerated to content them and because they expect to find work more easily in Burma or earn higher wages. The evidence indicates that wage levels in Burma, though only sufficient to support a low standard of living, are attractive to the Indian immigrant in comparison with the levels in his province of origin. As already stated, he comes with the intention of staying in Burma for three years or thereabouts after which he revisits his home and in the majority cases returns to Burma after an interval varying from a few months to the best part of a year, but probably on an average of about six months.” [xlii]

A closer look at the Baxter Report, therefore, shows that the Chittagonian workers who came to Arakan came as seasonal workers and left when their job was terminated or ended in Burma. Unlike Indian workers, who had to save enough money to return to their homes, the proximity of Chittagong did not require them to overstay. It would be a terrible mistake to confuse those migrant workers with the indigenous community of Arakanese Muslims (e.g., the Rohingyas of Burma), who were culturally Indian/Bengali/Muslim.

3.2. Japanese Occupation of Burma

No discussion on anti-Indian riots is, however, complete without a mention of the Japanese invasion of Burma. In January 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Burma from Thailand with the help of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), a military force made-up of 4,000 Burman nationalists led by 30 officers (the so-called Thirty Comrades) who had been trained and equipped in Japan since 1940. As the British forces quickly retreated to India, nearly 400 Karen villages were torched and destroyed while 1,800 Karen civilians were reportedly murdered by the BIA troops in the first two months of the invasion (January-March, 1942).

As they started their massacre of the Indian population, more than half a million Indians, Anglo-Burman and other ethnic groups, who were considered pro-British, fled on foot, heading towards India between March and April. Their dramatic exodus through western Burma’s dense jungles left tens of thousands of victims dead. More than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were massacred by Arakanese Buddhists that were allied with the BIA and the fascist Japanese occupation forces during the pogroms of 1942; another 80,000 Arakanese Muslims fled to Bengal. The Muslim population was depopulated in the south and pushed north, close to today’s Bangladesh-Burma border. The pogrom of 1942 against the Arakanese Muslims (Rohingya) almost permanently destroyed any possibility of reconciliation with the Arakanese Buddhists (Rakhine).
According to Kurt Jonassohn and Karin Solveig Björnson, “During World War II the Rohingyas remained loyal to the British, even when they retreated to India. They paid dearly for this choice: advancing Japanese and Burmese armies tortured, raped, and massacred thousands of Rohingyas ... After reconquering the region in 1945, the British rewarded the Rohingyas for their loyalty by setting up a civilian administration for the Rohingyas in Arakan." The dream of Rohingya autonomy was rather short-lived as Arakan was incorporated into Burma which gained independence in January 4, 1948.

With General Aung-San and his entire cabinet killed on July 19, 1947 (by the Buddhist extremists that were affiliated with his political opponent U Saw) before Burma gained independence and the Burman-Rohingya relationship rather jittery from the past experience, the Rohingyas faced severe discrimination in the new state. They were barred and removed from the Military, Police and civil services and their leaders were placed under arrest. Rohingya refugees who had fled to India during the pogroms of 1942 were not permitted to return to their ancestral homes. Considered illegal immigrants by the highly racist and xenophobic Burmese government, their properties were seized and resettled by Burman and Rakhine Buddhists.[xlv]


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