Like the pesky flies, fear sits everywhere in this shantytown. Even on the eyes of 14-year-old Anwara, one among 700 Rohingya Muslims living in squalid conditions in this settlement on the outskirts of Jammu. “I felt like dying again when my father told us the news of India deporting Rohingyas. Death is imminent back home. If India is so determined to send us to the gallows, it can kill us here. At least, here we will die peacefully,” Anwara tells Outlook, her voice hoarse in fear. “Back home, they (the Myanmar army) will torture us to death.”
Anwara was only four when her eight-member family fled their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine province in 2010. She was too young to remember anything but she has grown up hearing horrific stories of mass execution and gang rape, babies killed in the arms of their mothers, and entire villages burnt down. She says the horrors of the ethnic cleansing, carried out by Myanmarese Buddhists aided by the army, makes her numb. The Indian government estimates that around 40,000 Rohingyas are staying in the country, more than 6,000 in 30 settlements spread across Jammu alone. However, unofficial counts put their number in Jammu at around 10,000.
But the very country where they found shelter has turned against them, with the Indian government declaring the Rohingyas as a “security threat”. In the first week of October, India deported seven of them, deepening fears among this community that Myanmar calls “refugees from Bangladesh”.
“We are already half-dead, the most cursed set of people who can’t have land which we can call home. Instead of deporting us why doesn’t the Indian government give us poison and end the problem once and for all?” says Mohammad Jabbar, 30, sitting outside his shanty, as his wife rocks the hammock in which their three-month-baby is sleeping. He works for a private mobile network company, which hires him for a day’s wage of Rs 500 with no surety of finding work all through the month.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issues identity cards to these Rohingyas, primarily to prevent “harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation”. The Union home ministry says about 400 are living without these cards. The card, however, doesn’t entitle them to any government benefits in Jammu and Kashmir. Instead, anyone found carrying such a card runs the risk of “backlash” from right-wing Hindu groups which allege that the Rohingya camps are a breeding ground of Islamic fundamentalists.
Rohingyas started arriving in Jammu around 2008, when a National Conference-Congress government was in power in Jammu and Kashmir. It’s widely believed that since this is the country’s lone Muslim-majority state, the authorities backed the Rohingya settlement here. Union minister of state Jitendra Singh, who is a BJP leader from Jammu, accuses the Congress of settling the Rohingyas in his home state for “vote-bank politics”, a charge the rival party denies.
Posters asking Rohingyas to leave Jammu dot the Hindu-majority city
For the refugees, grim news trickles in from their “homeland”. Since most of them can’t read or write Hindi and English, their only source of information of the situation back home is through video clips circulated among WhatsApp groups. Most of these messages appear either fake or exaggerated. “I received a video clip showing 100 Muslims butchered in Rakhine last week. How can India even think of sending us back? If you are so determined and you are a powerful nation, why don’t you first guarantee our safety, security and freedom back home, which we enjoy here to an extent,” says Abu Sayeed, 40, father of Anwara, at their one-room dwelling in the Bhatindi area on the outskirts of Jammu. There was no news of such a massacre in recent weeks.
Sayeed, who did odd jobs before taking up his current vocation as a teacher at the local madarsa, says they will be ready to return only when they are “azaad” like they are in India, where they can live without fear. Living a life with the bare minimum, in a toxic atmosphere of hate, the decision of deportation couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Rohingyas staying in Jammu for nearly a decade. Most of them say earlier they were never asked about their nationality. But in the past three years, they have become subjects of suspicion.
“Now, with this new thing, deportation, we fear we may be asked to vacate the place where we have built our shanties. Every single human being on earth dreams of owning a piece of land and call it his own. Death is imminent back home and the cloud of deportation is hanging all the time. Can anyone be more cursed than us,” says Rohima Begum, 20.
According to the Indian government, the seven deported Rohingyas were illegal immigrants detained in 2012. Union home minister Rajnath Singh said on October 1 that all Rohingyas in India are “illegal immigrants” and not “refugees”. Left to fend for themselves, surviving in a foreign land without any financial assistance is not an easy thing. They have built their shanties on a Muslim man’s private land for which each family pays Rs 1,000 a month. The state home department says an NGO, Jamaat-e-Islamia, provides assistance such as clothes, religious books, cash and goods to these families from time to time.
Children, mostly boys, study in the madarsa where they are taught teachings of the Quran, Urdu and basic English. Boys in these madarsas wear the skull cap and calf-length shalwars, not their traditional lungi. Still, their overall attire and get-up raise suspicion. Also, the way they dress and carry about are probably reasons why Rohingya women are finding it hard to get odd jobs, even that of a domestic help.
The women mostly make money by breaking walnuts, a tedious and labour-intensive work that fetches Rs 15 a kg. Assisted by children, a family makes about Rs 300 a day, but the job is seasonal. More importantly, these walnuts are provided by Kashmiri Muslim traders which strengthens the identification of the Rohingyas by their religion and not as “refugees”. And they live in Hindu-majority Jammu, rife with right-wing politics, where the clamour to evict the “Muslims” grows each day.
There are some who question the very basis of deportation, citing a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly last December. They urged the Myanmar government to end the military campaign against the Rohingyas and, most importantly, grant them a basic right. “We haven’t been given citizenship rights even after the adoption of the UN resolution. The world recognises we are victims of the worst genocide, then how can India send us back? Can India tell us, what wrong we have done?” says 22-year-old Rehan Ali, who was among the first group to reach Jammu a decade ago. He works with one of the mobile service providers and keeps himself abreast of happenings back home, surfing news and posts on social media.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, but it has housed refugees from Tibet, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka who fled their homeland because of persecution and socio-political upheavals. The refugees say they can’t question the Indian Supreme Court’s decision upholding the deportation of the seven Rohingyas. But they ask: Can any decision be devoid of human rights?
“We are ready to go back but India should send us as human beings with all rights and not as fodder before merchants of death. Let the Indian government…give us assurances that conditions in Myanmar have improved. Until then we are not going back,” says 50-year-old Asad Ullah, the lone tailor in the area, earning about Rs 500 a day.
And the there is 16-year-old Noor Kalime with a story that tells about the “conditions” in gory details. She saw Myanmarese soldiers shoot dead her mother, grandfather and two uncles. She doesn’t know why she and her father were spared. They fled soon after and reached Jammu in 2009.
“We are not here to settle down permanently. We know it’s not our home and we are grateful to India for helping us. Doesn’t it know what awaits us back home? Can’t it allow us to stay a bit more?” Many of the Rohingyas have the same plea—a bit more time, please.
- Rohingyas are identified only as Muslims; they get no sympathy as refugees who fled their country to avoid persecution
- The Indian government estimates that around 40,000 Rohingyas are staying in the country with more than 6,000 in the Jammu region
By Tarun Upadhyay in Jammu