Editor’s note: Over 40,000 Rohingya Muslims live in India as refugees — thousands of them in Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian government has recently decided to deport them. In the second and final part of this series, Firstpost speaks to these people without a State and brings to light their harrowing tales.
Bathindi: Rohingya Muslims, widely regarded as the world’s most persecuted minority, have been forced to seek shelter in India and Bangladesh because they face an unimaginable level of violence back home.
Thousands of them have sought refuge in Jammu and Kashmir. But the recent announcement from the Indian government that it will deport refugees, including the Rohingya, has them absolutely petrified.
“I’d rather die here than go back,” said Harun Ali.
The young, lean man said he fled Myanmar for Bathindi, Jammu because he was facing certain death at the hands of the Myanmar security forces. He said his parents and two brothers were still in Myanmar. At least they were, last he heard.
But after the Myanmar government launched their self-proclaimed “security operation” in Rakhine State — where Rohingya make up 80 percent of the population — Ali said he had no idea if his family was still alive.
He said he hasn’t been able to sleep since he learnt that his village was set ablaze and that its women and children were hacked to pieces.
Ali is hoping against hope: That his family are among the thousands of refugees fleeing to Bangladesh.
The Myanmar government’s latest crackdown on the Rohingya, a minority in the Buddhist-dominated nation, has left the world shocked and outraged. World leaders are describing the operation as a “genocide.” The United Nations has called it a textbook case of “ethnic cleansing.”
And now, adding to their woes, India has announced that it will deport them. In essence, turning its back on them.
Union minister Kiren Rijiju has categorically stated that Rohingya are illegal immigrants and will be deported. The home ministry issued a circular to all states, asking them to identify these refugees. The Centre pegs their number in India at 10,000.
On Monday, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, criticised the Indian government for planning to deport Rohingya. “India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations,” he said.
Grappling with the horrific situation in their homeland and under constant threat of losing their refugee status in India, many of these Rohingya have termed the home ministry statement as sad.
“We are simple people, living here temporarily,” said Hamidullah, who works with NGO Save the Children. “Not a single person from Rohingya community is begging in Jammu. We work as labourers and rag pickers to feed our families. We pay our bills. We are peaceful. And yet we’re being called a security threat and labelled a burden on resources.”
Hamidullah’s parents and sister are languishing in a Bangladeshi refugee camp. He said his tribe is painfully aware of how some in Jammu consider them a hazard. “Some RSS people call us terrorists,” Hamidullah said. “If we were terrorists, would we take refuge here? And if we are violent, would we not fight back against the Myanmar government?”
‘A threat to national security’
The Centre is hardly alone in calling for the Rohingya to be deported.
Many Jammu-based political parties, including the BJP, which is a part of the coalition government in Jammu and Kashmir, frowns upon their presence. “Their sheer numbers in a border town like Jammu makes them a threat to national security,” said BJP state president Satpal Sharma.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, seeking to allay these concerns, announced in the state Assembly earlier this year that no Rohingya have been found engaging in any anti-national or subversive activities.
“Seventeen FIRs have been registered against 38 Rohingya for various offences, including those relating to illegal border crossings,” the chief minister said. “Five thousand seven hundred Rohingya are in the state, almost all of them in Jammu.”
Amid the war cry to “push back” the Rohingya, the Panthers Party put up billboards and displayed banners exhorting locals to fight the outsiders. “Their presence in the city of temples is an attempt to disintegrate India,” said Panthers Party chief professor Bhim Singh.
Even a Jammu and Kashmir trade body joined the fray, threatening to identify and kill the Rohingya if the government failed to deport them. Last year, more than a hundred Rohingya shanties were gutted in a fire in Jammu.
Amid this tempest, local NGO Sakhawat, which seeks to better the situation of these refugees, is calling for calm. They maintain that these refugees are here only after obtaining refugee cards from the United Nations in Delhi.
“A lot of these refugees work as labourers,” said NGO chief Showkat Ahmad. “They choose Jammu and Kashmir because labourers are paid better here than in other states.”
Ahmad said that labourers can make up to Rs 400 a day in Jammu and Kashmir compared to only Rs 100 a day in other states.
Living on a prayer
On 3 September, even as they celebrated Eid al-Adha, the Rohingya living in the refugee shanties in Bathindi were in a sombre mood. Scores of them, wearing Khan dresses and skull caps, emerged from their temporary homes and gathered to pray. Their expressions were glum as they raised their cupped hands to the heavens and sought protection from the almighty.
After the prayers ended, they sat in silence. News from back home only agitated them. Their thoughts and prayers were with their loved ones.
Adil Amin, a teenager, sat inside his shanty. Eyes hollow. Expression blank. Just two days ago, he learnt that his village in Rakhine State was destroyed. Set ablaze. All he could think about was his parents.
Sulaiman Ali is enquiring about his daughter. No one knows anything. At dawn, the 55-year-old joined his brethren outside his shanty. As always, the conversation remained the same: The fate of the Rohingya. They stared at their temporary homes, made up of tree branches, shrubs and plastic sheets.
The discussion went on for a couple of hours. At 9 am, they dispersed. Time to go to work.
At the back of their minds, they know: That if the Indian government deports them, they’d be going from the frying pan into the fire.
Safeena Wani is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters