In her five-month-long life, Umul Habiba did not know freedom.

Habiba was born in the confines of a “holding centre” in Jammu’s Kathua district – a former prison where over 270 Rohingya Muslims, including her parents, have been detained since March 2021.

On July 19, a day after a clash broke out between the police and the Rohingya detainees of the centre, Habiba fell ill and died in hospital.

From the hospital, Habiba’s body was brought to her uncle’s home in Jammu’s Bathindi area, some 60 km from the holding centre.

For Habiba’s parents, Mohammad Salim and Noomina Begum, and 17-year-old brother Riazuddin, there was no respite from captivity, even at a time of grief. They attended the child’s funeral in shackles, relatives and eyewitnesses told Scroll.

“They were brought in handcuffs. And they remained in handcuffs while they mourned for their daughter,” a middle-aged Rohingya member who was present there, recalled. “While they took part in the funeral prayers, the police didn’t allow them to see the burial.”

Koushal Kumar, the Jammu and Kashmir police official in charge of the holding centre, acknowledged that family members were often handcuffed during mourning rituals and funeral rites. “This is done as a precautionary measure,” he said. “Last time, a Rohingya refugee escaped while he was being taken to a hospital for treatment. Following that incident, some jail officials were also suspended. Since we are responsible for their safety, we cannot take any chances.”

The grave of the five-month-old infant. Credit: Umer Asif.

The July 18 protest

Described by the United Nations as “the most persecuted minority in the world”, Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic violence in their native Myanmar started arriving in Jammu city around 2011 and 2012.

In January 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir government put the total number of Rohingya Muslims living in the territory – mostly in Jammu and Samba districts – at 5,743.

Most of the inmates of the holding centre – previously the Hiranagar sub-jail – were rounded up in March 2021, when the administration began detaining Rohingya refugees from various parts of Jammu. They were taken into custody “as they were staying in Jammu without any valid documents”, the police said.

For a few months now, the detained refugees have held numerous protests, demanding to know when they will be set free.

They have now been held at the centre for over two years, with no clarity on how long their confinement is likely to be.

“They have observed hunger strikes and even boycotted meeting their relatives who come to visit them,” a jail official, who did not want to be identified, told Scroll.

But on July 18, a day before Habiba’s death, the anger and frustration appeared to boil over.

According to Koushal Kumar, the protesting inmates tried to break the main door of the jail, ransacked offices, and took three jail staff members hostage in their barracks.

“When the additional police and paramilitary forces were rushed to the centre, the inmates started throwing stones. I was also hit by stones,” Kumar said. “We did a mild lathicharge and two tear gas shells were lobbed to free the staff.”

Six police personnel and more than 10 Rohingyas were injured in the clashes.

Representatives of Rohingya refugees and her relatives in Jammu claim Habiba was choked by the smoke and died.

Koushal Kumar, the person in charge of the holding centre, said the baby’s death did not occur due to police action. “She was not keeping well for a long time and fell ill often,” Kumar said. “In the hospital, she was also put on life support.”

However, the baby’s relatives countered the police claim. “She was a healthy baby,” one said. “If she had been ill all along, why did she die only a day after the tear gas shell was fired inside the jail?”

The tragedy surrounding Habiba’s death and funeral has raised questions about the condition of the detained Rohingya refugees in Jammu, and their future. At present, more than 270 Rohingya refugees are lodged at the centre, including 74 women and 70 children.

Rohingya representatives in Jammu say at least six detainees, mostly elderly, have died in the centre of natural causes and illness since March 2021.

Kumar said three inmates have died during his tenure of less than a year.

Moreover, Habiba’s was not the first funeral that Rohingya detainees from Jammu’s holding centre attended while being handcuffed.

In January, 72-year-old Noor Mohammad, who had been confined at the centre since March 2021, died of chronic kidney disease. Imprisoned along with him was his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild.

At Mohammad’s funeral, his son Shabir Ahmad was brought in handcuffs, recalled his other son Jameel, who works in Jammu as a daily-wage labourer.

“My brother led the funeral prayers,” said Jameel. “But even when he was reading the funeral prayers, he had handcuffs on him. A policeman stayed right next to him, holding the handcuffs on the other end.”

Rohingya Muslims sit outside their makeshift houses on the outskirts of Jammu, in this photograph from May, 2017. Credit: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters.

Rohingyas in Jammu

Rohingya representatives in Jammu say the total number of refugees in the entire Jammu division, at present, is between 7,000 and 8,000. Many of them are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which has issued identity cards to those above 12 years of age.

“We have not come to live here; we came here to save our lives,” said Mohammad Rafiq, a 35-year-old who works in Jammu as a daily-wage labourer. “We’ll leave as soon as the situation in our country gets better.”

But with the number of Rohingya Muslims in Jammu increasing over the last decade, so has the suspicion and hostility against them.

Hindutva groups and political parties in Jammu have accused the refugees of engineering “demographic change” in Hindu-majority Jammu and sought their resettlement and deportation to their native country. In the 2014 Jammu and Kashmir assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised in its election manifesto to deport Rohingyas back to Myanmar.

Many Rohingya refugees work as daily labourers not far from the shanties in which they live. Some have constructed makeshift shops. They refute the claims that they are freeloaders.

“We worked hard to settle ourselves and we pay rent on the land on which we have built our shanties,” said 50-year-old Shahida, who lives in Kiryani Talab in Jammu city. “Nobody helped us.”

A picture of the Hiranagar centre, once a prison, where 270-odd Rohingya refugees live. Credit: Umer Asif.

‘We didn’t know they would put them in jail’

On August 8, 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory to states to take “prompt steps in identifying the illegal migrants and initiate deportation processes expeditiously and without delay”.

The advisory was widely criticised by rights groups in India who said the Supreme Court of India had in 1996 held that state governments are under a constitutional obligation to protect vulnerable groups of foreign nationals who have taken refuge in India.

Four years later, the government initiated action against Rohingyas.

On March 5, 2021, the Jammu and Kashmir Union territory administration said that Kathua district’s Hiranagar sub-jail would no longer be a prison. The same day, the government notified the prison with a capacity of 234 people as a holding centre under the Foreigners Act, 1946.

Days later, the authorities in Jammu began detaining Rohingya refugees from various parts of the city.

Relatives of detained refugees say the authorities lured them to police stations in order to take them to the holding centre. “They were asked to come to the local police station for a Covid test,” said a Rohingya woman, whose brother has been lodged at the holding centre since March, 2021. “We didn’t know they would put them in jail.”

Several families were separated as a result of the police action, including children from parents.

For example, Jafar Ahmad and his wife Dil Johar were among the dozens of Rohingyas gathered by the authorities to be detained in the holding centre. The couple left behind their four children, the youngest four years old.

They are now being taken care of by their elder daughter, Shafeeqa, who is married and has five children of her own. “I am taking care of nine children,” said Shafeeqa, whose husband works as a daily labourer. “It’s very difficult for me but I have no option.”

Most Rohingyas in Jammu live a precarious existence, and often face suspicion and harassment from the police and residents. But for those who have been separated from their families, the burden is heavier.

For example, Shahida’s only son, Abdul Ali, was picked up and detained at the centre in 2021. Before his detention, the 28-year-old worked at a momo shop in the neighbourhood in order to make a living.

According to Shahida, she is ready to leave Jammu if her son is set free. However, she has no idea where to go. “If they ask me to drown in a river, I will do so but I want my son beside me,” she said. “I beg the government to release my son.”

While Rafiq works in Jammu, his brother and sister-in-law are at the holding centre, their fate undecided for two years now. “What can we do besides wait?” asked Rafiq, a father of four. “When we go to meet them at the centre, all of us cry.”

Deportation an option?

At the time of their detention, Jammu police had said that the next step was “to contact their embassy for verification of their nationality and then initiate the process for their deportation”.

However, more than two years into detention, only two Rohingya refugees detained at the holding centre have been deported back to Myanmar.

UNHCR cards provide protection to Rohingya refugees against deportation without their consent and allow them access to some amenities.

In February, however, the Union government in February told Delhi High Court that the UN agency’s refugee status to a foreign national “without valid travel documents is of no consequence in India”. These foreigners, the government said, would be treated as “illegal migrants”.

Rights groups and lawyers, however, say the detention or planned deportation of Rohingya refugees is in violation of India’s obligations under international law and Article 21 (protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution of India.

“…while India is neither a Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 Refugee Protocol, India is signatory to several core treaties which requires states to ensure access to basic human rights and human dignity for all and provide basic protection to people seeking asylum in India,” says a brief on the state of Rohingya Muslims in India by Foundation London Story, a Netherland-based group documenting hate speech and hate crimes against minorities in India.

In 2021, weeks after the Jammu detentions, a Rohingya refugee approached the Supreme Court seeking the release of those detained at Hiranagar and a direction to the government of India not to deport them to Myanmar.

On April 8, 2021, the apex court, in its final order, refused to direct authorities to release the detained refugees. However, it said the detained refugees “shall not be deported unless the procedure prescribed for such deportation is followed”.

According to advocate Fazal Abdali, a refugee cannot be deported under the due process of law. “Under international conventions there’s a principle of non-refoulement which says a refugee cannot be forcibly returned to a country where his life is under danger,” he said.

He pointed out that in at least two cases, the Indian courts have said that refugees also have rights under Article 21 (right to life). “Therefore, the principle of non-refoulement is an integrated part of the right to life. So, how can you deport them?” asked Abdali, a legal counsel in several Rohingya-related matters in India.

In limbo

Even though more than two years have passed since the detention of Rohingyas in Hiranagar holding centre, the community in Jammu lives in fear.

“We are afraid we might be picked up by the police anytime,” said a Rohingya man in Jammu, wishing to be not named. “We can’t sleep at night. There is a fear that police might raid our settlements and pick us up.”

Caught in legal limbo, many give way to despair. “They should gather all the Rohingyas at one place and then bomb them once and for all,” said Habiba’s relative. “Our life is of no use and value. We don’t matter to anyone.”