“We were told India is a good democratic country.”
That was 48-year-old Zahid Hussain’s explanation for why he and 7,000 members of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic group chose to flee persecution at home to settle in Jammu and Kashmir. Most of them live in Jammu and Samba districts.
“The people of Jammu have been accepting of us,” said Hussain, who arrived in Jammu in 2009 and runs a modest dhaba in a refugee camp in the Narwal area. For instance, after a fire destroyed 81 shelters in the Narwal Rohingya camp in November, local residents came forward with cash and material help.
But now, Jammu’s Rohingya community is on edge. A fire in the Bhagwati Nagar refugee camp in April did not produce the same kind of neighbourliness. Though the authorities believe that the blaze was the result of an electrical short-circuit, some in the community insist that it was an act of sabotage.
“Haalat nazuk hai,” Hussain observed grimly. The situation is delicate. “In the last two months, people have begun to look at us with suspicion. We stay awake at night, keeping a watch.”
Described as the world’s most persecuted community, the Rohingya people are a minority, Bengali dialect-speaking, ethnic Muslim group found mainly in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine, formerly Arakan. Rohingyas have been persecuted for decades in Myanmar, which views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – a claim the community strongly contests. Because of the persecution, thousands of Rohingyas have fled Myanmar over the years for Bangladesh, with some coming onward to India.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 14,000 Rohingya refugees and asylum-seekers in India now, of whom half are in Jammu and Kashmir.
In recent months, their presence has been the cause for hostility. In February, a group called the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party put up billboards in Jammu city asking residents to “wake-up” and “save the history, culture, and identity of the Dogras”. The billboard directed Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees to “quit Jammu”. Since then the campaign to expel Rohingyas from Jammu has intensified. At a press conference on April 7, Rakesh Gupta, the president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, declared that the refugees were “criminals”. He threatened to launch an “identify and kill movement” if the government did not deport the refugees.
Gupta’s remarks were widely condemned. But the issue has polarised the region further. The Hindu community blames Muslims for allowing foreigners to settle in Jammu, while the Muslim community sees their hostility as evidence of growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
One day in late April, a group of young men gathered on the side of the street in Jammu’s Muslim area of Gujjar Nagar to watch a video documenting the history and plight of the Rohingya people. A young man was playing the video on his mobile phone. The video detailed the efforts of Islamic organisations, including Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, to rehabilitate the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Those who opposed Rohingyas would not be allowed to drive them out, said the young man. He said: “We will do what we have to.”
The situation has grown politically fraught after separatists, largely based in Kashmir, extended support to the Rohingya community.
The refugee life
When the Burmese junta changed the name of Burma to Myanmar in 1989, the state of Arakan was also renamed Rakhine. Rohingyas believe that this renaming is part of a series of attempts to uproot them and wipe out their claims to their homeland.
“We have seen hijrat [migration] for generations,” said Kifayatullah Arkan, a 33-year-old cleric living in the Bhatindi refugee camp in Jammu. “This is not our first. My father and my grandfather before him also migrated to [Bangladesh] and went back to Burma. Now it is my turn.”
Arriving in India across the Bangladesh border, the refugees make their way to various parts of the country, doing menial jobs to eke out a living.
At a tea stall in the Narwal camp, Rohingyas gathered to remember their lives at home. “We had lands where we would grow rice and vegetables that would sustain us for the year,” said 52-year-old Syed Hussain, who was nominated the camp’s zimmedar, or person in-charge, by the refugee community. “We only had to work for a few months of the year.”
In Jammu, the refugees live in rows of shelters crammed close together. Some shelters have tin roofs, others have patched walls. Tiny vegetable beds, protected by sheets of cloth, have sprouted along some of the walls. Children play in the dust, barefoot and bare bottomed.
Life in Jammu was strictly hand-to-mouth, said Hussain. “Here, if you do not work for a day, you will starve the next day,” he said. “We have no time to think about anything other than our survival.”
Most Rohingya work as scrap dealers, daily wage labourers, or sweepers. “I don’t like it but I have no other choice,” said 23-year-old Hussain Ahmed, a refugee.
Refugees in the camps do not speak much to outsiders. They refer all queries to the leaders in charge of the camps or often to their religious leaders. At many camps, refugees and their leaders echo each other’s views. The Rohingya community makes sure that they are coordinated and organised. Leaders of each camp hold meetings regularly to discuss issues important to the community.
Kifayatullah Arkan said that the need to speak in one voice came from the urge “to prevent a repeat of the oppression we faced in Burma”. At the meetings, the refugee leaders stress on a positive outlook about the region hosting them, and its government.
What made them choose Jammu?
Zahid Hussain said that he first heard about Jammu through a fellow refugee at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in New Delhi, where they had gone to register themselves. “We talked about the wages we got,” said Hussain. “I was making Rs 100 in Rajasthan and he was making Rs 300 in Jammu. When I asked him what do I do for a better livelihood, he told me to come to Jammu.”
Hussain added that refugees from Jammu convinced him to move there when they told him that “there was no gundagardi, that no one would steal our money”.
Many other refugees said, “We simply took a train and got down wherever it took us.” Others said that hearing about the better wages and the relatively peaceful situation in Jammu was the reason they chose to move to the state.
‘Alarm in Jammu’
Among the prominent voices objecting to the presence of Rohingyas in Jammu are those of Harsh Dev Singh, chairman of the Panthers Party, Rakesh Gupta, and members of the Bharatiya Janata Party: Hunar Gupta, who petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking the identification and deportation of Rohingya refugees, and Sunil Sethi, a lawyer who is arguing the case, and who is also the chief spokesperson for the BJP in the state.
“We are not opposed to refugees,” said Sethi. “They are staying here illegally. Rohingyas have occupied government lands. In Jammu and Kashmir, even Indian citizens cannot occupy government lands.”
Both Singh and Sethi cite Article 370 – whose provisions prevent outsiders or non-state subjects from buying land there – and adverse “intelligence inputs” about the Rohingyas in their argument against the presence of refugees.
Singh alleged that the refugees were being settled “with the government providing logistical support,” adding that “many [Rohingyas] have managed to get Aadhaar cards, ration cards, and in some cases also PRCs [Permanent Resident Certificates] which even the WPRs [West Pakistan Refugees], who are citizens of India, do not have.”
Singh’s party has been mobilising opinion against the refugees for a year now. “There is an alarm in Jammu,” he said. “People in Jammu take it as a part of a larger conspiracy to vitiate peace given the criminal record of Rohingyas. They are a ticking time bomb.”
The opposition to the refugees is also fed by the paranoia built around reports that a Rohingya militant was killed in an encounter with security forces in Tral town in the Valley in December 2015.
In January, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state Assembly: “No Rohingya has been found involved in militancy-related incidents. However, 17 FIRs have been registered against 38 Rohingyas for various offences.”
The Rohingya refugees find themselves unwitting victims of the state’s regional and demographic politics.
The support extended to Rohingyas by Kashmiri separatists who had vociferously opposed the issuance of domicile certificates to West Pakistan refugees – mainly Hindus who moved to India during Partition in 1947 and settled in Jammu province – has sharpened the rancour against the Rohingyas.
Calling the Kashmiri separatists hypocrites, Gupta warned that “you cannot be selective about Article 370”. He said he would offer “financial assistance to all Rohingya refugees on behalf of the Jammu chamber should they want to leave the state”.
For Sethi, the Rohingyas’ choice of location rankled. “What is the need for Rohingyas to come to Jammu when states like Bihar and Bengal are nearer?” he asked. “They are brought by design to border towns – Jammu is 25 km from the border while Samba is 10 km. They have settled along the routes of militant [infiltration] into India. They are especially staying in these areas.”
Singh said that he feared a breach of peace and radicalisation in the region. “All anti-India forces are supporting them, is that not sufficient ground [to oppose the refugees]” asked Singh. “The [Hizbul Mujahideen] has supported their stay. It proves their terrorist links. The Dukhtaran-e-Millat [a radical women’s group in the Valley] has also supported them. There seems to be a Pakistan connection as well.”
The groups opposing the Rohingya refugee camps in Jammu have threatened to launch an agitation in the days to come.
Unwitting victims of politics
Dipankar Sengupta, professor of economics at Jammu University, said that in the present climate of paranoia against the refugees, “no amount of facts would help”. He said that the refugees find themselves at the centre of politics that have pitted Hindus against Muslims, Jammu against Kashmir.
Sengupta said that Jammu’s accommodative and welcoming attitude, favourable land-to-person ratio and high daily wages were perhaps the main reasons why Rohingyas chose Jammu as their destination. In the age of mobile phones, “if four, five refugees come and tell their compatriots that life is good here”, others will follow, he said.
Sengupta said that Kashmiri separatists were attempting to equate the opposition to Rohingyas with the attempts being made to grant domicile status to West Pakistani Refugees. “It is a point score off Jammu,” he said. “It is far too tempting to pass off.”
“The moment Jammu Hindus say that they feel threatened and that [Rohingyas] can’t stay here, automatically Kashmir, which may not have sympathies with the Rohingyas, will say that they have got to be here,” Sengupta said.
He added: “In a sensitive state and despite its [economic] attractiveness, the Rohingyas should be resettled elsewhere.”
Senior lawyer Hari Chand Jhalmeria said that competing religious fundamentalism in Kashmir and Jammu had created an environment where any action in one region had a reaction in another. Jhalmeria said that the “Islamic fundamentalism” in Kashmir had “caused a psychosis in Jammu that there is a plan to dump Muslims en masse in Jammu. Otherwise 10,000-20,000 refugees would not have mattered.”
‘I just want to go home’
The tension over their presence in Jammu has led to attempts by some Rohingya refugees to move elsewhere.
“A few Rohingya families have informed the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] that they had to leave Jammu due to fear,” a member of the UN refugee body said. “We are helping these families settle in different locations.”
The Rohingyas also wait impatiently for the situation to get better in their homeland. “We just need a place to stay for some time,” said Zahid Hussain. “We do not intend to settle here forever.”
Fifty-two-year-old Syed Hussain echoed other refugees when he said that India was a gracious host, and hoped that the situation in Rakhine would improve so that they could return.
“If I was a bird, I would fly back to Burma and sit on the tree opposite my home,” said Syed Hussain. “I just want to be free and see my home for long, to my heart’s content.”