Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju’s statement that India “is not going to shoot” Rohingya refugees or “throw them in the ocean” has done little to relieve Syed Alam Khan’s anxieties. The 38-year-old is a part of the community of 80 Rohingya refugee families that live in Jaipur.

On August 15, Khan and a few other refugees were called to Sadar Police Station in the city and told to inform their community that they need to vacate their homes by the end of August.

“We were not given any reason,” said Khan. “But a general feeling of anxiety has gripped the entire community as news about the Indian government’s plans to deport Rohingyas had already spread.”

The Rohingya are a Bengali dialect-speaking Muslims who have for decades been fleeing persecution and a military crackdown in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where they are considered illegal migrants from Bangladesh. They are often referred to as the boat people because of the perilous voyages on overcrowded boats they undertake to escape persecution in their homeland. Rohingyas have settled as refugees in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia, among other countries.

In India, the 14,000-odd Rohingya are registered as refugees by the United Nations, but they face hostility, from both society and the state. Only this month, Rijiju declared: “As far as we are concerned they are all illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anybody who is illegal migrant will be deported.”

When human rights groups condemned the government for seeking to deport the Rohingya, Rijiju slammed them on August 28: “India is the most humane nation in the world. Millions of refugees live in India. There is no other country in the world which hosts so many refugees. So, don’t demonise us, don’t give us lecture.”

Rijiju’s statement came amid reports that a renewed military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the home of the Rohingya, had left at least 110 people dead and thousands on the run.

In Delhi and Jammu, Rohingya refugees live in camps, but in Jaipur, they mainly live in homes rented in Hasanpura, Hathroi and Rajeev Nagar in the Sindhi Camp area. Many of the families have lived there for over a decade. Khan’s family is among them: they came to India via Bangladesh in 2002. Over the past five years, Khan said, most Rohingya men in Jaipur have taken loans to buy electronic rickshaws to earn a living. “Some also work as sanitation workers under municipal contractors,” he said.

A Rohingya family at a refugee camp in Delhi. Photo credit: HT
A Rohingya family at a refugee camp in Delhi. Photo credit: HT

Sudden crackdown

After the Sadar police told the community to leave, Khan and the others asked to meet the Station House officer. “When we finally got a meeting...we were accused of illegal encroachment,” said Noorul Amin, 38, another Rohingya. Amin said that the Rohingyas showed the police the refugee cards issued by the UN refugee agency but the officer told them these documents were not sufficient to allow them to stay in India legally.

Amin and Khan said the police officers told them the order to remove the community had come from the “higher authority”. But Jaipur Police Commissioner Sanjay Agarwal denied this was the case. “There is no such order,” Agarwal said. “We shall look into the matter. But the information that Rohingya Muslims are being asked to leave by Jaipur Police is incorrect.”

Sadar Station House Officer Radmal Singh admitted to having contacted the refugees and issuing the deadline, but insisted it was in a “different context”. Their presence “can lead to a security threat”, Singh explained. “They [the Rohingya] are foreign nationals and most of them are living in areas under the jurisdiction of our police station without having any police verification. We have also warned their landlords as it is a punishable offence under the law.”

Asked if the sudden police crackdown was linked to the central government’s plan to deport the Rohingya refugees, Singh dodged the question saying, “The Centre has also instructed us to get proper verification done in case of foreign nationals. We are doing our duty.”

The refugees, however, claimed that most landlords refuse to verify their tenancies. “We have somehow managed to set up a life here,” Khan said. “We cannot imagine what awaits us back home in Rakhine.”