On January 18, at least 31 Rohingya refugees from Jammu were arrested in the no man’s land between India and Bangladesh by the Border Security Force and handed over to the Tripura police. For four days, they had been trapped between the border fences of the two countries, with neither willing to accept them as refugees.
Six years earlier, they had left their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state as the country’s military launched an offensive against Rohingya villages. They had made the long journey from the eastern border to Jammu city, finding work and shelter. Now they were fleeing again, bound for Bangladesh. Threats from the local people and the government’s changing attitude had made Jammu a hostile place, they said.
They were not the first. Aamir Hussain, chairman of the Rohingya Refugee Committee, said of the 1,350 registered Rohingya families four months ago, only around 1,000 were still in Jammu. Last year, some of them shifted to Hyderabad and Kolkata, but many returned, unable to find jobs, Hussain added.
“It is impossible to go back to Rakhine and face the kind of oppression we were facing unless the government in Myanmar is willing to give us our due rights as equal citizens,” he said.
News of the arrests at the Bangladesh border has deterred some refugees from embarking on similar journeys. Many, though, are willing to risk the uncertainty.
Thousands of Rohingya fleeing persecution by the Myanmar military arrived in Jammu from 2007 to 2015. They spread out to 22 locations across the city, including Narwal, Bhatindi, Channi Himmat, Bhagwati Nagar. They have built refugee camps on rented land, crammed with makeshift tenements.
Until some years ago, they thought Jammu was a safe haven. People were friendly, even if the weather was a little harsh. Wages were higher than in other cities. With poor educational qualifications, the best jobs they could get were in the unorganised labour sector, or as petty scrap dealers and ragpickers. The luckier ones found work in factories and business enterprises. Some gradually set up makeshift shops near their settlements, selling vegetables, groceries, clothes. Some run tea stalls.
But just as the community was starting to find its bearings in Jammu, insecurity crept in.
Strangers in the night
The proud owner of a tea stall at the Bhatindi refugee camp was barely nine when he fled his home in Rakhine. “I had to give up my studies after I came and work hard like my father to sustain the family,” he said. “Earlier, I was working for somebody else, now I have my own business. Things are better but there is a nagging sense of fear and uncertainty. How long shall we be able to continue like this? Will we have to flee again?”
This is the only home he knows. Memories of his childhood in Myanmar are shot with panic, filled with images of Rohingya villagers being taken away or interrogated by the military.
“We don’t face similar problems here but now...,” he trailed off as another young man from the Bhatindi camp chimed in. “Some people here have started saying that we should be thrown out, that we are involved in bad activities, that we are terrorists,” said the young man, who works as a daily wage labourer.
He said he is never able to sleep peacefully. Two years ago, a Rohingya camp in Narwal, on the outskirts of Jammu city, was ravaged by a fire. Eight people were reportedly killed, three of them charred so completely that only a few remnants of bone were left for the body count.
The fire coincided with anti-Rohingya campaigns led by Hindutva groups. It triggered “sabotage” theories that gained ground after another fire broke out in a Rohingya camp in Bhagwati Nagar.
Four months ago, the labourer recalled, mysterious people gathered around their colony. When the Rohingya residents went out to confront them, they found the visitors had left behind a gallon of oil. “The incident was reported to the police but there has never been an investigation,” he said.
Under the saffron banner
Campaigns against Rohingya refugees in Jammu started in 2008, during the Amarnath land agitation. They were revived after 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre and became a coalition partner in the state government. In the last three years, several political groups, media outlets and even the Jammu Chamber of Commerce have openly called for the Rohingya to be driven out.
Propaganda and rumours have fanned xenophobia, with the Rohingya blamed by default for various crimes. Last year, two Rohingya men were arrested on charges of cow slaughter. Hindutva groups defending those accused of raping and murdering an eight-year-old girl in Kathua district began blaming the Rohingya for the crime, even though the refugees are in Jammu city, a good 50 km away. In February 2018, a militant attack on the Sunjuwan Army camp, which lies close to some of the refugee clusters, set off the rumour mills again.
But police officials maintain there are no cases linking Rohingya refugees with terror activities in Jammu. “There are perhaps some petty cases of theft and drug abuse against a couple of them,” said a top police officer who did not want to be identified.
Tejinder Singh, senior superintendent of police, Jammu, ruled out Rohingya involvement in terrorism cases. But he was unable to give a rough estimate of the number of Rohingya involved in criminal cases or facing arrest. “Please, give me in writing the details you want, I will see,” he said.
Lately, the introduction of biometric identification for the Rohingya has triggered fresh anxieties. Giving out personal details in officials forms and biometric data would be a precursor to forced deportation, they fear. In October 2018, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, announcing the government’s decision to deport all Rohingya refugees, said states had been asked to identify the Rohingya and collect their biometric details. The Centre would send their biometric details to the Myanmar government, he added. A month later, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik said the biometrics of the Rohingya living in Jammu would be collected by January 2019 and sent to the Centre.
The data is being collected by the Jammu deputy commissioner’s office. According to the deputy commissioner, work was in progress and the Centre had set no deadline so far. Asked if refugees were reluctant to be profiled, he said, “We have our ways and we are doing our job.” He refused to comment on the purpose of the biometric profiling or the anxieties the process was causing.
Hussain said the deputy commissioner’s staff are escorted by the police as they conduct the exercise, “without a proper order”. “Why are these biometrics being collected and all our personal data taken?” many Rohingya refugees asked. “Already, when we got our UN cards, similar data was collated.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has registered and issued identity cards to 16,500 Rohingya to protect them from harassment and arbitrary arrest.
Shafi Alam, a cleric who runs a small madrassa for very young children at the Rohingya cluster in Narwal, explained, “One needs to understand that, owing to our individual and collective experiences in Myanmar and thereafter, fear is deeply ingrained in our psyche. We faced the ruthless power of the state and took the treacherous route over the difficult mountains into India via Bangladesh [some came by sea]. We set up temporary homes here, found time getting jobs and even before we could begin to settle down in our ramshackle shabby homes, we are grappling with the threat of being deported.”
The sense of threat was reinforced by the Indian government’s decision to deport seven Rohingya from Assam in October. They had been arrested in 2012 in Silchar on charges of illegal entry. In August 2018, the government announced plans to deport “illegal foreign nationals”, including an estimated 40,000 Rohingya, even those registered with the United Nations refugee agency. The government contended that all Rohingya could be subject to deportation, regardless of their registration status or international norms.
Hussain said most of the 15-odd Rohingya lodged in Jammu’s jails were arrested for illegal border crossing. “When they were arrested, they had already applied for refugee status at the UNHCR,” he added. “But they have not been released after they received their valid cards.”
Alam laments that Rohingya families have spent all their earnings to fight court cases. “In eight of these cases,” he said, “within minutes of the release, they were rearrested in fresh cases.”
But the larger worry now is whether the UN registration is valid or they can still be deported.
Still, Alam felt, the Rohingya community was thankful to Indians for their show of humanity, “barring some voices who want us out for their politics”. He sighed and continued, “If we had such an example of humanity and democracy in Burma, we’d never have left home.”
This is the first part of a two-part series on Rohingya refugees in Jammu.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times.