Abdul, a middle-aged Rohingya man, sells odds and ends at a makeshift shop at the Bhatindi refugee colony in Jammu city. “He was our big leader there, like you have your Chief Minister Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti. He was chairman of the Rakhine Council for more than 15 years,” said the man in the next shop, who introduced him. “He is more educated and was from a well-off family but look where he has landed today.”
Abdul looked disinterested as the man started telling his story. He sat silently behind his shop counter, staring out vacantly. “He came here in 2015 after his niece was raped and his close relatives killed,” said the other man.
Then Abdul opened up. “The military would come to my home from Mongnor village in Rakhine and often demand money. ‘You are wealthy’, they’d say,” he recalled. “For years, we had been paying money to save our lives. But things kept getting worse. When we heard news of my brother’s family getting killed and women raped, we had no option but to run, leaving behind everything. I was appointed chairman in 1989 but after 2002, the government wanted only a Buddhist to head the post. They did not want any non-Buddhists to head any posts.”
Memories of Rakhine
Rohingya refugees in Jammu city live at 22 locations, where they have built shanties on rented land. Most arrived between 2007 and 2015, fleeing ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Myanmar military. Today, many are fleeing again.
For the last three years, Hindutva groups have been running campaigns demanding that Rohingya refugees be driven out of Jammu. Last year, the Centre announced that all 40,000 Rohingya in India would be deported, whether or not they were registered as refugees with the United Nations.
In Jammu’s Rohingya camps, this has brought back memories of persecution that drove them out of their homes in the first place.
Bribes to evade torture
Shafi Alam, a cleric, runs a madrassa for very young children at the Rohingya camp in Narwal, on the outskirts of Jammu. Alam said he decided to flee when his neighbouring villages were torched. “Before that it was constant threat, we would maintain night vigils close to the military camps to create alarm if we saw any military patrols approaching our locality,” he recalled.
Denied citizenship rights, they were deprived of jobs. “What was the point in getting educated?” asked Fazal, who runs a tea shop with the help of his wife, Fatima, at the camp. “We would drop out of school early to start small business ventures because they would deny jobs to our educated youth.”
Random crackdowns and raids enabled extortion by military personnel, they said. A daily wage labourer from the Bhatindi refugee colony remembered when he was held on a false pretext. “They accused me of having gone to Bangladesh for work and earning huge sums of money. They demanded Rs 1 lakh. I had to cough up all my savings, about Rs 20,000, to evade third degree torture,” he added.
He flashed his betel-stained teeth as he talked. At the Rohingya colony’s market, stacks of betel leaves are conspicuous. “We chew a lot of betel,” he said with a smile.
Few were spared
Beyond the memories of violence lie nostalgia for homes in Rakhine that were larger than the shanties they now live in, small rice fields and decent businesses.
But so deadly was the onslaught of government forces in Myanmar that even the most politically and financially influential Rohingya, such as Abdul, could not escape it.
Hussain said Hindu Rohingya also fled along with the Muslim families. “A few odd Hindu families had earlier come to Jammu but have since left, probably for Bangladesh,” he added. “We were equal targets of the Buddhist government and its military.”
Alam added that few Rakhine residents were spared. The Xiang community, a small population of Burmese Buddhists, were also persecuted and some fled.
Kitchens like caves
Even in the relative safety of Jammu, Rohingya refugees live in miserable conditions. For a tiny 10 square foot room, they pay anything from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000. Most live in one or two room shanties with kitchens that look like small caves.
One woman in the Bhatindi colony who did not want to be named fled Rakhine with her parents years ago, entered Bangladesh, got married and moved to a one-room tenement in Jammu with her husband and stepdaughter. She misses her parents but a visit is prohibitively expensive.
Her two sons were born in the shack they live in. “Some people go to the hospital for delivery,” she said. “But many have to endure the ordeals of childbirth in their own dwellings. Who has the money to spend for medicines the doctors prescribe?”
Women in the Rohingya camps complain about the cramped spaces they have been forced into. “Our houses were much bigger,” said a woman sitting on a broken chair outside her tiny shack. “We had more rooms and space to grow food. Answering nature’s call is a problem but many of us have made makeshift bathrooms with curtains that act as doors. Some neighbours pool in to set up similar facilities to save money. Every inch of land being used would mean more rent. It is still difficult if we have to get up in the night to go to the bathroom. It doesn’t feel safe.”
‘Life goes on’
The muddy pathways and poor sanitation have given rise to a constant stench which residents of the camp have become used to. But they try to keep their own tiny spaces tidy, even decorated with the odd vase filled with plastic flowers.
The Narwal cluster is neater than the others. The shacks are not built from scrap and mud but prefabricated sheets which, residents said, were donated by local philanthropists. At the heart of the cluster is the madrassa run by Alam. Inside the compound, he has planted marigold and onion in semi-circular beds.
The madrassa has separate sections for boys and girls. “We raise money through donations,” Alam said. “Some contributions come from the Rohingya community only. People want their children to be educated and getting admissions in the local government schools is now becoming impossible. But most of our contributions come from the charity we seek every Friday outside mosques. We mainly teach them the Quran and languages – Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and our own Rohingya language.”
If they are lucky, older children manage to get admission in government schools nearby. But Fatima’s two sons were not so fortunate. They took private tuitions and are allowed to sit for exams in the government school. “But for all this, I have to work hard,” she said as she fried pakoras. “I do odd jobs, break walnuts, help my husband at the tea stall. We left our homes and would want to go back if there is peace. But until then, life goes on and we have to make the most of it. Look, all my five daughters were married after we came here.”
Jobs drying up
Older children and teenagers who do not study go out for work. Women contribute to household incomes by performing odd jobs. One woman said she got Rs 100 a day breaking walnuts.
For men, getting work has become increasingly difficult with the campaigns vilifying the Rohingya. Many have been forced into odd jobs that hurt their sense of dignity, said Aamir Hussain, chairman of the Rohingya Refugee Committee.
Before the madrassa was opened in 2012, for instance, a junior cleric there spent years as a scrap dealer. He refuses to talk about it. “He is educated and feels ashamed to tell,” explained Hussain.
Still, getting jobs in Jammu was easier than elsewhere in the country and the local people had mostly been kind and sympathetic. “That is why we want to stay here till our homes are safe enough to go back,” Hussain said.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times.
This is the second part of a two-part series on Rohingya refugees in Jammu. Read the first part: ‘Fear has intensified’: Why Rohingya refugees are fleeing India for Bangladesh