“I opened my eyes and ran. I ran with nothing but my seven-month old wrapped around my scarf,” recalled a woman. Her tears had dried, and her eyes tiredly strayed over the ashes that was all that remained of the shanty that had been her home since 2013.

Close to midnight on June 12, a fierce fire rapidly engulfed the Rohingya refugee camp in Madanpur Khadar in South Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj vicinity. Fifty six homes were reduced to ashes in bare minutes, while screaming residents, most of them asleep at the time the fire started, ran desperately to save their lives.

The fire left them no time to salvage any of their possessions. The fire took with it their meagre savings, their clothes and modest belongings, and most precious to them – the United Nations High Commission for Refugees-designated “refugee cards”, vital documents for people who have fled repression in their home country of Myanmar.

Another resident recalled, “I could not find my six-year-old child for five hours. I was bawling like a mad woman.”

Seeking safety

By 2 am, some citizen groups brought for them drinking water, milk for their children, and tea. The next morning, they fed them biryani. Others brought changes of clothes, buckets and mugs. Plastic sheets were hurriedly erected on bamboo sticks as makeshift shelters, and four families cramped together on the bare earth under each sheet.

A woman said disconsolately, “People are giving us food. But we don’t want to eat. We just want a place of safety.”

Barely hours before the fire, authorities of the Yamuna Authority and Uttar Pradesh Irrigation Department – the legal holders of the land on which their shanty stood – drove to their camp to command them peremptorily to vacate the land forthwith. After the fire, many among the 250 people rendered homeless by the conflagration were frightened to publicly give voice to the suspicion that the fire was not a chance accident.

But cramped under plastic roofs at the edge of the burned-down camp, residents who spoke to our team from the Karwan e Mohabbat campaign for harmony in confidence refused to accept that a mere short circuit had caused the catastrophe. Some spoke in muffled tones of the regular threats they were subjected to from land and state officials, others pointed to the lack of police and political attention that repeated fires in their settlement have received over the years.

The remains of a home after the fire. Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat

Senior police officers dodged the question of whether the fire was deliberate, not an accident, saying their forensic team was yet to complete its investigations. Asif Muhammad Khan, a Congress party member and the former MLA of Okhla, himself questioned the timing of the fire and the doubts raised by the regular threats that the residents received from the officials of the department that owned the land. He too was present at the site with his team to offer food relief to the victims.

This was not the first time that this community found itself scrambling in the ashes, sifting hopelessly in the ruins of their hovels for anything that the fire may have spared. It was the fifth fire in their camp in the last nine years. The authorities blamed each fire on short-circuits in the camp. Each time the community, by now veterans to such periodic calamities, would resignedly live for a few weeks on relief mustered mostly by citizen groups, and then start stoically to build their lives again.

This was also not the first time that state authorities directly sparred with this residents of this settlement. Three months earlier, for instance, the Delhi Police organised a rigorous crackdown at Rohingya refugee camps throughout Delhi. From this settlement, they detained and arrested people from 16 refugee families, insisting that they were being held because they lacked of valid documents.

This crackdown was followed by regular day and night patrolling, with many refugees picked up and locked in police stations for hours. The founder and director of the Rohingya Refugee Initiative, Sabber Kyaw Min, raised serious concerns over the series of sudden arrests, and questioned the police’s allegations. “All but one of the 16 people picked up have valid refugee cards of the UNHCR,” he said. “The police can claim anything now; but what’s the point of detaining these people during the pandemic?”

Turned into enemies

Mumbled a woman in Bangla, as she waited barefoot outside a food relief van a few hours after the devastation, “We have made peace with the fact that this society shall never accept us as their own. But the least we expected is to have a safe life which we did not have back home.”

Said a 17-year-old autorickshaw driver, and the sole breadwinner of his family of four, “We are asked to leave every few weeks. If we could go back to our homes, why would we be living in these tents and shanties to begin with?”

The residents of the makeshift refugee camp – most of who are casual daily wage workers, rag pickers and household domestic workers – have long been routinely stigmatised as thieves by their neighbours, and radicalised terrorist infiltrators by the government. “We have been turned into enemies,” a resident lamented in anguish.

Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat

After the fire, Karwan e Mohabbat posted an appeal in social media seeking support for relief to those left homeless and destitute by the fire. It did not take long for our Twitter feed to get clogged with angry hate messages. Some said, the Rohingya deserved the fire because they lived in cramped illegal slums; they had in this way brought this misfortune upon themselves.

We replied that they did not choose to live in illegal slums: they were left with no option, because they risked torture, incarceration and death in their homeland, and the Indian government did not offer them any services and protection as it did not recognise them as refugees. Others were more blunt. Some declared that India is not a dharmsala. India should not waste its resources on these unwelcome outsiders. It should refuse even to vaccinate them. It should just eject them, send them back to Myanmar. Others claimed they were radicalised terrorists, and they should be packed off to “radical Muslim countries”.

The Rohingya people from the Rakhine State of Myanmar are widely regarded by many commentators as among the most persecuted people in the world. Under the 1982 nationality law introduced by the Burmese military dictator General Ne Win, 135 “national races” were listed as indigenous to Burma. The Rohingya were excluded from this list, which effectively rendered them stateless.

Being stripped of citizenship rights, they were denied even the freedom of movement, as well as the rights to education and government employment. Scholar Maung Zarni argues that laws like this enacted by the Burmese military “encoded its anti-Indian and anti-Muslim racism”, rendering the Rohingya permanently illegal in their homeland, divesting them of all rights and security.

Military persecution

The Rohingya in Myanmar suffered the trauma of successive waves of violent military repression, in 1978, 1991-’92, 2012, 2015, climaxing in 2016-’17. In 2016-’17, over half of the 1.4 million Rohingya residents of Myanmar fled to Bangladesh. Matters had escalated much earlier, after the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi won a decisive electoral victory in the 1990 election, massively supported by Myanmar Muslims. Suu Kyi was thrown into house arrest, the Rohingya-led political party, the National Democratic Party for Human Rights, was banned and its leaders jailed.

Military persecution rose further in Rakhine, and mosques were destoyed, religious gatherings banned, houses, land and farm animals confiscated, women raped, and populations pushed into forced labour. Around 250,000 Rohingya fled even at that time to Bangladesh, but both Bangladesh and Myanmar deployed massive contingents of troops on the border to prevent further passage. A treaty led to the return of some of these to Myanmar, but 12,000 Rohingya are estimated to have died after Bangladesh refused them entry and denied them food rations.

The United Nations reports many incidents of grave incitement to hatred and violence by extremist Buddhist nationalists. This long history of targeted violence, persecution and violence has been described by Human Rights Watch and the UN as “ethnic cleaning” and even as approaching “crimes against humanity” and an unfolding genocide. The Myanmar security forces are reported to be guilty of a range of grave crimes against the Rohingya people, including summary executions, torture, forced labour, arrests and detentions, and enforced disappearances.

Villages were burnt, many were killed and raped. The legal regime of embedded discrimination under which they are forced to live has been compared to apartheid, even by South African Nobel Prize winner and iconic anti-apartheid campaigner Bishop Desmond Tutu. In January 2020, the International Court of Justice passed a unanimous ruling that the Rohingya people had been subjected to genocide.

Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat

It is to escape these conditions of decades of statelessness, violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide that Rohingya people hit the oceans, losing many lives along the way, and arrived at the borders of many countries around the world. Just 40,000 persecuted Rohingya refugees sought refuge within the borders of India, in camps similar to the one in Madanpur Khadir, in Jammu, Haryana, Hyderabad, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi.

Despite the certification of many of these persons as refugees by the UNHCR, the Indian government has refused to treat them as refugees. They are for them no more than illegal immigrants with no rights. This is because India has refused from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru to sign the International Refugee Convention. Under this legal shield, the government refuses to recognise the certification by the UNHCR of persecuted Rohingya residents as refugees. However, the fundamental right to life, in India’s Constitution, is not restricted only to Indian citizens, but to all persons, and this would include the Rohingya.

Still, replying to a petition in 2017 seeking protection of Rohingyas taking shelter in India, the Union of India in its affidavit to the Supreme Court maintained that for the government of India, they are no more than illegal immigrants, because “presently, no legislation in India distinguishes a refugee who entered India and continues to stay without a valid visa from an illegal migrant”. This was true when this reply was filed. But it no longer holds after the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which fast-tracks Indian citizenship to persecuted minorities who may have entered India illegally from neighbouring countries.

Excluded from protection

So in effect the Indian state now officially does recognise that although persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries may have illegally entered India, they deserve to be treated as refugees and be awarded citizenship rights. However, the 2019 amendment pointedly excludes undocumented Muslims from this access to Indian citizenship, and also offers this fast-track only to those who illegally entered India from three Muslim-majority countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan (the last incidentally does not share a border with India).

It in effect excludes Rohingyas from being recognised as refugees or from entitlement to Indian citizenship, because they are Muslim and from Myanmar.

In the same affidavit, the Union of India speaks of Rohingya illegal immigrants as “having serious national security ramifications” and posing “serious security threats”. It claims further that “there is an organised and well-orchestrated influx of illegal immigrants from Myanmar through various agents and touts facilitating illegal immigrants into India, their monetary requirements and helping the illegal immigrants get fake identification documents of India”.

Credit: Karwan e Mohabbat

Homeless after the fire that destroyed their homes and belongings, the residents of Madanpur Khadir are terrified about what life now holds for them. Unsafe in their own country Myanmar, undefended even by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Ki, unwanted by Bangladesh, unwanted by India, these most persecuted people in the world are forced to survive in illegal unsanitary settlements on the basis of low-end casual labour.

Now even this is likely to be snatched away from the Rohingya in Madanpur Khadir. A woman grieved, “We want our children to have a better life – to become engineers and doctors. But we are getting exhausted. The government is continuously threatening to evict us from here. We don’t know what the future holds for us.”

Engraved in the entrance hall of Parliament are the Sanskrit words from the Maha Upanishads, Vasudeva Kutumbakam, meaning “the world is a family”.

The full verse from the Upanishads reads:

“One is a relative, the other a stranger,
So say the small-minded.
The entire world is a family,
Live the magnanimous.”

Somewhere along the way, we have lost the large-heartedness that marks the finest moral core of our traditions. In our bigoted small-mindedness today, we are unwilling to welcome even the most persecuted, only because of their religion or their nationality.

One of the residents of the razed Rohingya camp said to the Karwan e Mohabbat team, in anguish, “I want to convey through you a message to my brothers and sisters [in India]. If you can’t help a person, at least don’t cause harm to that person.”

Pointing to his child asleep on his shoulder, he added, “She is so innocent. What evil do you see in her?”

Harsh Mander and Oishika Neogi work with the Karwan e Mohabbat campaign for harmony.