‘Look at us as humans, not as Muslims’: Rohingyas’ appeal in Jammu after deportation threat
The Centre has termed Rohingyas illegal immigrants and ordered their deportation, citing threat to national security as reason. The UN calls them refugees. There is no evidence so far of their involvement in terror or cross-border activities. Are the Rohingyas then being targeted for their religion?
In the violence of Partition, Rakesh Gupta’s family fled Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to seek refuge in Jammu. Seventy years later, he is running a campaign against another set of persecuted minorities fleeing violence, living on the fringes of Jammu – Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
“If the government does not deport Rohingyas, we will identify and kill them,” Rakesh says without any emotion. “Otherwise, people will have no choice but to deport them against the law. It can be civil war or communal riots.” Rakesh is the president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). He says, “They (the Rohingyas) want to change Jammu into an Islamic state which will not be tolerated by the people.”
These incendiary claims and paranoia have made Jammu the unwitting battleground for anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. This sentiment now has official sanction – the central government has declared Rohingyas illegal, a security threat and ordered their deportation. But these pronouncements are at odds with the government’s own policy and what we found on ground, making the whole exercise seem suspect.
At stake is the future of thousands of people who have nowhere to go.
Barely four kilometres away from the JCCI office, an uphill road dug up in parts, leads to a Rohingya settlement in Qasim Nagar. Nestled amongst surrounding hills, it is dotted with tin shanties held together with pieces of wood or tarp. A small, neat market on the main road has grocery shops, one selling fish and a tea shop where fried rice with black grams are sold. The men do odd jobs as ragpickers or labourers while the women shell walnuts.
Mohd. Yunus, 42, in charge of the camp, asks me in a hushed voice, “Is it true that we are being deported? Where will they send us?”
In the last two weeks, 270,000 people fled Myanmar’s Rakhine province as military action intensified against the Rohingyas. A United Nations advisor said that the situation neared ‘genocide’.
In February this year, Hunar Gupta, a member of the BJP’s legal cell filed a PIL in the J&K high court asking for their deportation, citing ‘national security’. “A lawyer can be called the master of all jacks,” says Hunar who believes law can enlighten people about their rights. He also believes that Rohingyas don’t deserve any rights. “We’ll give rights to outsiders while our own starve?” he asks. “As per latest data the number is enormous. I just saw the other day that three crore Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have infiltrated India.” When asked about the source of this figure, he replies, “I saw it on television”.
According to the Centre, there are 40,000 Rohingyas in India. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 16,500 Rohingyas in India, who’ve been issued refugee cards. Of these, about 5,700 are in Jammu while the rest are spread across Delhi, Jaipur and Hyderabad. The state police and CID have been monitoring the Rohingyas closely. Both agencies have lists with names and numbers of Rohingyas living in the city, as well as records of arrivals and departures. This ‘census’ was last carried out about two-three months ago. Unlike Hunar’s claim, the number of Rohingyas was found to have gone up by 800-1,000 compared to last year.
Yunus shows forms that each family has been asked to fill and submit by both agencies. As we speak, an assistant inspector of CID arrives. The inspector says he comes to the camp at least five to 10 times every month for a check. Much of the concern of Rohingyas as a security threat appears to be based on the actions of Arakan Salvation Army (Arsa), the militant Rohingya outfit locked in violent conflict with Myanmar’s security forces. Their first big attack was in October last year when they killed nine policemen.
A Home Ministry notification to state governments on August 8 refers to the “security challenges” posed by “infiltration from Rakhine state of Myanmar.” So far however, there is no credible evidence to suggest the Rohingyas in India have links to Arsa, or are tilting towards violent radicalisation. Instead, those anxieties are fuelled by nebulous media reports quoting intelligence sources.
SD Singh Jamwal, the inspector general of Jammu, told HT, “There are no statistics to suggest they are involved in crime, apart from small theft-type things. As of now, no links to any terror or cross-border activity has been found.” Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had confirmed the same in the state assembly.
To find out details of the scale and nature of offences, HT visited five police stations – Jammu East, Talab Tillo, Nowabad, Satwari and Gandhinagar. In Jammu East, where the largest population of Rohingyas lives, the police said that five cases have been registered against four Rohingyas this year. Three men were found selling drugs and another had two cases against him – human trafficking and lack of documents. At Jammu’s Gandhinagar police station, there was one case registered in 2013 against a Rohingya found without papers. The other police stations had no records of any crimes by Rohingyas.
Illegal immigrant or refugee?
“Madam, please don’t call them refugees. They are illegal immigrants according to Indian law,” Hunar protests.
India is not signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and 1967 Protocol, which defines a refugee’s rights and the obligations of the host country. But the government’s own guidelines on refugees (accessed by HT) contradict its public stand. Issued by the Foreigners Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the internal document outlines that claims of all refugees will be examined on ground of “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, sex, nationality, ethnic identity”. The Rohingyas would qualify for a long-term visa according to this. The document also mentions that “no such foreign national will be deported.”
This flies in the face of what union minister of state for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju has claimed repeatedly – “all illegal immigrants, including Rohingyas” will be deported. When questioned about this, the Home Ministry cites other laws. Ashok Prasad, MHA spokesperson, says, “Anybody coming into the country without a valid passport and visa will be considered an illegal immigrant. If a Rohingya falls into that category, then action has to be taken against him under the law, no matter how bad his condition.”
Since Myanmar doesn’t recognise Rohingyas as citizens, they are only given a card identifying them as temporary residents. The UNHCR issues them refugee cards after a rigorous interview process. It is unclear where the government will deport them to, but senior advocate, Colin Gonsalves, who is representing the Rohingyas says, “Every refugee is illegal at entry. That is neutralised in law as refugees are running to save their lives. This has been accepted by courts in the past.”
Jammu and Kashmir’s special status is another argument being deployed to expel the Rohingyas. Harsh Dev Singh, leader of the Panther’s Party who’d put up ‘Rohingyas Quit Jammu’ hoardings says, “In view of article 370, no one can be allowed to settle here, not even Indian citizens. They are not entitled to facilities available to other residents.”
While Article 370 and 35A bar land ownership and state voting rights amongst others, it does not mean outsiders cannot live or work in the state.
Last year, in an amendment to the Citizenship Act, the government stated that minorities from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh would not be considered ‘illegal immigrants’ if they enter India without documents. So, while the minorities (Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis) from Muslim-majority neighbouring countries would benefit, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where Muslims are in minority, are conspicuously absent.
“Look at us as humans, not as Muslims. You may as well kill us here, rather than send us back to Burma, where we will be killed anyway,” Yunus says, tearing up. “Just like you say ‘saare jahan se acha Hindustan humara,’ we feel the same about our country. If the world and Burma government can bring peace, we will return.”