Persecuted in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims find new home in Jammu
Words fail 70-year-old Mohammed Younus and a much younger Shah Alam when they try to explain how lucky they are to be alive and, perhaps, safe.
They are among hundreds of Rohingya Muslim migrants from Myanmar, who have taken shelter in and around Jammu and Kashmir’s winter capital.
“Four years ago, I came to Jammu. The junta in Myanmar had unleashed the gravest atrocities on Rohingyas and the world was silent. They are raping our girls and women, setting our houses on fire, firing at us as if we are sitting ducks, and chopping people into pieces,” Younus said.
As a mark of proof, he lifted his shirt to show bullet scars on his torso.
The Rohingyas, a stateless ethnic group loathed by many of Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, were forced to leave their homes since a bloody crackdown by the army in their home state of Rakhine. Many came to India, with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and with horrifying stories of rape, torture and murder.
Several Rohingya families — the majority with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards and some without papers — have found Jammu a safe haven.
“I work at a scrap-dealer’s shop; my wife and eldest daughter work as domestic helps. We have to pay Rs 500 a month for the shanty and Rs 200 for electricity. Some NGOs help us. Life is not easy, but at least we are alive here,” said 45-year-old Shah Alam in a pidgin mix of Hindi and Urdu.
Fellow migrant Maulana Shafiq, 37, runs a madarsa or Islamic school for Rohingya children in Narwal Bala, where a sizeable number of these stateless people live.
He said about 3 million of the 4 million Rohingyas in Myanmar fled to Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Thailand to escape the persecution.
Those left behind put up with inhuman, concentration camp-style restrictions. They can’t marry without permission, married women can’t conceive, and can’t even run small shops for livelihood. Rohingyas can’t even go out at night in Myanmar. There’s a 6pm-to-8am curfew.
Mohammed Yousuf, a 21-year-old who landed in Jammu in 2012, couldn’t be more thankful to the people of his adopted home. “Here all religions live in total harmony. Death doesn’t stalk us here.”
The state has several charities that help the Rohingyas.
“Here, we get almost all our daily requirements in zakat (charity),” said Mohammed Rafiq, a 43-year-old father of five. “We don’t get any state assistance because we aren’t Indian … but still Jammu is hundred times better than Myanmar….at least we are alive, getting two square meals and a shanty to live in.”
Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly this June that about 13,400 Myanmarese and Bangladeshi migrants are living in camps in Jammu. Bathindi Ka Plot is home to the highest number of Rohingya migrants — 686 in total.
However, security forces see this Rohingya population as a potential threat in the militancy-hit state close to a hostile neighbour.
The insecurity grew after one of the two foreign militants killed in a shootout in south Kashmir last October turned out to be a native of Myanmar. A military official called them a ticking time bomb.
For the likes of Alam, the immediate concern is food and shelter — that is to rebuild their shanties after nearly 80 of them were gutted in a blaze. The gleaming corrugated sheet houses springing up from the ruins mirror these migrants’ resolve to live.