‘Imagine No Country Claims You, and Your Own Country Wants to Throw You Into the Sea’
Rohingya refugees in India are trying to make a better life for themselves while fighting the threat of deportation.
Jammu/New Delhi: In the centre of a ramshackle snack shop in the Narwal settlement in Jammu, India, ten-month-old Shafiqa sat atop a plastic coffee table and clapped her hands. Her grandfather Mohammad Rafik, who had just poured eggs into oil smoking on a wok on the stove, shot a quick look at her and yelled in Rohingya, “Wait for two minutes, you bossy monster!”
It was nearly 1 pm on a Friday, and Rafik had work to finish before afternoon prayer. A shirtless six-year-old sucking on an orange popsicle walked confidently inside and lifted Shafiqa to his waist. “I’ll watch over the kid and the shop, uncle,” he offered.
Nearby, the grocery store, fish stall and barbershop were hurriedly closing up. As men in skullcaps rushed to the mosque, the half a dozen shops and over 100 huts in the Rohingya refugee settlement suddenly seemed taken over by children, little guardians of the limited but precious possessions their elders had gathered bit by bit since fleeing Myanmar years earlier. Mothers and aunts sat in a tea shop, their eyes glued to a small television playing the Hindi dubbed version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “Timepass,” said a 19-year-old woman, using the Indian-English word for killing time. “We learn Hindi this way.” Her sister, who was nursing an infant next to her, scoffed. “I’m not sure there is a point anymore – India might kick us all out anyway.”
Originally from Myanmar, Rohingya have entered India and Bangladesh in a trickle since the 1990s, fleeing persecution from the Myanmar army and government, which increased after the Buddhist-majority country effectively revoked their citizenship in 1982. Myanmar not only refuses to recognise Rohingya as citizens but actively discriminates against them: they are denied education, healthcare and voting rights; prevented from freely practicing Islam or Hinduism; and regularly subject to arson, violence and harassment from the military.
About a million Rohingya have abandoned their homes in search of freedom and dignity. Most would reach Bangladesh, which borders Myanmar, by foot or on overcrowded boats over the last ten years, and a few thousand came to India. Since August 25, 2017, in just the six months following massacres in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, 688,000 Rohingya have made the perilous journey into Bangladesh, and joined the three lakhs who fled in the past 30 years. The UN calls them “the world’s most persecuted community”.
Today, according to the UNHCR office in New Delhi, there are 16,500 Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in India, most of whom came not in the most recent 2017 wave, but over the last decade. Of these, half live in the northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir. They have refugee cards (some even long-term visas), work as labourers and rent tin huts in crowded slums. But in 2016, as tens of thousands of Rohingya began pouring out of Myanmar to escape gang rape, mass killings and arson attacks in Rakhine – UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Raad Al Hussein called it “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” – the Indian government more or less shut its doors to any new Rohingya refugees.
Last July, after claiming that there were 40,000 Rohingya people in India, the Ministry of Home Affairs characterised all of them as “illegal immigrants.” It called the Rohingya “national security threats” with “Pak-based” connections, but offered no evidence. The ministry then directed all state governments to identify and deport these illegal immigrants. Indian security forces at the Bangladesh border, who have for years let embattled Rohingya families in on humanitarian grounds, are now reportedly sending them back.
The Indian government directly shelters and assists over 100,000 Tibetan refugees and 64,000 Sri Lankans, and the UNHCR has registered nearly 36,500 refugees and asylum seekers in India, mainly from Afghanistan and Myanmar, and in smaller numbers from Africa and the Middle East. So why is the 1.2 billion-strong Indian state terror-stricken about 16,500 – or 40,000, as the government claims – Rohingya?
India’s desire to expel the persecuted Rohingya is motivated by an insidious combination of security paranoia, nationalist politics and, some say, economic interests in Myanmar.
Under tacit allowance by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (in power in 19 of 35 states too), rising numbers of Muslims in India are being targeted – and in some cases lynched – for eating beef, falling in love with Hindus or simply for wearing skullcaps. Media, civil society and politics are so sharply polarised that ruling politicians dismiss secularism and human rights as communist psychobabble, while armies of pro-BJP trolls cheer them on. Ministers constantly refer to the refugees as “Rohingya Muslims”, and erroneously lump them with Bangladeshi economic migrants, another BJP irritant.
The home minister also insists that India can reject refugees at its discretion because it is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However bigoted or ignorant the justifications, they have captured the popular imagination. In multicultural Jammu, a site of growing Hindu assertion, the influential Chamber of Commerce issued an “identify and kill” statement against the Rohingya. The loud, often pro-establishment Arnab Goswami, anchor-editor of Republic TV, was vicious: “Let [the Rohingya] be floating around in a boat in the Indian Ocean. India is for Indians.” After much criticism about its indifference, the Indian government sent relief assistance to refugees in Bangladesh.
India also justifies Myanmar’s expulsion of the Rohingya and encourages exaggerated allegations of Rohingya terror. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Myanmar leader Aung San Su Kyi, they shook hands on the joint effort to fight terror. Myanmar is at the heart of the Modi government’s Act East trade and economic cooperation policy, as part of India’s competitive response to China’s growing presence in Myanmar. Economic development in Myanmar, however, is largely military-led.
Since the 1990s, the military has aggressively grabbed land from Rohingya smallholders, and from other minorities like the Chin, the Mon, Kachin, the Shan and the Karen. In 2012, land laws were amended to disproportionately favour corporate acquisition. The same year, Myanmar formally allocated 17,000 acres in the Rohingya area to corporations. In 2016, this increased to 31,00,000 acres in the Rakhine. In September of 2017, the government completed developing a 100-acre economic zone in Rakhine’s Maungdaw district, which thousands of Rohingya had fled from that same month. The Indian government plans to invest in such economic zones, including a 1,000-acre hub for Indian companies 30 miles away from the Rakine capital of Sittwe, and a 4,000-acre export hub in central Rakhine.
In December, the Indian government signed a bizarre agreement with Myanmar to supply pre-fabricated houses for returning Rohingya refugees, even when it’s clear that the Burmese military continues its spree of executions and village burning, pushing even the last half million left in Rakhine to leave soon.
When I visited their makeshift settlements across Jammu and New Delhi, it was evident that Rohingya families couldn’t even imagine returning. “Please don’t send us to Burma, not there… anywhere, but not there,” chanted Amir Husain, a 55-year-old in a Jammu settlement, feverishly in Hindi. When Rafik returned from prayer, he showed me images of his village in Rakhine, which had burned to the ground two weeks earlier. A relative in Myanmar who had escaped to Bangladesh sent him photos through Whatsapp. “Deportation to Myanmar means a sure death,” Rafik said. “I’m scared, but deep inside, I don’t believe it’s possible that a diverse, large-hearted country such as India will send us to die, even when we have done nothing to hurt it – can it?”
Under international law, India cannot deport the Rohingya. “The principle of non-refoulement – or not sending back refugees to a place where they face danger – is considered part of customary international law and therefore binding on states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not,” said Ipshita Sengupta, from the UNHCR in New Delhi. “Refugees and asylum-seekers are often forced to flee from their countries without proper documents and should not be denied asylum merely on the basis of irregular entry.”
India has always stated its commitment to non-refoulement in various international human rights fora. Additionally, when the Ministry of Home Affairs (in charge of security) insists it can deport Rohingya, it is directly contradicting the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which has issued five-year resident visas to many refugees in Delhi.
But experts say India’s refugee policy has never been uniform. “In principle, India always maintained a liberal approach toward the plight of asylum-seekers and refugees,” said Ravi Nair, from the Delhi-based South Asia Human Rights Documentation Centre. But India has refused to sign the UN refugee convention, and not created a domestic framework or law dealing specifically with refugees.
“So, India ends up behaving in an ad hoc manner. It has led to a lot of uncertainty and unevenness in the treatment of asylum-seekers and refugees,” he explained. Refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka, for instance, are in a better position, as India uses them as leverage in regional politics, than those who come from countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran or Somalia.
Now two petitions in the Supreme Court – one of them filed by refugees – are challenging the decision to deport the Rohingya and so far, the Indian government has refused to budge. It is calling the Rohingya the same names and using the same pretexts that Myanmar did to render them stateless and ultimately oust them: illegal, Bangladeshi, dirty, immigrant, terrorist, Muslim, threat. With no concern about flouting laws, staining its global image or betraying its own legacy of providing sanctuary for refugees, India is making choices that will set ugly standards for how the Global South treats persecuted minorities.
In the snack shop in Jammu, Shafiqa leapt into the arms of her father, 23-year-old Mohammad Shafiq, who had just returned from prayer. He handed her a biscuit, which she promptly began to nibble on. “Such a happy child,” he said. She was born in India, and although she is still a refugee and not a citizen, he hoped she would have a better childhood than he did.
Shafiq grew up in Boli Bazaar village in the hilly Rakhine State. As a boy, he was taught never to use the word “Rohingya” around any non-Rohingyas – especially those “in uniform” or who looked official. “I was the fourth generation of my family to live in Myanmar, but we were shunned as outsiders, stripped of citizenship,” he said. He spoke in bursts, taking long pauses while he searched for the right words. “It’s hard to explain to people who have always been a citizen of somewhere… Imagine being denied your identity and any attachment to the place that is your home. Imagine no country claims you, and your own country wants to throw you into the sea.”
Before the 2016-17 crisis, there were over one million Rohingya people living in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. A majority are Muslim, but some are Hindu too. In 1982, the military junta passed the Myanmar Nationality Law, which effectively denied the Rohingya the possibility of obtaining citizenship. This remains in place even though Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign to bring democracy to Myanmar, became the de facto leader of the government in 2016.
“Myanmar doesn’t count Rohingya among its eight national races and 132 ethnic groups,” says SAHRDC’s Ravi Nair. “No amount of documentary proof seems to be conclusive enough for the authorities to grant a Rohingya person citizenship.” While the Rohingya are permitted to reside in Myanmar, the Buddhist-dominated government considers most of them “resident foreigners”, not citizens.
Rohingya ancestry is highly contested in Myanmar. Some Rohingya can trace their roots in Myanmar back to the eighth century, but the government claims that all of them were brought by British colonists to Rakhine from Bangladesh. “Even if they were, is 100 years not enough?” asks Nair. Myanmar even rejects the word “Rohingya”, calling them Bengali instead.
The government restricts Rohingya people’s movement within Rakhine, and they are banned from the rest of the country, including Yangon, the former capital city that used to be called Rangoon. “I used to ask about it to the elderly uncles who remembered times when their forefathers were in parliament and even in the army,” said Shafiq. “I used to ask, ‘What is Rangoon like? Is it shiny? Are there only rich people there? Are there many soldiers, like in our district?’” He remembers leaving his village with his father just once. “I was very sick, and he took me to a medical clinic in a bigger village nearby, but it took us days,” he said.
As Shafiq spoke, other men gathered at the snack shop. They were pooling money for the bus journey to Srinagar city, where they had found some construction work. Back home, most were farmers and had worked on ancestral land that the state prevented them from legally owning. “That way, the government could arbitrarily confiscate an entire village’s property,” said Mohammad Juhar, who left Myanmar with nearly 200 people in 2011 after the army opened fire on their village. Juhar described how non-Buddhists like the Rohingya have to pay “one lakh kyat” (Rs 4,700) to the state to conduct weddings – it’s not clear if this is routine bureaucratic extortion or government policy, but all Rohingya I met confirmed the existence of such payments. “We also had to pay a fine for every child that was born,” he added.
The Rakhine State is under the jurisdiction of the military, over which Suu Kyi has no constitutional control – a freedom the Armed Forces retained when it ceded control to a democratic regime in 2011 after 50 years of military junta rule. Shafiq recalled that his childhood ambition was to be a solider, as they were the most powerful people he had seen. “By the time I was a teenager, I knew that was impossible,” he said. “I couldn’t even dream of being an engineer – as a non-citizen stuck in Rakhine, I couldn’t go university. Anyway, even if a Rohingya had a PhD, it’s no use to him in Myanmar.” After decades of discrimination, the population has chronic health problems and is semi-literate.
Most families in the Narwal settlement have lived there since 2007, but the largest numbers arrived after June 2012, when clashes between Muslim Rohingya and Rakhine Buddhists left at least 78 dead, according to government figures, and displaced thousands more. That was when Shafiq, then 17, walked for two days with his uncle until they crossed into Bangladesh. They laboured for two months in rice fields, saved enough to pay Rs 1,000 per head to an Indian human smuggler who brought them to Kolkata in India. “From there, I was put on a train, whose last stop was Jammu,” said Shafiq. According to Jammu and Kashmir police records, there are over 5,700 Rohingya in Jammu. Smaller numbers live in Delhi, Mewat, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Chennai. “They go where there are kinship networks and where they get a regular source of livelihood,” said Nair.
Shafiq found not only work and safety in India, he said, but also dignity. “I could lead a normal life, where my concerns are not about life and death, but much easier: food, clothes, housing.” He was able to pray openly, think of the future and start a family. He married another refugee two years ago and last year he became a father.
As their numbers in India grew, Rohingya community leaders – often male religious elders who had quickly picked up Hindi to better negotiate Indian society – sought help from activists in applying for refugee status. India does not have a formal process for offering asylum to asylum-seekers. The government has, however, permitted the UNHCR office in New Delhi to issue refugee cards to persecuted Rohingya seeking shelter in India.
Shafiq, like many others, travelled to New Delhi in 2012, applied for asylum at the UNHCR office, and, after a few months, sat for a refugee status determination interview. “They asked me to describe my village, point it out on the map, recall what was near it, speak in Rohingya,” said Shafiq. To verify that he was indeed fleeing persecution, the same questions were repeated in many ways: Did you see any violence? Describe the violence you witnessed. Who died? How many died? What day? What time of day? Did you see it or hear about it? What were the circumstances in which you decided to leave? Why did you come to India? Did you come to India to find work? Do you plan to return to Myanmar?
When it became clear that Shafiq’s request for asylum was authentic and that he posed no security threat to India, he received a refugee card, valid for two years. The card gives him all the rights Indian citizens have, except the right to vote. He must also follow domestic laws. The card protects him from forced detention and deportation, and gives his family access to government schools and free medical care at government hospitals.
That’s where the benefits end. The Rohingya, like most other refugee groups in India, live in near destitution, with no aid, housing, electricity or water from the government, and only meagre support from a few refugee rights NGOs. Among the poorest migrants in Jammu and Delhi, they blend into the labouring crowds, doing menial jobs that locals have long abandoned: cleaning faeces off railway tracks, clearing drains, digging at construction sites, and collecting recyclable scrap. Many of these jobs are subcontracted to them by locals, who then take a cut from their pay.
“We still make Rs 500 a day, which is high compared to the rest of India,” said Moulana Younus, a Rohingya community leader who came to India in 2005 and is now what Indians call a maestry, a supervisor-cum-labour supplier in Jammu. “I got 20 people a digging job just outside Jammu,” Younus said. He is careful about choosing employers. “As refugees and as poor people, we are vulnerable, and initially, employers regularly cheated us of our pay, knowing that we couldn’t really access the police, or afford to complain,” he said. Now, he usually sticks to trustworthy networks.
While Rohingya settlements are informally called “camps”, they are not set up by state agencies. They are small slums: collections of tin huts built by the Rohingya on plots rented from local landlords. In Jammu, I visited six of the biggest settlements, which housed anywhere from 25 to 100 families each. Each paid Rs 500 a month in rent, in addition to electricity and water charges, to a landowner who dealt with the police and government on their behalf.
Ashwaq Hussain, a 25-year-old landlord who has rented his plot to a Rohingya settlement, identified himself as a Gujjar to prove that he had no special affinity to Rohingyas. “I’ve rented to them for four years, but only last year, the police started harassing me. Arey, they needed a place to stay, I had land. They are hard-working, they are religious Muslims so they don’t drink alcohol and they have small children who need safe homes. Why shouldn’t I rent my land?” The state refused them taps or power lines, so the landlord hooked these services up in his name. “The renters pay me,” he explained.
Neha Dixit’s report on how Rohingya refugees in India are denied basic nutrition services
Can the Rohingya return to Myanmar now? No, says Azeem Ibrahim
Jorge Silva’s portraits of injured Rohingya refugees
Manoj Joshi argues that shunning Rohingya refugees is a bad geopolitical strategy for India
At Narwal, a few Rohingya had opened small grocery shops, fish stalls and tea shops along the road next to the settlements. At lunchtime, ten-month-old Shafiqa’s grandmother Fatima Khatoun walked me through “their Indian village” by the road. Wobbly tin huts were separated by dusty lanes, barely as wide as an average-sized adult. There were no doors, only fading curtains billowing in the warm breeze. Some huts had blue tarpaulin roofs, on top of which their primary source of livelihood lay drying in separate piles: plastic boxes, foil wrappers, and metal wires, to be sold at the recycling centre. In a corner, a couple of men sat by a four-foot-high mountain of glass bottles.
At this time of day, the slum belonged to the women and children. Barefoot, half-dressed, wild-haired toddlers played among plastic pots of stored water, chased each other with headless plastic toys found in the garbage, or stood around eating Kurkure, the ubiquitous junk snack of poor urban kids in India. Nearly all women hunched over open-air wood stoves, cooking rice and a watery curry, one eye always on an infant bawling in the corner. Some avoided my camera, or asked me to hold on while they pulled a scarf over their heads. One called it haram to be photographed. When we reached Shafiqa’s mother Taslima, she was lying on a straw mat indoors, burning with a fever that has recurred every few weeks since her pregnancy. “I get an injection from the government hospital sometimes, but nothing changes,” she said. Taslima is only 17; most young mothers here are under 20.
The Rohingya already in India help new arrivals set up home, apply for refugee status and find jobs. But as they receive frantic calls from the tens of thousands of Rohingya escaping the intensifying crackdown in Rakhine, they can offer no help. Shafiq said that his father disappeared while his village was being evacuated late last year. “He probably stayed out longer than 6 pm, and was shot by the military,” Shafiq said.
As the political situation regarding the Rohingya has deteriorated in India, he instructed his mother and little brother still in Myanmar to go to Bangladesh and stay there. “I told them not to come to Jammu now,” said Shafiq, his face turning red with guilt and grief. “I should be taking care of her – but I told her, don’t come to India, Ma, it’s not safe. Any day now, we might just be thrown back into the mouth of the beast.”
Like Shafiq, many Rohingya in India are terrified. Those with UNHCR refugee cards assumed they would at least be allowed to stay in the country without fear of being sent back to Myanmar, where they would almost certainly be killed. But on August 8, the home ministry sent a notice to all Indian states asking them to start the process of identifying and deporting Rohingya. “Illegal migrants are more vulnerable for getting recruited by terrorist organizstions,” the notice said. “Infiltration from Rakhine State of Myanmar (where Rohingya are based) into Indian territory specially in the recent years besides being burden on the limited resources of the country also aggravates the security challenges posed to the country.”
While no Rohingya have been deported yet, the decision has made an already difficult situation even harder. At the Indo-Bangladesh border, which is usually quite porous, the Indian Border Security Force is monitoring entry more carefully. Within India, the police in states where Rohingya are present are responding to the government notice by drawing up lists of names and insisting on family photographs for surveillance purposes.
“Rohingyas are not illegal, but they do live on the edge of the law, and of society,” said Ravi Hemadri, director of the Development and Justice Initiative, a UNHCR partner organisation that works with Rohingya people in Jammu and Delhi. “Demonising the community by calling them terrorists or miscreants is very dangerous. It may lead to police excesses, trouble from vigilante groups, and more generally, loss of livelihood and societal acceptance.” He said that since the state notice, there has been a burst of cases filed by police against Rohingya for crimes like petty theft, entry without a passport and trespassing.
Over the last decade, Rohingya people and poor Bihari migrants have filled some gaps in Jammu’s economy. Many refugees I met were doing cleaning and digging jobs subcontracted to them by locals. Rohit Sharma, the Gujjar landlord’s friend, ran a woodwork factory. “All my labour is Burmese,” he said. “They are good workers.”
A plastic factory, and another medical packaging facility near the settlement also employed many Rohingya. Some were asked to leave in May last year, after the Jammu Chamber of Commerce said that if the government failed to deport the Rohingya settlers within 30 days and didn’t book people on whose land they had settled, the Chamber would launch a “identify and kill” movement on its own.
“The accusations of us being terrorists have worried our landlords and employers,” said construction labour supervisor Moulana Younus, who has had many of his steady jobs cancelled. “The employers told me they knew it was politics, but they didn’t want any trouble.” Neighbours, Rafik said, now look at them in fear instead of with compassion. “Last year, when a short circuit burned down all the huts in one of our settlements, all the middle-class neighbours mobilised and contributed between Rs 1,000 and 5,000 each to rebuild strong concrete structures,” he said. “I’m not sure people will help us if the government is calling us terrorists.”
As a trading and business centre, Jammu is diverse, but there has always been regional resentment toward the dominance of Kashmiri Muslims in state government. “Communal polarisation has been part of Jammu and Kashmir politics since independence,” said Anuradha Bhasin, the Jammu-based managing editor of the Kashmir Times. “And Indian governments have always tried to sharpen the divide, and use Hindu-majority Jammu as a tool to block off Kashmiri demands.” The Hindu right-wing has been laying down roots in the city, as evidenced by recent agitations around land use for an annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath temple and the anti-Rohingya messaging.
In mid-2017, Hindu fundamentalist vigilantes in Jammu found a rotting cow carcass near the Channi Rama plot, where more than 30 Rohingya families lived. The vigilantes accused the Rohingya of cow slaughter and demanded that they be evicted. As the mob threatened to burn their homes, the police detained ten Rohingya, including two women. When I visited in September 2017, the plot was cleared of all but three huts. Bhasin observed that the “manufactured paranoia around the Rohingya” is beginning to unsettle local Muslims too. “Perhaps that was the intended consequence,” she said.
That same month, I met with Rakesh Gupta, the president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce who had called on his supporters to “identify and kill all Rohingya”. When I asked him why, he smiled. “It was not an emotional statement, but a logical one,” Gupta said. “Why can’t the Rohingya go somewhere else? Why not Srinagar – there are Muslims there. Why Jammu?”
He called it an attempt to change the demography of the place, which would “render Jammu Hindus weaker” in a state government he said was largely dominated by those from Kashmir. “I will not let India give the Rohingya residency even as it denies certificates to refugee Sikhs dating back to 1947,” said Gupta. Then, pulling his chair forward, he added, “So many Muslims… it can be a trigger for religious sentiments to flare up, for some terrorism. Why take a risk with such people?”
There is a lot of talk about Rohingya terror in Jammu, but little actual evidence. I visited four police stations in Jammu that oversee the Rohingya slums. There are 5,743 Rohingya in Jammu, and only 17 cases total have ever been registered against them: eight for lack of a visa or travel document, one for cow slaughter, two for rape and others for stealing railway property, causing injury, and child marriage. No terrorism.
S.D. Singh, Jammu’s Inspector General of Police said, “The Rohingya do some petty theft, which is common among communities this poor. There is nothing too sensational – we have no terror cases against them.” Junior policemen confirmed the same, and some even expressed sympathy for how poor many Rohingya are. One policeman in the Channi Himmat police station was confused: “Rohingya? Aren’t they from Bangladesh?” Others have fallen prey to crude political narratives: “If Hindus are frustrated, they have no terror organisation to join,” said K.L. Sharma, a policeman in Narwal. “But extremist Islamic outfits like ISIS could exploit the Rohingya people’s vulnerability.”
The Indian government’s concerns about Rohingya terrorism seem to emanate from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an armed guerrilla outfit that has been active since 2016. Last August, they claimed responsibility for an attack on police posts and an army base in Rakhine. ARSA’s founder is of Pakistani origin, and in images leaked to the media in September, the head of an Islamic militant organization is seen addressing one of its gatherings in Karachi in 2012.
“The connection might be something intelligence agencies should keep an eye on, but it is not conclusive evidence to order a blanket deportation of all Rohingya in India,” said Bangalore-based refugee rights lawyer Sahana Basavapatna. If security concerns are behind the desire to deport, she says, then India must institute a protocol for handling refugees. “You can’t ban a whole community. Countries across the world have systems to weed out militant or economic migrants from innocent victims of persecution. If individual refugees fail the test, you can always deport them, or jail them.”
Basavapatna surmises that the government wants to gain electoral traction by signalling to the Indian Hindu majority that it is taking a hard stance on Muslim refugees. But acting on this bluster might be difficult. “Deportation will mean logistical coordination with the home country, but Myanmar does not consider the Rohingya as citizens. Aung San Suu Kyi is saying they’ll take them back, but the military hasn’t stopped killing and raping them. You can’t even put them on a flight to Yangon city because they are banned there.”
Colin Gonsalves, a lawyer who has filed public interest litigation in India’s Supreme Court on behalf of the Rohingyas in Jammu to challenge the deportation order, also thinks the government has an ulterior motive. “The Rohingya issue is not about security at all,” he says, “It’s about politics.” While his petition is under consideration, no deportation cases can proceed until they’ve been heard in court.
Another petition comes from two Rohingya people: one of them is Mohammad Salimullah, a 35-year-old shopkeeper who lives in a Delhi settlement. Velvet-voiced and mild-mannered, he is not somebody one would expect to launch a high-stakes battle that might determine the direction of India’s refugee policy. Salimullah left Myanmar in 2005 and has lived in India for eight years. Before we speak, he insists on showing me all his documents. “You need to know that I am a legitimate resident in India,” he said.
The file has a long-term visa for his family, refugee cards and proof of a phone connection. “Ever since the talk of deportation began, I wanted a legal way to resolve this,” said Salimullah, who is being represented pro bono by the social justice lawyer Prashant Bhushan. “My plea challenges the deportation order based on the truths about our struggles in Myanmar, the impossibility of our return until peace returns there, and our legal status in India.”
Sitting on his haunches and swatting away the afternoon flies gathering at his shop’s entrance, Salimullah said that reporters often ask him how he can be so brave. “They think I’m taking on a big country,” he says. “But by going to court, what I’m doing is showing that I trust the Indian system.” In a hearing on January 31, the attorney for the central government said that they “didn’t want India to become the refugee capital of the world”. Yet, Salimullah stood his ground, “We Rohingya have pretty much nothing left, but we have hope.”
As I walked out of the Delhi Rohingya settlement, three men sitting outside the slum approached me. They were migrant labourers from the neighbouring Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, taking a cigarette break. Their hands were still white with concrete, and one man’s shirt was splattered with mud.
“What will happen to them?” asked one of them, middle-aged Rajesh Kumar.
When I said the court had yet to decide, Kumar nodded. “I have seen the scary videos from their country – poor things, I hope their troubles end soon.”
The man next to him walked closer to me. “I’m not saying all of them are like that, but … I just don’t trust them. They could be anything, they could be terrorists.”
Kumar laughed wryly at his friend. “We are as dirt poor as these fellows,” he said. “But look, we have the arrogance of citizens.”
Rohini Mohan is a Bangalore-based journalist.
This article was first published in World Policy Journal, New York