Going through fire

The regularity with which fires break out in Rohingya settlement camps in India raises questions and makes life more stressful for an already beleaguered people.

Published : Jun 06, 2018 12:30 IST

Rohingya refugees in a settlement camp in the Kalindi Kunj area of Delhi trying to salvage what they can on April 16, the day after a fire gutted their makeshift homes.

Rohingya refugees in a settlement camp in the Kalindi Kunj area of Delhi trying to salvage what they can on April 16, the day after a fire gutted their makeshift homes.

IT does not seem to be a coincidence that fires keep breaking out in Rohingya settlements across India. While there is no proof of foul play, the regular occurrence of fires from Jammu to Haryana (Nuh district) to Delhi raises many questions. Most of these fires have occurred at midnight or at the crack of dawn, giving the settlements’ residents little or no chance to salvage their belongings.

On April 15, when a massive fire engulfed a Rohingya settlement in the Kalindi Kunj area of Delhi, 55 jhuggie s (shanties) were completely gutted in a couple of hours and 220 people were rendered homeless. “I was jolted awake as smoke billowed in from under the door. Our neighbours were yelling a fire alert, and together we rushed to wake up others. We first tried to rescue the children. The fire quickly spread to my house, and in the melee my wife could only save my mobile phone in a wet blanket. Everything else, we lost,” said Mohammad Shaqir.

All attempts to douse the fire with buckets of water failed, and the flames rose higher. By the time the fire brigade arrived, there was nothing left to salvage. While there was no loss of life, people sustained injuries in their attempts to retrieve their meagre belongings. The tiny homes some of them had managed to build, their savings, children’s books, and the few possessions of material comfort such as television sets and beds they had bought in the past six years with earnings from manual labour, and, more worrying, their identity cards and other documents were all lost in the blaze. Acting promptly, the United Nations distributed fresh UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) refugee cards from the list it had. But other documents such as permission letters from the West Bengal government that allowed the refugees to visit their families back home in Myanmar, which were obtained after years of persistent effort, were destroyed.

FL22rohingBurnt down camp of Nuh

The camp in Nuh district, Haryana, where there was a fire on May 27.


This was not the first time the camp had experienced a fire. There were stray fires in 2012, when the camp was set up, and in 2016. In 2017, a mysterious fire was spotted outside Ali Johar’s residence, which was one of the first houses in the camp from the street. He is the founder of the Rohingya Literacy Programme and a youth leader. But so far, the residents had doused the fires themselves without feeling the need to call fire tenders.

Even as the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (ROHRIngya) and other civil society organisations were trying to rebuild lives in Delhi, on May 27, a massive fire broke out in a camp in Nuh district, affecting 208 people from 57 families. While no casualties were reported, once again, a group of people was left without any means to sustain itself. Even if foul play is ruled out, one cannot shy away from the fact that living conditions in these camps are very poor, said Ali Johar. The government is duty-bound to ensure a safe and secure atmosphere for the immigrants, whether it gives them refugee status or not.

Midnight fires have become a pattern in Rohingya camps across the country, whether by accident or design. In November 2016, 150 homes of the Rohingyas in the Narwal area of Jammu were destroyed in a fire at midnight. Three children and a woman were charred to death and several others injured. In June last year, eight tents in another camp in Nuh caught fire at 4 a.m.

Abysmal living conditions

When Frontline visited the Delhi settlement soon after the fire there, it found abysmal living conditions and little or no government support. The Delhi State government, which is run by the Aam Aadmi Party, provided tents and rations for five days after which the Zakat Foundation, a local charity, and other non-governmental organisations and civil society groups stepped in. A makeshift camp was set up near the original camp, and people were trying to get by on intermittent supplies of water and rations. Some of them were forced to sell the remains of their burnt utensils as scrap for a few hundred rupees. A temporary health camp was operating from a tent. Many people complained of heartburn and sleeplessness.

Rohingyas escaped extreme persecution at the hands of the authoritarian regime in Myanmar, and the wounds of yesteryear had not fully healed when they began to face troubles on Indian soil. Fires, loss of homes and uncertainty about the future are dogging these stateless people who move from one country to another, none of which wants them. “The flutter in my heart refuses to settle down,” said an old woman as she showed Frontline the medicines she was taking in the hope of getting a proper night’s sleep. A heavy downpour at night a week after the fire drenched the tents, adding to their woes. The Zakat Foundation promised to rebuild the camp within three weeks. Ali Johar said that more permanent solutions were needed. He told Frontline : “Even if they rebuild the camp, we will continue to live in fear. Our camp has already seen four fires, and there might be a fifth one. We need to feel safe and secure. We do not want charity but restoration of our rights as human beings. We should be accepted as refugees to safeguard our basic rights and allowed to lead a life with dignity.”

While the exact reasons for the fire are not known, foul play is widely suspected. However, given the precarious conditions in which Rohingyas are surviving in India, none of the residents Frontline spoke to wanted to openly express their misgivings. Most of them stuck to the official line that nobody had an inkling of how the fire had started as they were asleep and they were hopeful that the government would find the culprits, if any. The official versions, too, do not go beyond pinning the blame on an electrical short circuit. But the circumstances leading up to the fire point to a conspiracy. A diverse set of people are using unrelated events as an excuse to criminalise the Rohingya community and justify their persecution. The day the fire broke out in Delhi, some people from the Rohingya camp had participated in a first of its kind international convention in the capital where politicians and civil society members, including Farooq Abdullah, K.P. Fabian, E.T. Mohammed Basheer, Mehmood Parcha and the activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, had gathered to weigh in on the troubles of Rohingyas and the way forward.

Ever since last August, when the Myanmar Army began the latest cycle of violence against Rohingyas, they have fled to nearby countries, especially India and Bangladesh, in large numbers. India is estimated to have 40,000 Rohingyas, with 16,500 of them possessing the UNHCR cards and 7,000 of them settled in Jammu in 23 camps. They work as daily wage labourers in the most difficult of conditions. The communal polarisation against Muslims in the country ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power in 2014 has led to a hate campaign being orchestrated in the mainstream media and on social media against Rohingyas, especially those settled in Jammu.

The BJP government declared Rohingya refugees illegal immigrants and threatened to deport them to Myanmar, where they face certain death. Disregarding their UNHCR status, Union Minister for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju announced that the process of identifying Rohingyas was on and that they would be deported soon. It was only when Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir, both residents of the Kalindi Kunj camp where the fire broke out, filed a petition in the Supreme Court that the process of deportation was temporarily halted. But the fear of being uprooted once again looms large over the community.

The government said in the Supreme Court that Rohingyas were a national security threat and parroted the Sangh Parivar line that they had links with Pakistan-based terror organisations and the Islamic State. On his visit to Myanmar last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined the de facto leader of that country, Aung San Suu Kyi, in condemning the “terrorists”. The bogey of the terrorist Rohingya has been repeatedly dismantled. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of Jammu and Kashmir announced in the State Assembly that though 17 first information reports had been registered against 38 Rohingyas, no Rohingya person had been found to have engaged in any anti-national or subversive activity. Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court Colin Gonsalves conducted a verification drive and found that there was no case of terrorism against any Rohingyas. Despite these facts, the government refuses to change its stance.

On the other hand, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), elements of the Sangh Parivar continue to conduct a concerted campaign to criminalise Rohingyas. According to their narrative, both Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingyas are terrorists and need to be removed from the country. This criminalisation of Muslim migrants fits into the larger Sangh Parivar agenda of creating a Hindu Rashtra where non-Hindus are unwelcome and Muslims are the prime enemy. On April 11, hundreds of Hindus in Jammu called for the deportation of Rohingya refugees from the State. Businesses and educational institutions remained shut as Hindus marched through the streets.

In another rally, the Jammu Kashmir National Panthers Party attacked the BJP government for not fulfilling its promise of deporting Rohingyas, who were like “ticking time bombs”. Attempts were made to blame the brutal rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl from the Bakerwal community in Kathua, Jammu, in January on Rohingyas.

Chief among the conspiracy theorists on social media was Madhu Purnima Kishwar, an academic and a writer with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. She tweeted: “Very likely that family accused of rape have been scapegoated. Murder of …suspected to be handiwork of jehadi #Rohingyas settled by PDP in Jammu region. Since Jammu people angry at settling criminal Rohingya in Hindu areas, Mufti Mehbooba used this murder as counterblast strategy.” Not only is the tweet vitriolic and disrespectful to the little girl who was killed but it also criminalises an oppressed community.

FL22rohingAli Johar and Sabber Ali

Ali Johar (centre) and Sabber Ahmad (in white T-shirt) at the camp on May 28.

Prashant Bhushan filed a criminal complaint against her for serious offences under Sections 153A, 295A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code. “...against serial fake news purveyor & communal hate & violence inciting tweets of Madhu Kishwar who thinks she can get away without accountability. Time to call her bluff,” he tweeted. She has 2.11 million followers on Twitter. Right-wing websites also spread the conspiracy theory that Rohingyas were settled near the village where the girl was raped and therefore had something to do with it. Members of the Jammu Bar Association who prevented the arrest of the accused in the Kathua rape case and disrupted the filing of the charge sheet demanded the ouster of Rohingyas along with Bangladeshis and nomadic tribes. Social media websites posted rape cases from Assam and Bihar with the tagline “this is why we need to deport Rohingya and Bangladeshis”.

Prashant Bhushan also filed a criminal complaint against Manish Chandela, a member of the BJP youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, after he boasted that he had set the fire in the Rohingya camp. The account has since been taken down. “No action yet by @DelhiPolice to register case & arrest him & no action by BJP to remove him from party. State of rule of law under BJP,” tweeted Prashant Bhushan. Whether Chandela was exaggerating or telling the truth can only be ascertained through an enquiry.

Rohingyas live in terrible conditions in India. On April 9, just six days before the fire at the Delhi camp, the Supreme Court asked the government to file a report on the basic amenities in Rohingya settlements in Delhi and Haryana. The petitioners had reported the unsanitary conditions in the camps and requested the court to intervene so that Rohingyas would be provided with basic health and education facilities. The government tried to wash its hands of the responsibility of providing amenities to Rohingyas by reportedly saying that it was not obliged to provide anything as the community’s members were guests in the country and should not demand anything from their hosts.

Denied basic amenities

On May 11, a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra appointed nodal officers for the welfare of Rohingya children. Rohingya parents or other relatives could approach the subdivisional magistrates in Haryana or Delhi where the camps were located if Rohingya children were being denied the basic facilities of health and education, said the bench. Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioners, told the court how the children were being denied basic amenities on the grounds that they did not have Aadhaar numbers, but Additional Solicitors General Tushar Mehta and Maninder Singh, representing the government, countered that statement and said that Rohingya children were treated the same as children of Indian citizens.

Explaining the trajectory of Rohingyas to their current marginalised status, Sabber Ahmad of ROHRIngya said there were systematic armed operations of intimidation against the ethnic minority who predominantly lived in the western Myanmar province of Arakan (Rakhine state). The discriminatory citizenship law the military Junta passed in 1982 reduced Rohingyas to statelessness and restricted their freedoms: of movement, to marry, to conduct business and to build religious spaces. In 1994, the regime stopped issuing birth certificates to Rohingya children. Every cycle of ostracisation was coupled with mass rape, torture and killings.

“They have been crowded on boats and ping-ponged between nations that don’t want them. They have been forced into labour and have no rights to their land,” said Sabber. All these tactics against the ethnic minority led to the creation of a self-styled armed group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which claims to fight for the rights of the Rohingyas inside Myanmar. Recently, an Amnesty International report found that the ARSA abducted and massacred Hindus in August 2017. Tirana Hassan, Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, condemned the act, saying: “ARSA’s appalling attacks were followed by the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya population as a whole. Both must be condemned—human rights violations or abuses by one side never justify abuses or violations by the other.”

The ARSA, however, denied having attacked any civilian and termed it as “illogical and unreasonable for any Rohingya to commit any crime against a Hindu who is not killing or attacking Rohingyas”.

Through a press release, it declared its willingness to cooperate with any “credible international investigation mission or agency which has the full mandate to investigate as to whether these alleged crimes are committed by ARSA, the Burmese terrorist government and the Burmese terrorist army, or the Rakhine extremists”. The ARSA added that Amnesty International should present its evidence and witnesses. If the facts in its report were found to be false, then the agency should be held “responsible for taking part in manipulating the international community and [making] false criminal accusations against ARSA”. But as long as Aung San Suu Kyi and her government deny independent international organisations such as the U.N. fact-finding missions unfettered access to Arakan province, the full and true extent of the human rights violations carried out by either group cannot be gauged, Tirana Hassan said.

Fleeing persecution in Myanmar, Rohingyas are (in the order of numbers) now in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, India, the United States, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Canada, Ireland and Sri Lanka. In India, they are in camps or rented accommodation in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Haryana, Jammu, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab.

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