Print edition : October 27, 2017

Yasmin Ara, a Rohingya girl in front of her shanty at a camp for refugees in Hyderabad, on September 18. Photo: AP/Mahesh Kumar A.

Camp number 15, built to accommodate Rohingyas fleeing Jammu camps because of alleged arson by the local Hindu communities there in May this year. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Muhammad Anwar, the interpreter for COVA. He is fluent in Hindi, as many Rohingyas are, because of Bollywood’s popularity in the community. Photo: Kunal Shankar

(From left) Muhammad Zubair, Ashiqullah, Sultan Ahmed and Muhammad Khasim, all residents of camp number two. Ashiqullah is Muhammad Khasim’s son and is studying in Class VI. Photo: Kunal Shankar

Hyderabad has the largest Rohingya settlement in the country after Jammu, with 4,000 refugees living in 17 camps. Driven out of their own country and then booted out of refugee camps in Jammu, these people face an uncertain future now that the government considers them a threat to national security.

“I SUBMIT that some of the Rohingyas with militant background are also found to be very active in Jammu, Delhi, Hyderabad and Mewat, and have been identified as having a very serious and potential threat to the internal/national security of India,” reads paragraph 32 of the Union of India’s affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on September 18 in response to a petition filed by some refugees pleading for asylum.

By giving such a statement, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government attempted to portray what is essentially a refugee problem as one involving terrorism and security, although the real reason is the Hindu Right’s paranoia about a demographic takeover by Islam. New Delhi also linked the issue to domestic politics by claiming that several of the “terrorists” have links with the Islamic State, which is aiding separatists in fighting the Indian state in Kashmir.

The Centre put forth three points to buttress its position. First, it argued that the power to “identify and deport illegal immigrants” rested solely with the executive unless Parliament framed laws that stated otherwise, and that a decision to deport was made with “national security considerations” being “the highest on the country’s list of priorities”. Second, it argued that the objectives of the Directive Principles of State Policy, such as working towards a more equitable society and ensuring a life of dignity, applied only to citizens and that when India got “saddled with an influx of illegal migrants”, the country’s resources got stretched thin, to the detriment of Indian nationals. And finally, the Centre argued that such an “influx” of refugees, given India’s porous borders, had already led to significant demographic changes, threatening the sociocultural fabric of the border States.

India’s own record of dealing with refugee migration tells a very different story about how various governments, including the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of 1997, have handled such “influxes”.

Past influxes

Take, for example, the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, who came to India in four phases, according to government records accessed by Frontline. Phase one was from 1983 to 1987, when 1,34,053 Sri Lankan Tamils came to India. Phase two was from 1989 to 1991, when another 1,22,078 arrived. Phase three was from 1996 to 2003; the numbers then drastically dropped to 22,418. That is to say, by the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1997, there were well over a quarter million Sri Lankan Tamils in India, mainly in camps in Tamil Nadu. The fourth and final phase of Sri Lankan refugees coming to India was from 2006 to 2012, when another 25,720 Tamils arrived. The total Tamil refugee count stood at 3,04,269 in 2012.

Throughout the three decades of the civil war in Sri Lanka, especially at the beginning when India was much poorer than it is today, neither the Centre nor the government in Tamil Nadu ever spoke of deporting Sri Lankan Tamils though the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was declared a terror outfit by New Delhi and was considered the most militarised separatist group of its time. It could be argued that the Sri Lankan Tamil statehood demand found political resonance and sympathy in Tamil Nadu, and given the vital role the State played during the coalition politics era at the Centre, New Delhi would have found it difficult to even raise such a demand for deportation. However, the religion of the asylum seekers was never an issue even during the Vajpayee years as several Tamil refugees were Muslims.

Indeed, India had direct interests in Sri Lanka’s domestic policy and had sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force ostensibly to quell the Tamil resistance, while simultaneously providing the LTTE military training in Uttar Pradesh. Deportation was not considered even after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE in 1991.

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, significant numbers of Sri Lankan Tamils have left India on their own. A total of 2,14,135, that is, nearly two-thirds, have either returned to Sri Lanka or sought asylum elsewhere. As on August 1, 2017, only 62,399 remained in 107 refugee camps spread across 24 districts of Tamil Nadu; another 36,516 lived outside camps in the State as per a July 31, 2017, Q Branch special report. That is a total population of nearly one lakh.

It cannot be argued that their presence has negatively impacted either Tamil Nadu’s or the rest of India’s sociocultural demography despite larger numbers of refugees arriving on Indian shores. If anything, it has led to a strengthening of ties between families separated because of the civil war. It has also led to a flourishing of trade and cultural ties between Sri Lanka and India.

Highly placed officials in the Tamil Nadu government said refugees were “screened upon arrival at the Mandapam camp in Ramanathapuram district for any association with separatist groups at the height of the civil war”. Those with such links to the LTTE or the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) were shifted to what were called “quarantine camps” which were “sub-jails” where their activities were monitored round the clock.

They would then come under the watch of the Tamil Nadu Police. At its peak, there were quarantine camps in four locations—Chengalpattu, Vellore, Madurai and Tiruchi. Today, only the one in Tiruchi remains.

Similar screenings could be done for the Rohingya if indeed the government suspects they are involved with separatist groups. Surely, Indian intelligence gathering has evolved and become more sophisticated now than what it was in the 1980s or even a decade ago. In fact, such screenings are already taking place, going by the surprise checks by plainclothesmen at the campsites in Hyderabad. This correspondent was stopped and questioned by two men on motorcycles. The interpreter who was present said such checks by the State police, intelligence units or even landlords were routine.

There have been demands for naturalisation of citizenship by several Sri Lankan Tamils who were born in camps and raised entirely in India. They have no special bond with their ancestral home. A bureaucrat in the Refugee Rehabilitation Department of the Tamil Nadu government, requesting anonymity, said most of those who demanded citizenship had not followed through with a formal application under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955, which allowed for a naturalisation process. But he also said the Indian government ought to have proactively offered it to those who had lived in India for over 15 years, the minimum period required to seek citizenship.

Almost all benefits extended to citizens, such as old-age pension, Rs.12,000 per pregnancy for women, and public health and education services, are extended to Tamil refugees. Every head of the family of a refugee registered in a camp gets Rs.1,000 monthly, the next adult Rs.750; and every child Rs.400. The government has also provided housing, electricity, tailoring machines for women, clothes and utensils during Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, every year. The annual outlay for all of this was close to Rs.70 crore last year. Such expenses are reimbursed by the Central government. Rs.70 crore was the total amount spent on all benefits for one lakh Tamil refugees. Compare this with the Rs.21,46,734-crore Union Expenditure Budget for 2017-18. The argument that India cannot afford to spend money on another 40,000 Rohingya is not just insincere but has undertones of discrimination on religious lines.

Religious bias

When viewed in the context of the changes proposed to the Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, by the Narendra Modi government, the religious bias becomes even clearer. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016, which is now before a Joint Parliamentary Committee, proposes to naturalise Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But it does not extend this privilege to other minorities such as Balochis, who have been seeking a separate state carved out of Pakistan’s south-western region abutting Iran, or the Rohingya. This is despite Modi’s public statements calling the Baloch brothers and extending moral support to their cause.

Mazhar Hussain of the Confederation of Voluntary Associations (COVA), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)-mandated aid agency, which locates and registers refugees in Hyderabad, says one should delink the Rohingya crisis from the militancy in Kashmir. Hussain says the Rohingya view India as a generous and benign power and that their hostility is focussed only on the ultranationalist Buddhists of Myanmar (Burma). He says there has been no history of hostilities between Indians and the Rohingya.

“We have the same nose, you and I. It could be that we went to Burma from here much before the British arrived,” says Muhammad Anwar as he gets the details of the other Rohingya filing into the makeshift registration office at refugee camp number 15 in the Balapur area of Hyderabad.

“I am immensely thankful to the Indian government for allowing us to live here for the time being. We have come here not to make India home, but to let the world know our plight. We are not citizens in our own country. I wish Modi had impressed upon Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to accept us as Myanmarese when he met her. Even that might not have helped because the military junta would be more than happy to discredit her as incapable of bringing about democracy to justify a return to military rule.” Modi had met Suu Kyi in Myanmar’s capital, Nay Pyi Taw, on September 6 this year.

The 1982 Burma Citizenship Law does not mention the Rohingya as one of the country’s ethnic groups. This Act replaced the citizenship laws of 1948, the year Myanmar attained freedom from Britain. The previous law also did not list the Rohingya as an ethnic group but recognised “any person who is a descendent from two generations of people who had settled in Burma’s territories” as a citizen. The 1982 law has done away with this provision, recognising only seven ethnic groups as citizens: the Kachin, the Kayah, the Karen, the Chin, the Burman, the Mon, the Rakhine, or the Shan.

A genocide in the making

The UNHCR estimates that a whopping half a million Rohingya are on the run, fleeing state-sponsored violence. It is being called a genocide. The overwhelming majority have taken refuge in Bangladesh, which is unable to cope with the creation of entire townships of Rohingya.

Anwar is in his early 20s. He is an interpreter working with United Nations-mandated aid agencies in Hyderabad, where about 4,000 Rohingya live in 17 camps. Hyderabad has the largest Rohingya settlement after Jammu in the country. Two of the camps came up in August to accommodate those fleeing the Jammu camps as local Hindus, backed by right-wing parties like the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party and, more worryingly, a partner in the State’s ruling coalition, the BJP, were ransacking and setting fire to Rohingya settlements, calling them “outsiders” and claiming they were militants.

Mohammad Iqbal (name changed) arrived at camp number 15 just days before Ramzan this year by train from Jammu along with his wife and children. According to him, Hindus from a village close to their camp came armed to ransack and torch their homes in late April. The local police assured the mob that they would close down the settlements shortly. Within days, officers from the Kana Chak police station, closest to the Jammu camp, came with bulldozers. They beat up and broke the arm of a resident who pleaded for time to make alternative arrangements.

Iqbal was a ragpicker in Jammu. He is a construction worker in Hyderabad. He, his family and several others like him have become refugees twice over. He gets to work only 10 days in a month, but he says he has found peace in Hyderabad. Even the police are good to them. When asked what he would do if India were to repatriate him and his family, he says it would be better if the government killed them rather than send them back.

The Iqbals were not poor back home. They had 30 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of arable land, but the family got tired of working the whole day and then keeping a full night’s vigil as is required in Rohingya neighbourhoods in Myanmar for fear of arson and loot. Now his lands have been taken over. His mother is too sick to travel from a camp in Bangladesh. He feels bad that he is unable to send her money.

As Muhammad Anwar writes his name and family details in Burmese for this correspondent, a volunteer with COVA says: “Doesn’t it look a lot like Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam all mixed together?”

Anwar had completed 12th grade. He was writing in Burmese, Myanmar’s official language, not because Rohingya, which is his mother tongue, does not have a script, but because all through his education the only language permitted to be used in schools as medium of instruction was Burmese, the language spoken by the majority of Myanmar’s people. Using Rohingya as a medium of instruction or allowing it to develop has been outlawed.

Ever since the junta came to power in 1962, led by General Ne Win, there has been a constant effort to homogenise the country’s population, both linguistically and ethnically. It is in keeping with the junta’s idea of racial purity, which they believe is the solution to keep Myanmar united and militarily strong. The website, which tracks the status of languages globally, lists 118 living languages for Myanmar. It estimates there were a total of 1.7 million Rohingya language speakers worldwide and around 800,000 in the Rakhine State alone as of 2012. That was the year major communal clashes broke out in retaliation for the alleged “rape and murder of a young Buddhist woman” by a man believed to be a Rohingya, which was never proved. There have been reports of a series of such alleged sexual attacks on Buddhist women by Rohingya men since then, which have fuelled deadly retaliations, often aided by the military. Entire villages have been razed to the ground.

Anwar wanted to study chemistry for his bachelor’s. He got 82 out of 100 in his 12th grade, which he thought could secure him a seat comfortably at any of the universities in Myanmar. But he could not pursue his dreams as he was not allowed to leave his home town Buthidaung to go to Rakhine’s capital, Sittwe, where colleges and a university are located. “I need as many documents as an Indian needs to get a United States visa to leave my home town,” says Anwar.

He packed his bags and left Buthidaung with his parents. They first reached Bangladesh by crossing the Naf river and then came to Uttar Pradesh in 2015. He got himself and his family registered as refugees with the UNHCR and moved south to Hyderabad a year later in search of a livelihood.

The camps in Hyderabad are squalid shanties, some built with concrete and asbestos or plastic roofs and others with bamboo stumps and tarpaulin wrapped around them. They have existed since 2012 on private land—row homes of about 200 to 300 square feet for a monthly rent ranging from Rs.500 to Rs.750. The state has allowed power connections and benefactors, mostly from the city’s Muslim communities, have sunk a borewell or two in each of the camps. During Ramzan, some of Hyderabad’s families distribute clothes and provide monthly rations to destitute women.

Muhammad Zubair, 29, has been living in camp number two for the past five years. He works as a helper in the construction industry. It is what most able-bodied Rohingya do in Hyderabad. He does not have a birth certificate because most Rohingya births in Myanmar happen at home as government-run health centres lack women staff, and bigger hospitals are not located in the three Rohingya-majority towns of Buthidaung, Muangdaw and Rathedaung. A COVA volunteer says they estimate the age of refugees based on circumstantial references such as the year and the season and assign a date.

Zubair and several men of the 25 families in camp number two are grateful for what they have. There are tales of exploitation though; 48-year-old Muhammad Khasim says he did not receive wages for 24 days from a contractor who hired him to fit tiles on the roof of a building. He has been calling the contractor for nine months now. The contractor has promised to pay, but only after he gets his health back.

There are other, more pressing, issues at the camp. The 2,000-litre plastic water tank fitted to a borewell broke a year or so back. The replacement tank has just half the capacity, but it has not been attached to the motor.

Khasim’s son Ashiqullah studies in the local government school, for which money and arrangements were made by aid agencies. Not much thought is given to the effort required to cope with the change in the medium of instruction and the syllabus. Khasim is happy that his son is gone for most of the day to a place where he gets lunch.

Sixty-two-year-old Mohammmed Nazir has severe back pain. He cannot work. His wife sifts produce from refuse at a biscuit manufacturing factory close by.

A worried lot

All of them are worried about what will happen next now that New Delhi considers them a “threat to national security”. They feel it is because of the possible association of some refugees with the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the militant group accused of the August 25 killing of 12 Myanmarese soldiers.

“The UNHCR has not received any official communication from the government (of India) regarding any changes to its approach on refugees and there are no reported instances of deportations of UNHCR registered Rohingya from India. However, some refugees have reported instances of harassment, which were addressed through interventions by our NGO [non-governmental organisations] partners with the support of local authorities,” replied the U.N. body to queries from Frontline the day the Union Home Ministry filed its affidavit in the Supreme Court.

The Home Ministry’s affidavit also argues that since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, the country is not bound by either, as the principle of non-repatriation, or non-refoulement, is a “codified provision” as opposed to a Customary International Law. The affidavit goes on to say that Fundamental Rights as enshrined in the Indian Constitution is only justiciable by the Supreme Court when the petitioner is an Indian citizen.

Rebutting the government’s position in the Supreme Court, the lawyer Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the Rohingya, states in his counter that “on September 19, 2016, [a day after the Home Ministry’s affidavit in the Supreme Court] India participated in the high level plenary discussions that led to the adoption of the ‘New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants’ by the U.N. General Assembly. The New York Declaration reaffirms the importance of the international refugee regime and represents a commitment by Member States to strengthen and enhance mechanisms to protect people on the move. It is noteworthy that all the Member States reached agreement by consensus on the Declaration that strived to address a solution for large movements of refugees and migrants in the recent times. The States’ endorsements include following due process in assessment of refugees, their legal status; compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect the human rights of all refugee and migrant children; and combating xenophobia and stereotypes applied on the basis of religion.”

The petition argues that “India’s participation in this Declaration contradicts the government’s current stand on extending protection” to the Rohingya.