The Rohingya in India

Rage against refugees

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Members of the Jammu Citizens Forum and Team Jammu during a rally against the settlement of the Rohingya and Bangladeshis, in Jammu on April 4. Photo: PTI

A view of one of the narrow alleys inside the camp for the Rohingya in Delhi. Photo: Divya Trivedi

Sanjida, a resident of the Delhi camp, who survives by selling snacks. Photo: Divya Trivedi

The sudden rise in hostility against the Rohingya and calls for their deportation underscore the urgent need for a refugee protection framework for India.

THE past few months saw targeted violence and incitement to violence against Muslim Rohingya refugees in the country. Seemingly separate incidents converged to create a narrative of these refugees being criminal elements who deserved to be ousted from the country.

In the early hours of April 14, five jhuggis, or hutments, belonging to Rohingya families were gutted in a fire in the Bhagwati Nagar area of Jammu. Earlier, 20-30 masked men thrashed men, women and children in Patta Bohri on the outskirts of Jammu and burnt the scrap they collected. They also told landlords to evict them or face the consequences.

These incidents came soon after an open threat was issued by the Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Jammu, which is affiliated to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). In a press conference, Rakesh Gupta, the chamber president, had said the State and Central governments should ensure that “such settlers should be deported within one month”. He asked for “the people on whose land these foreigners” had settled to be booked under the Public Safety Act, failing which the chamber would launch an “Identify and Kill Movement” against them. The chamber called the Rohingya and Bangladeshis “criminals, drug traffickers, possible human bombs and harbourers to be used by militant organisations, criminals with no record of their names and identity disowned by their own countries” and said it would be “no offence to deal with such” people.

A few days before Gupta’s speech, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) member Bhartruhari Mahtab raised the issue in the Lok Sabha, claiming that 40,000 Rohingya had entered India illegally and were being trained by the Islamic State to become terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir. Recalling the 2013 bomb blast in Bodh Gaya, he said, “This reminds me of an attack that happened in Bodh Gaya where Indian mujahideen was involved.” He also urged the government to “identify and remove them”. A Rohingya living in Delhi, who was amused at the accusations, said: “Our people do not even know that there is a place called Bodh Gaya.” He added that such serious allegations should not be made lightly and must be supported with proof.

A newspaper article claimed that Union Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi chaired a meeting attended by officials from Jammu and Kashmir and Indian intelligence to “make an assessment of illegal Rohingya settlers in India and discuss a mechanism for their detection, arrest and deportation”. No official confirmation or denial was forthcoming from the Ministry regarding the issue, but it may have lit the spark in the debate against Rohingya.

The actual violence that followed sent a wave of fear through Rohingya settlements across the country. In Delhi, 47 families living in a camp built on land provided by Zakat Foundation are having sleepless nights. These people, gathered in the narrow alleyways connecting homes or temporary structures made of plastic and tarpaulin, are a worried lot. For those like Sanjida, a single mother whose husband disappeared in the spate of violence in Myanmar and who survives by selling home-made Myanmarese snacks from a shack in the camp, such news can be devastating. Noor Fatima, a community leader’s wife, who has lived in India for 12 years (in Jammu, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and now Delhi), is worried about the future. “From where we come, girls of a certain age are sure to be raped and killed. We have three daughters and could not risk it. So we escaped.” Her husband works as a daily wager in the city now. They have long-term visas and UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) cards and hope the Indian government will let them stay because going back to Myanmar is not an option. “Back home we don’t have to worry about food, but there is no dignity,” she said.

Ali Johar, perhaps the first Rohingya in India to enrol for graduation in Delhi University’s distance learning programme, counters the view that Rohingya are prone to extremism. “Our people have been coming here for a decade now. How many have radicalised? We are stateless and do not even have a document to our names. We are thankful to the Indian government for letting us stay here. India is a powerful country and nobody in their right mind would want to create trouble here,” he told Frontline. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti has clarified that “no instance of radicalisation has been reported among them so far” and that only 17 first information reports (FIRs) had been registered against 38 Rohingya for various offences, including illegal border crossing. Most Rohingya escaped certain death when they fled Myanmar with only the clothes on their backs. “People should empathise with us rather than throw us out of the country,” said Maun Abdul Khan, a former interpreter with the UNHCR.

A month ago, Ali’s house, which is the first one in the camp, was torched by miscreants, who also locked the doors. Because of a wall of bricks, the fire could not spread and the plan to kill them in their sleep was foiled, said Ali. He filed a police complaint but nothing came of it. Ali also countered the claim of the Jammu chamber that Rohingya in Jammu had “illegally crossed” into the State. The majority of them have refugee certificates issued by the UNHCR as mandated by the Indian government. The UNHCR has registered 14,000 Rohingya in India, of whom 11,000 have received refugee certificates and 3,000 are still asylum seekers. As per official Jammu records, there are 5,743 Rohingya living there. The Central government claims that there are 40,000 Rohingya in the country, but the Rohingya dispute these numbers. Ali said: “As per our own records, there might be slightly more, at 20,000.” But the recent events have put the fate of asylum seekers yet to receive UNHCR refugee certificates in the balance. The police in Jammu have asked them to leave the State. “But where will they go?” Ali asked.

The Rohingya are the most persecuted minority in the world, according to the U.N. They have been denied citizenship rights in the Arakan country they inhabited for centuries, which has made them vulnerable to rights violations and restricted their freedom of movement, education and ability to hold property. Beginning in 1978, several cycles of mass violence unleashed by the military forced tens of thousands of them to flee to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries. Those who could not flee were left to face mass murders, gang rapes, burning of entire villages and torture in camps.

In February, the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) published a report which documented the human rights violations against the Rohingya. In March, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Yanghee Lee presented her latest findings on human rights violations in Myanmar. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), as of March 2017 about 1,20,000 Rohingya were displaced in camps in Myanmar’s Rakhine State as a result of the violence in 2012, while nearly 1,00,000 displaced persons lived in squalid, prison-like conditions in camps within Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine.

According to HRW: “The humanitarian situation for both remaining internally displaced persons and newly resettled persons remains dire due to restrictions on movement and lack of access to livelihoods and basic services.”

In March, India, at the U.N. Human Rights Council, supported through consensus the creation of an international fact-finding mission to look into human rights violations in Rakhine. Instead of using the term Rohingya, the Myanmarese government calls them “Bengali”, which is the term preferred by ultranationalist Buddhists, implying illegal migrant status in that country. The Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi also calls them the “Muslim community in Rakhine State”. The de facto head of state in Myanmar, she has been severely criticised for not only allowing but also abetting the persecution of the Rohingya in her country. In a recent interview with BBC, she denied that there was ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and claimed that two Muslim groups were fighting each other in a very hostile situation.

Ali said: “I agree with her. It is not ethnic cleansing. It is genocide.”

When the Rohingya reached India, they preferred to go to places like Jammu and Hyderabad because of the lower cost of living and because it was easier for the community to assimilate and find work as domestic servants or ragpickers, said Maung Abdul Khan. But they could not have foreseen the hostility that followed. In February, huge hoardings came up in Jammu that said, “Wake up Jammu. Rohingyas, Bangladeshis quit Jammu. Let us all Jammuites unite to save history, culture and identity of Dogras”, and were signed by Harsh Dev Singh, chairman, Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP). A Hindu right-wing party, the JKNPP had alleged a conspiracy to make demographic change in Jammu after BJP member Hunar Gupta petitioned the Jammu High Court to identify and deport the Rohingya.

Reacting to calls to deport the Rohingya, Amnesty International India released a strong statement saying that it would amount to “a flagrant violation of international law” if India took any measures to forcibly return Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers to Myanmar, where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. “Indian authorities know very well the abuses the Rohingya community have been facing in Myanmar. Deporting them and abandoning them to their fates would be unconscionable,” said Raghu Menon of Amnesty International India. Forcing them to go back to Myanmar would violate the international principle of non-refoulement, which is recognised in customary international law and is binding on India, which forbids states from forcibly returning people to a country where they would be at real risk of serious human rights violations. India is also party to other international treaties that recognise this principle, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“As a country aspiring to a larger global role, India needs to urgently sign the Refugee Convention and put in place a robust domestic framework to protect refugee rights,” Raghu Menon said.

Despite being home to thousands of refugees, India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor does it have a domestic legal refugee protection framework.

The treatment of refugees falls largely under the Foreigners Act of 1946, which makes no distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and other foreigners.

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