In Jammu’s Kiryana Talab camp, hundreds of Rohingya people are living in makeshift shelters made of tarpaulin sheets, bamboo sticks, and cardboard. During the winter and rainy seasons, water rushes through the roofing material. After fleeing mass violence in Myanmar in 2017, now a campaign is mounting against Rohingya refugees once again – this time by the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir.
Scores of families from the camp have been split up by being members being rounded up and detained in Jammu, often leaving children without one or both parents.
Ali Johar’s wife Hasina Begum was detained in 2021. After she was held at Hiranagar for around one year, she was deported to Myanmar in March this year. Ali then living his three children in a temporary camp in Jammu told me: ‘I don’t know whether the Myanmar government has killed my wife or she has been put in jail – we are unaware of her whereabouts. The children are missing their mother badly and [are] asking me to take them to her.’
Salam Tullah, who has since fled the settlement – and whose whereabouts are currently unknown – was appointed by his fellow Rohingyas as head of the Kiryana Talab camp. He ran the Rohingya committee, a self-organized body that tries to feed families whose parents or earning members have been detained. ‘It is very difficult to feed children left without an income. There are dozens of children in Kiryana Talab camp whose parents have been detained and kept in Hiranagar jail,’ he told me before he fled.
Salam estimated that since last year this has been the fate of the parents of around 40 to 50 children. He reckoned there were more than 230 imprisoned Rohingya there. The jail itself is around 60 kilometres away from the camp, and for a population with already poor income options – working at a nearby walnut factory and begging – children are extremely limited in their capacity to visit parents. And when they do, they are seldom permitted to interact with their parents.
‘The only way for these children to meet their parents is to peer through a window so narrow that they can barely see one other’s faces,’ said Salam.
‘When they see their children screaming and in distress, even parents within the jail start crying.’
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 20,000 Rohingya refugees registered in India, with 7,000 living in and around Jammu, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Described by the UN as ‘the most persecuted people in the world’, Rohingya Muslims have experienced decades of violence and discrimination, particularly in Myanmar where the majority still live – over one million Rohingya have fled the country since the 1990s. The largest wave of movement was in August 2017 when a brutal crackdown by the army forced thousands of Rohingya to escape by sea or on foot.
Over 172,000 Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh, others to Thailand, Malaysia, and other South and Southeast Asian countries. Thousands entered India and remain in different refugee camps around the country.
As well as dealing with poor living conditions, Rohingya people have been a target for India’s governing right-wing BJP Party since their arrival.
In 2017, the Jammu Chambers of Commerce and Industry (CCI), the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu nationalist organization), along with its youth wing Bajrang Dal – all adopted an anti-Rohingya stance. Rakesh Gupta, then president of the Jammu CCI, chillingly proposed an ‘identify and kill movement’ if the government failed to deport Rohingya refugees.
When asked later if he would have actually carried out his plan, Gupta denied making any such comments, saying, ‘killing is an extreme measure’. In recent years, Hindutva street movements have been hoping to make earlier calls for deportation a reality, and are amping up the rhetoric labelling languishing refugees as a ‘security threat’. They misleadingly bring up the bogey of ‘demographic change’ that could compromise India as an primarily Hindu nation – in reality Muslims only make up about 15 per cent of the population.
Possible deportation at any moment is a stark reality for Rohingya people to reckon with and incarcerations at Hiranagar makes the community in Jammu and Kashmir even more fearful.
Many families have now fled Jammu for Bangladesh and other parts of India. But border forces have stopped many in recent weeks, making a spate of arrests of those attempting to cross into Bangladesh without papers.
For the refugees fleeing within India, the onslaught of policing is proving difficult to avoid. In May alone, police forces in the north-eastern state of Assam detained 26 people.
Hasina Begum was one of the first of 170 people to be deported from Jammu in 2021 – despite having UN refugee status – leaving her husband and three children behind in Kashmir.
She said the Rohingya were treated ‘worse than criminals’ in jail. She recounted that she was suddenly summoned by officers on 14 March and taken for a ‘medical examination’ and covid test.
The following day, she was handcuffed and, accompanied by eight police officers, taken to the north-eastern state of Manipur.
‘I was crying and pleading with them to tell me where I was being taken but nobody answered me until I was handed over to the Myanmar army on the Moreh-Tamu border crossing,’ she told The Guardian.
After 11 days in Covid-19 travel quarantine, Hasina was taken to Ranee, a small hamlet in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, which she had left 10 years ago, five months pregnant, when the area was first attacked. A Muslim family took her in when she was forcibly returned, but as soon as she arrived, she contacted her husband Ali Johar and told him to sell whatever he could and take the children to Bangladesh.
‘I knew I could not live like this, away from my family,’ said Begum. ‘One year’s separation from my children seemed like a few decades.’ She borrowed 400,000 kyat (£171) from the family she was living with and crossed the border again – this time into Bangladesh.
Last month, the family were reunited in Cox’s Bazar, in south-east Bangladesh, a city which is home to almost one million Rohingya. Numbers have swelled after another brutal crackdown by the Myanmar army this year. Hasina Begum’s family reunion is an anomaly in the broader trend of family separations being carried out in Jammu and Kashmir.
In Bangladesh too, problems for the Rohingya refugees are legion. Multiple refugee ‘relief and repatriation commissioners’ have been appointed to purportedly assist with the maintenance and care work required for the two massive refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. A district court in Cox’s Bazar sentenced a Rohingya man to death for possession of methamphetamine tablets, a crime which The Diplomat writer Samaya Anjum argues would ‘not normally warrant capital punishment’. Calls for repatriation of Rohingya refugees keep growing in Bangladesh.
Repatriation or criminalization, worries of being on the move again, are hardly settled for the Rohingya.
Mubashir Naik is an independent journalist based in Jammu & Kashmir. He tweets @sule_khaak.
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