The tortured & the damned
The Rohingya Muslims from Burma are one of the most persecuted communities in the world and many of them have been staying as refugees in India. MOHIT Kandhari reports on their plight from Jammu as Supreme Court hears their case tomorrow
Twentytwo-year-old Saddam Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim staying on the outskirts of Jammu for the last six years is growing restless with each passing day. For the last one week, Hussain, working as a scrap collector, is struggling to get in touch with his parents in Myanmar but so far he has failed to do so.
The ongoing violence in the region has triggered fresh migration of Rohingyas in to Bangladesh. Thousands of others, who are camping in small clusters in Jammu, have been struggling to establish contact with their families but in vain.
“We really don’t know about the fate of our families back home, whether they are dead or alive, or they too have managed to escape or are staying in some refugee camp elsewhere in the world,” Saddam tells you.
“All I know is several houses have been torched and State agencies have unleashed reign of terror on Rohingyas to drive them out of the Rakhine State in western Myanmar. We are worried. Sitting here we are helpless. We cannot even think of going there. The State forces are hunting down Muslims in the region and killing them,” he says.
As fresh violence flared up in the region in the aftermath of clashes between Rohingyas and State forces, thousands of Rohingya families fled Myanmar to enter Bangladesh.
The Rohingya muslims, labeled as the most persecuted minority community, are struggling for survival and facing the wrath of Mother Nature in the refugee camps. Some died when their boats capsized while entering Bangladesh via river route.
Even as humanitarian aid is pouring in from different countries and aid agencies, the fate of Rohingya Muslims remain uncertain as neighbouring countries are reluctant to open doors for them.
In India, a debate is already raging on how to address the contentious issue of illegal settlement of Rohingya Muslims in different States.
It is estimated that out of over 40,000 Rohingya Muslims in India, at least 10,000 are camping in different parts of Jammu and its adjoining districts of Samba, Kathua, Rajouri etc. Majority of these illegal immigrants arrived here in the last decade via Bangladesh.
Now, pressure is mounting on the Indian Government to take a stand on the issue especially in the wake of serious security concerns raised by Central Intelligence Agencies that Rohingya Muslims may fall prey in the hands of militant handlers and indulge in anti-national activities. Sympathisers of these illegal immigrants have already joined hands together to resist any move by the Indian Government to deport them.
Sensing trouble for them in the coming days, some of the Rohingyas camping in New Delhi have already filed a petition in the Apex Court challenging the decision of the Government on various grounds including that it violated international human right conventions.
The plea, filed by two Rohingya immigrants, Mohammad Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir, who are registered refugees under the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR), claim that they had taken refuge in India after escaping from Myanmar due to widespread discrimination, violence and bloodshed against the community there.
On September 4, 2017, the matter came up before a bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud. After hearing the petitioners, the Bench asked Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to take instruction from the Centre.
While seeking a direction to the Government not to deport them and other members of Rohingya community, the petitioners in their plea have claimed, “the proposed deportation is contrary to the constitutional protections of Article 14 (Right to Equality), Article 21 (Right to Life and Personal Liberty) and Article 51(c) of the Constitution of India, which provides equal rights and liberty to every person. This act would also be in contradiction with the principle of non-refoulement, which has been widely recognised as a principle of Customary International Law.”
It has also sought a direction that Rohingyas be provided “basic amenities to ensure that they can live in human conditions as required by international law.” It also said that India has ratified and is a signatory to various conventions that recognise the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits deportation of refugees to a country where they may face threat to their lives.
The principle of non-refoulement (not sending back refugees to a place where they face danger) is considered part of customary international law and is binding on all States whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not.
The petition further said that India has traditionally been hospitable host of refugees and displaced people, both from South Asia and across the world.
The Bench has posted the matter for September 11, 2017.
Waiting to hear the outcome of the petition filed in the Apex Court 47-year-old Kamal Hussain, a Rohingya Muslim, living in Jammu is staring at a bleak future.
He tells you that they can’t stay here in India for long as the Government is keen to deport them. “But we can’t return. Myanmar is still burning. We are safe here but no one is willing to listen to our pleas,” Hussain says who has been in the country for the last six years and working as a daily wage labourer to eke out a living.
“I am struggling to make both ends meet but I am happy that I am alive and able to organise basic amenities for my children here. I am not ready to return,” Hussain asserted. “I do not want to lose my children at the hands of State violence in my own country,” he adds.
According to the data collected by the J&K Home Department around 5,700 Rohingya Muslims have been staying in Jammu for past several years on the outskirts of Jammu. Unconfirmed reports estimated that their exact number could be around 10,000 as many among them do not even possess identity cards issued by UNHCR.
Most Rohingya Muslims in Jammu earn their livelihood as daily wagers but some have turned scrap dealers. Children support their families by collecting and selling recyclable material. A few women work as domestic help and in local factories in the area.
They tell you that they are not staying in India illegally. They have been issued Refugee cards by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are not creating any law and order problem. We are not posing any security threat to any local residents. We are not criminals either,” they tell you in one voice.
But the fear in the security establishment grew after one of the two foreign militants killed in a shootout in south Kashmir in October 2015 turned out to be originally from Myanmar.
“No Rohingya has been found involved in militancy-related incidents. However, 17 other criminal cases have been registered against 38 Rohingyas for various offences,” an official source in the State Home department tells you.
Even the Rohingyas staying in Jammu say local people had never lodged any complaint. An elderly Kabir Ahmed sporting a white beard tells you how the locals have come forward and helps us. “They were the ones who came out to rescue our children when our slums caught fire late last year,” Ahmed recalls.
Children of these families have been admitted in the State Government run schools in Bhatindi and Narwal Bala area of Jammu while others are admitted in madrasas.
Earlier, in February 2017 when huge hoardings warning them to ‘Quit Jammu’ surfaced in different parts of the city they came on the radar of different Intelligence Agencies and State political parties demanded their immediate deportation.
Thirtytwo-year-old Imam Hussain, says: “I am ready to return home if law and order situation on ground zero is conducive for our safe return.” But this he says may not be possible since the keep hearing reports of atrocities by the Government forces on Muslims back home.
He tells you that those who have returned home are tortured and are now behind bars.
“Here I am a free. I visit Mumbai every 10 days and book an order of 500-600 kg fish. I book my consignment in the train and sell my fish in the local market catering to Rohingya Muslims exclusively,” Hussain says.
Referring to the decision of the Centre to send them back home Hussain says that the Rohingya Muslims staying in Jammu are not ready to return home. He said if they are forced to, they will have no choice but on their own will return home.
Mohammad Yusuf, a 36-year-old madrasa teacher, a Rohingya Muslim originally from Myanmar is living here in the Narwala Bala for the last 11 years, says that he has never felt unsafe in this city of temples.
But ever since some of the political parties launched ‘Quit Jammu’ movement and raised hoardings warning Rohingya Muslims, Yusuf is worried. His UNHCR refugee card has expired and is yet to be renewed. In the absence of any support group they are now finding it difficult to cope up with the daily pressure of ensuring safety of their family members.
The police is also on their trail and documenting their credentials to prepare a fresh database on the directions of Ministry of Home Affairs. This has scared the Rohingyas who say that they can’t face any more torture and are ready to go home or to any other third country that is willing to rehabilitate them.
They have also made an appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to organise their safe return to Myanmar. They have also requested all those opposed to their stay in Jammu to influence the Myanmar Government to extend equal rights to them so that they can go home.
Maulana Oli Ollah, teaching here at madrasas Tul Mahjreen, Sunjwan appealed to Prime Minister Modi to speak to democratically elected leaders in Myanmar to facilitate their early return.
“We also want to enjoy our freedom and live peacefully like all other communities. We are ready to go to back if we are given protection and basic rights to lead normal lives,” the Oli Ollah says adding that he will be grateful if the Indian Prime Minister can facilitate our safe journey back home.
Another Burmese national Mohd Isar, responsible for watching the interests of at least 250 families of Rohingya Muslims staying in Bhatindi says: “If the Indian Government is ready to take our responsibility and organise our safe return journey we will immediately go home.”
Isar has been in Jammu for over nine years. He spends his time in settling marital disputes, financial matters and other local disputes of Rohingya families.
Sharing his concerns Isar says: “In Myanmar, we have seen bloodshed and witnessed atrocities on our women and children. We can’t afford to face more violence unleashed on us.” He is surprised that after living in the region for so many years, the ‘Quit Jammu’ campaign has started.
He says that the situation in the last six years has become volatile. “We are not feeling safe. People are demanding our ouster and want to deport us as they feel threatened. We are scared. We do not want to lose our children again. We are ready to go home,” Isar tells you.
Hafiz Haroon sharing the same sentiment says that he is willing to go home and reunite with his parents. His only appeal is that the Indian Prime Minister to talk to leaders in Myanmar and facilitate their safe journey. “We just want to live peacefully in our country with basic human rights,” he says.
Olia Ahmed, who has been in Jammu for over nine years, says that he is tired of listening to these slogans and threats. He doesn’t want to stay in India if there is no safety and security for his family and is willing to return and cultivate the agricultural land which was taken away by the Government forces before throwing them out of Myanmar.
He alleges that the State forces in Myanmar had brought people from Bangladesh to stay in Myanmar and throw them out of their ancestral land. But here, too (Jammu) he doesn’t feel safe and will return home if the Government will facilitate his journey.
Abdul Gafoor, staying in Jammu for the last nine years said: “We expect the Government of India to get in touch with the Government in Myanmar and negotiate on our behalf so that we can return home provided all our basic rights are restored.”
Kifayat Ullah says that they came to India as guests and cannot stay permanently. “We too wish to return home. We are only looking for our safety and want that our fundamental rights are restored. We appeal to the Prime Minister Modi to approach his counterparts in Myanmar and facilitate our return journey. We would not take much time to return home if our basic rights are restored and safety is guaranteed,” he says.
He also tells you that India is aware of how they were persecuted and targeted by the Government forces in Myanmar and therefore took shelter here in India. “India is a great country and we appeal to the Prime Minister if he can’t ensure our safe return then he should rehabilitate us at one place and provide us humanitarian aid. We shall be grateful and abide by rule of law,” Ullah says else they are willing to go to a third country that will give them shelter.
He tells you that Rohingya Muslims are well aware of the politics that is being played out with regard to their stay in Jammu. “Why is it that all these years no one raised,” he questions and opines that there is something sinister that is unfolding here and believes that a sincere effort by the Prime Minister Modi can truly help them.
Mohd Shafiq, head of madrasa Raiaz Ul Uloom Tahfaz Ul Quran Muhajreen, Narwal Bala says that if the Rohingya Muslims are involved in criminal activities, we fully support the Government to take the strictest action as per law against them but all of us should not be penalised and punished. He opines that only the Government can now decide their fate. Let them take a final call. “If they will organise our return journey to our home land in Myanmar we will go home and we will be really thankful for this gesture,” Shafiq says.
Sabir Ahmad, owner of a provision store in Bhatindi feels that till now no concrete decision has been taken by the Government. “If you ask me, personally I would not want to return home. My life is worse than that of a dog’s. Even a dog’s live has some value, mine has none. All I am trying to do is trying to find a small place that I can now call home and ensure a secure future for my family. I am not living a luxurious life. I live in a rented room and just about manage to pay the monthly bills. Even then this Damocles sword is hanging over our heads,” Ahmed says.
Deputy Chief Minister Dr Nirmal Singh, who is heading the Group of Ministers (GoM) set up a settlement of illegal foreign nationals in parts of Jammu says that so far they have attended two meetings and have taken stock of the situation on ground zero. In the first meeting Singh had directed the authorities to collect a data pertaining to Rohingyas and Bangladeshis, living in Jammu and Samba districts.
“We are going to convene a third meeting to resolve the pending issue of their deportation,” Singh says.
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