The Rohingyas who fled from Burma to Jammu are living their lives in transition. If you come from nowhere, is there somewhere you can go?

2013-11-09 , Issue 45 Volume 10


No future in sight There are over a thousand, mostly unregistered, children under the age of five in the camp. Photo: Rudra Rakshit

The celebrations begin A wedding tent erected on a clearing in the Rohingya settlement. Photo: Rudra Rakshit

“Sometimes I weep when I hear Saare Jahan Se Achcha. It’s hard for us here, as it would be anywhere else. We want to go home, but how do we go back now?” asks Mohammad Yunus, the representative of the MuslimBurmese refugees called the Rohingyas, who settled in Jammu five years ago. A natural diplomat, his narration of the stark facts of their lives seldom betrays emotion. We are sitting in his hut in the Rohingya settlement in Kassim Nagar in Narwal on the outskirts of Jammu, along with several other men from the community who are unobtrusively squatting on the floor. One of them turns to us and says, “When you’ve been exposed to police interrogations and molestations so many times, the fear sinks deep. That’s why we let Yunus speak on our behalf, though he is much younger. The fear hasn’t got hold of him yet.”

Nearly 1,700 families are believed to have settled in and around Jammu, with several more settlements spread across Punjab, Delhi and Hyderabad. The huts in the Kassim Nagar camp are made of wooden panels, metal, black nylon covers and jute sacks, all put together in a way that can protect the residents during heavy rains. There is no communal bathroom, but next to every other hut, a tiny space is curtained off and used as a toilet. The government supply of water comes once a day for half an hour on two taps (the government, Yunus says, has completely shut down the water supply since 4 October). Two buffaloes and a white horse are tied to wooden poles at the farthest end of the settlement. They belong to the owner of that piece of land, which is being rented out to the Rohingyas for a monthly payment of Rs 500 (or more) per hut.


“When you have no nationality, you can’t even book a train ticket. There’s nothing to write in that little blank slot,” one of the Rohingya men says, as Yunus’ wife cooks omelettes. Meanwhile, his nine-year-old son serves us cups of hot water with two packets of Burmese instant coffee mixture placed neatly on the saucers. Since nationality, or a defined identity, is the prerequisite to securing civil rights, the Rohingyas, having been granted none of the above, have become a vulnerable and legally invisible ethnic group. When Burma gained independence in 1948, Rohingyas were not formally recognised as one of the country’s official national groups. The 1982 Citizenship Act left them further marginalised, officially classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from present-day Bangladesh.

Being rendered stateless, the Rohingyas have been exposed to all sorts of maltreatment, partly because no international law is breached if a criminal act is committed against a stateless person. The mistreatment, as confirmed in various United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports as well as by the Rohingyas themselves, includes forced labour, restriction on freedom of movement, extortion, the absence of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations, land confiscation and limited access to secondary and tertiary education and other public services. Rohingyas have become one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Their ancestry — originating, according to a 2011 UNHCR report, in people who have immigrated or passed through Burma from the seventh century onwards: Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moguls, Pathans and the local Bengali and Rakhine — is a bone of contention constantly gnawed at by both the Rohingyas’ advocates and political adversaries. The former tend to assert the immemorial link that the Rohingyas have with Burma, while the latter dismiss any such claims and see them as Bengali Muslims from the Burmese British era. The somewhat obscure arguments on the community’s origins shed little light on why it continues to remain stateless and without rights.

“These men gathered here,” Yunus says, “form a committee that meets once a week to discuss current issues or prepare for the pan-Indian meetings that take place once a month, mostly in Delhi.” The committee’s full name is the Myanmar Rohingya Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, of which Yunus is the vice-president, and its aims are “to unite, solve day-to-day problems, provide food, water, shelter, education, medication, legal aid, solve social issues, have good contacts with NGOs and like-minded people who can help this cause”. Though its registration with the Ministry of Home Affairs failed, it continues to be the Rohingya refugees’ primary political body.


Brusquely getting up from his chair, Yunus goes to an adjoining room and returns with a pink plastic purse. He pulls out a fat pile of documents and hands over a photocopy of a newspaper article from the Daily Excelsior, Jammu and Kashmir’s largest news daily. The headline reads: “BJP demands probe into foreigners residing in J&K”. The party’s state convenor Rajeev Charak is quoted as saying, “These people are suspected to be indulging in many types of criminal activities like robbery, kidnapping and killing… [they] even harm the integrity of the State as well as India.”

To avoid possible deportation, the Rohingya committee petitioned the UNHCR’s Chief of Mission in a letter stating that they had valid asylum-seeker cards. They further said that none of them had been involved in any of the criminal cases listed. They are often visited by the police, the CID and the IB, and found to be guilty of nothing. They live on rented land, and request “that as per international laws and agreements, to which India has also signed, we who have lost everything in our home country, should not be ill-treated and harassed in a democratic country like India”.

“There have been papers written about us,” one of the Rohingya men says, “that we have come here to join hands to fight, so we are being followed and tracked to know where we go and what we do.” He feels helpless, ignored. “How will you put any pressure on the UN if you have no strength? It’s been five years since I’ve applied for refugee status, but they’ve only given me an asylum-seeker card. They have been giving rights to other refugees, like the Afghans or the Somalis, but not to us.”

“Back in 2005,” Yunus tells me, “an English reporter came to Burma. This was at a time when people from Geneva were also visiting to assess the situation. I gave her a letter that spoke about the conditions of our life in Burma. There was a lot of security surveillance back then. Someone heard about this and had people sent out to kill me. I fled my madrassa. First, I went to Bangladesh and from there to Saudi Arabia. In 2008, I brought my wife and child to India with me. Since then, nothing has moved ahead for us. Every time I’ve been at the UNHCR headquarters, I’ve requested for facilities for the children, for their education. Not to this day have the UNHCR officials raised their voices against the government on our behalf.”

Suddenly, it begins to pour outside. Several children strip themselves naked and run out in the open to dance around the newly formed puddles. The men inside the living room are silent. For a few moments, the water is the only audible sound. “This Ramadan, during the rains,” Yunus recalls, “a snake crawled into one of the huts and bit two kids. A six-year-old and a nine-year-old died on the spot.”

For a long time, the Rohingyas did not have a burial ground. Until many men in the settlement agreed to clean a Kashmiri cemetery because they were promised that they could use the land for burials. When a three-year-old passed away, they buried her there. After three days, however, they were forced to exhume her body and carry her back to their camp. The Rohingyas have now found a small burial ground in the forest. Apparently, local people took up the Rohingyas’ cause and stood up to the forest guards.

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