Along with his family, 40-year-old Rohingya refugee Noor Mohammad anxiously squatted along the Bhattindi road in Jammu city yesterday. So did dozens of other refugee families who have been fear-stricken after the Jammu and Kashmir administration began rounding them up.
The previous day, 6 March, the refugees were called to the MAM Stadium. “Yesterday we were called to MAM stadium for verification,” said Mohammad, whose family was putting in a settlement of shanties in Jammu’s Kiryani Talab. “Many people didn’t return. Today [Sunday] morning the police came again to round us up.”
Mohammad said that many Rohingya families had been separated as the Jammu administration detained several with no apparent pattern. The refugees, many of whom have lost family members to Myanmar’s brutalities, are in emotional distress fearing a second separation of what is left of their families in Jammu.
Helpless, the refugees gathered in Bhatindi to demand the return of their family members. They carried their homes on their shoulders as they walked towards the main masjid in Bathindi to hold a vigil. The wailing and shrieks of their young children pierced through the commotion.
The women among these refugees broke into tears and pleaded with the police and paramilitary forces, deployed in large numbers to restrict the beleaguered refugees, to allow them passage. The authorities, however, weren’t intent on allowing the refugees to highlight their misery.
The Muslim refugees, described as the world’s most persecuted minority, have packed their bags to flee persecution, again. “We fear that police will take us on the pretext of verification and detain many of us again and separate us from our families,” said Mohammad. “So, we are fleeing the police.”
Families torn apart
After the “verification drive” at the MAM Stadium amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 160 refugees were detained and sent to the Hiranagar jail, sixty kilometers from Jammu, for violation of India’s immigration laws. Among them are also children.
“My wife, sister, and children are detained. I have no idea where they are,” said Mohammad Rizwan, who camps near Panama Chowk, close to the Jammu railway station. “I want the authorities to return my family. I’m ready to go anywhere but my family must stay together.”
Many of these refugees held their UN-issued identity cards to show they were documented. Refugees have had to travel to New Delhi to acquire or renew their ID cards but many still remain undocumented.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees describes the Rohingyas as a “stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar” undergoing extreme persecution that led to successive displacements since the early 1990s.
According to estimates, around 40,000 Rohingyas are living in India out of which around 16,500 possess the UNHCR refugee-card that provides protection against deportation, detention or harassment. A little more than six thousand refugees are based in Jammu.
Another middle-aged woman, who didn’t give her name, said that only her sister was left of her family after fleeing Myanmar but she was detained. “I do not have anyone but my sister. She left for verification yesterday and did not return,” she said, pushing back tears.
Maryam’s mother-in-law is also among those who didn’t come out of the stadium. “She is around sixty and has many ailments like breathing issues, blood pressure and abdominal problems due to which she can’t eat well,” said Maryam, whose family of seven is dependent on the paltry earnings of her husband, a manual worker. “She is on medication which she has to take regularly, but she does not have it with her.”
Another refugee Abdul Rahim’s ailing parents have been detained. “We are ready to go, but we want to be united with our families first,” said a distressed Rahim. “They did not even intimate us before taking away our parents and wives. We would have cooperated and gone together wherever they wanted to send us.”
The Kashmir Walla tried reaching government officials — Shaleen Kabra, principal secretary for Home Department; Mukesh Singh, Inspector General of Police; and Sridhar Patil, Senior Superintendent of Police — but none responded to calls or text messages.
Singh, however, told the Agence France-Presse, that 168 refugees were detained. “After nationality verification of these illegal immigrants, details will be sent to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi to be taken up with Myanmar for their deportation,” AFP quoted Singh.
A people in distress
As the dust settled over the day’s commotion in Jammu, Rohingya refugees in Narwal alleged that the local police had directed them to sell their valuables within days. “How can we go home when our family isn’t there?”
Mohammad Yunus, a refugee, had said earlier in the day as the police made announcements ordering the Rohingyas to disperse. “My wife has been taken, I have small kids who are at home without their mother.”
Their Muslim identity has come as a silver lining for Jammu’s rightwing that had already been harping about Muslim conspiracies behind “altering Jammu’s demography”. The Rohingyas, the Hindu-right has claimed, are being settled as per a plan. In 2017, India and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding over the deportation of Rohingyas.
Zahida’s eyes well up as she narrates her story of fleeing persecution in Myanmar. The young woman has been living in Jammu’s relatively peaceful environs since she was fifteen years old but the future now seems uncertain.
Of her family of ten, including eight siblings, only four siblings managed to flee Myanmar and take refuge in Jammu. “But everything is falling apart again,” she said. “My husband works as labour and we were living peacefully. But now it’s the same threat [of persecution] again. We are being troubled by the police [in Jammu] and fear more separation from our families.