With Death Threats and Arson, Life is Precarious for Jammu’s Rohingya Refugees

The latest campaign against the Rohingya has been triggered by false rumours that government documents – Aadhaar cards, state subject certificates, ration cards and voter I-cards – had been recovered from them.

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Rohingya refugees in Jammu. Credit: Syed Junaid Hashmi

Jammu: Businessmen want them killed, political parties want them out and petitioners see them as a security threat. A fierce campaign has been unleashed against Rohingya refugees in Jammu – described by a United Nations spokesperson as “probably the most friendless people in the world” – and is not confined to fiery language alone.

For the past few weeks, Hindutva activists, businessmen and political parties here have been targeting the refugees from Myanmar, all of whom are Muslim. Some hold that their presence is a conspiracy hatched by Kashmir-based separatists and ‘pro-Pakistan activists’, aimed at changing “the demographic character and the Dogra identity” of Jammu. Others claim that the Rohingya have ‘illegally’ been given government documents such as Aadhaar cards so as to establish them as legal residents of Jammu.

An investigation by The Wire, however, has revealed that the police in Jammu have not come across any Rohingya refugee holding improperly acquired government documents. Along the way, The Wire also discovered that the administration had taken away documents belonging to six members of a family who said they were not Rohingya, but Indian Muslims born in Jammu.

Rumours about the Rohingya have snowballed into an emotive issue in Jammu, with political parties jumping into the fray. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is believed to be quietly backing the agitation, while opposition parties such as the Congress and the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP), which suffered serious political reverses in the 2014 assembly elections, are seeking to position themselves as the “true custodians” of the Dogra people. The Congress has been issuing leaflets on this issue, and the JKNPP has put up hoardings demanding the ouster of the UNHCR-recognised refugees.

Threat to ‘catch and kill’

On April 7, the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) threatened to start a “catch and kill” operation against the Rohingya. Astonishingly, JCCI president Rakesh Gupta held that since the Rohingya were “criminals, drug peddlers and future terrorists”, there was no harm in killing them. Though he later retracted his statement, he has given the government a month’s time to deport the Rohingya from Jammu.

An estimated 1,219 Rohingya families – 5,107 people – live in Jammu, mostly in the Muslim-dominated localities of Narwal Bala, Bhathindi, Qasim Nagar and Sidhra. Persecuted in Myanmar, they arrived in Jammu mostly in 2009. “The Rohingya are probably the most friendless people in the world. They just have no one advocating for them at all,” Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in 2009.

The latest campaign against the Rohingya has been triggered by rumours that government documents – Aadhaar cards, state subject certificates, ration cards and voter I-cards – had been recovered from them.

“We welcomed them, thinking that they were guests and would leave once the situation improved in their country. But they have stabbed us in the back with the help of locals by trying to get permanent citizenship of Jammu and Kashmir through fraudulent means. We won’t tolerate them anymore. They have to go. If they don’t go on their own, we will throw them out forcibly,” social activist Pardyut Kohli said.

The local unit of the Bajrang Dal has leapt in to the fray. “Hindus are already a minority in Jammu and Kashmir,” their convener, Rakesh Sharma said. “With Rohingyas and Bangladeshis being settled in Jammu, threat of Hindus being reduced to minority even in Jammu has increased. We want these illegal settlers to be thrown out without any further delay.”

Hindutva groups

On April 11, brandishing weapons and shouting slogans, activists of Bajrang Dal – the militant ‘youth’ wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a member of the RSS family of organisations – took out a procession from Hanuman Akhada near Tawi Bridge to a temple at Shalamar Chowk.

The speakers, which included leaders of the VHP, warned that if the Rohingya are not thrown out by the state government within a month, they would take law in their own hands to force them to leave.

Meanwhile, unknown assailants have targeted Rohingya refugees living in Patta Bohri and Bhagwati Nagar, two Hindu-dominated localities of Jammu city.

The site of the arson attack on Rohingya refugee dwellings. Credit: Syed Junaid Hashmi

The site of the arson attack on Rohingya refugee dwellings. Credit: Syed Junaid Hashmi

On April 9, a garbage dump collected by the refugees was set on fire in broad daylight. This was followed by an arson attack on seven shanties in which Rohingya refugees were living in Bhagwati Nagar on April 13. Though there was no loss of life, the refugees living there are unable to understand why there has been a sudden surge in animosity towards them when they have been in Jammu for eight years.

Since then, 50 families have shifted from various Hindu localities in Jammu to the Muslim-dominated Bhathindi area of the city. Prior to these two incidents, a refugee camp was burnt down in another part of Bhagwatinagar area on February 19, 2017 by around 20 to 30 masked men. The only difference was that the refugees living in these huts were first asked to come out and then beaten with sticks and rods, after which petrol was used to burn down their temporary shelters. Zafar Alam, son of Syed Amin, who was one of the victims, said, “We were dragged out, beaten and humiliated. Then our temporary sheds were burnt down.”

The UNHCR has provided the refugees affected by the fire with two lawyers so that they can seek legal assistance.

False rumours on documents

Behind the anger are media reports about the recovery of documents from the Rohingya people by Jammu’s deputy commissioner (DC), Simrandeep Singh. The Wire investigated the reports and found that at the root of the rumours was a complaint against Syed Hussain, a resident of the Muslim-dominated Belicharana area of Jammu city, over a disputed state subject claim. Singh launched an investigation into this.

Hussain, 60, said Singh asked him for his Aadhaar card, state subject certificate, ration card and voter I-card. “I handed over all the documents to the DC who, after looking at them, took them away with an assurance that they would be returned by the evening. But it has been a week since they took away my documents and they are yet to be returned. Since I run a juice rehri (a street vending cart), I don’t get the time to go to the DC’s office for my documents,” Hussain said.

Earlier, he said, the police had come and verified the same documents.  “A police team did visit me. But they checked my documents and left. I was neither called by the local Belicharana police station nor did they come to my home,” he said.

“I belong to this place. I was born here,” he stressed. Hussain added that after his parents died, a Sikh man called Mohan Singh took him to Iran when he was 13. Singh died in Iran, and Hussain eventually left for Bangladesh, where he married a Burmese woman called Noor Begum. “Then I came back to Jammu in 1990.”

Hussain said he entered India from the Bangladesh-Bengal border. “I was first arrested by the Border Security Force and kept in captivity for three months. When I reached Jammu, I was in the Kanachak police station for around 10 years with my wife. The policemen there later helped me set up a teashop outside the police station. My wife gave birth to four sons there,” he said.

Two of the sons – Mohammed Noor Aalam and Mohammed Iqbal – left school to make a living. The other two, Shah Hussain and Assadullah, are in college, Hussain said. Iqbal, who also runs a rehri like his father, married a woman from the Batote area of Doda district. “My only daughter, Yasmeen, is married to a Baramullah-based boy, Imtiaz Ahmed,” added Hussain, who has built a house in Belicharana.

“I am being told my house will be razed and I will be thrown out of my birthplace,” he said. “I have nothing to do with Rohingya refugees. My wife is a Burmese but I am not. How can they throw me out now,” he asked. “My family members, barring my wife, have state subject certificates and other documents.”

Aadhaar cards

The Wire asked Singh about the number of Aadhaar cards and state subject certificates his office had recovered from Rohingya refugees. Six had been identified, he replied, but did not say who they were. But The Wire has established that the six supposed Rohingya were Hussain, his four sons and daughter. Singh said that others with such documents were being identified.

The DC was asked about media reports that a khidmat (service) centre located in the Muslim-dominated locality of Bhathindi in Jammu city was issuing Aadhaar cards to Rohingya.

“No centre has been identified which is issuing Aaadhar cards,” he replied.

The owner of the Bhathindi Khidmat centre, Zainab Khatoon Mir, said his centre was yet to put in place equipment needed for issuing Aaadhar cards.

“It requires [a system for] biometrics. Those who are saying that we are issuing Aadhaar cards should show us where the machines are. Had this been true, the police would have taken cognisance of it,” Zainab said. The Wire found another Khidmat centre, run by a man identified as Pradeep Kumar, who said there “was no question” of Aadhaar cards being issued to the Rohingya.

The Aadhaar card, in fact, is not a proof of citizenship as a UID number is meant to be given to every resident of India regardless of nationality – including refugees like the Rohingya.

The Wire visited seven police stations – Narwal, Trikuta Nagar, Bhathindi, Belicharana, Bahu Fort, Gandhinagar and Ware House – to find out if the police had identified Rohingya carrying Aadhaar cards or other documents. Not one said they had. They said they had heard about Rohingya being given Aadhaar cards and other documents, but no one had approached them with a complaint.

Senior superintendent of police (Jammu) Sunil Gupta said he was out on training and had no knowledge of the issue. “I have just joined back but I am yet to hear about any such thing,” he said.

The Rohingya issue is also in court. A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by advocate Hunar Gupta in the high court with advocate Sunil Sethi, who is the chief spokesperson of the BJP, urging the court to issue directions to the state as well as the Central government to deport Rohingya refugees from Jammu, holding that they could in the future become a security threat.

Two Supreme Court lawyers, Shah Faisal and Fidel Sebastian, have filed an impleadment application on behalf of the Rohingya, demanding that they be heard before an order is passed. The application is pending before the high court division bench of Chief Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed.

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    From Myanmar to India, rohingyas are facing humiliation and persecution with only Bangladesh showing some signs of humanitarian help. In Jammu, they have become a political tool for exploitation rather than a social problem of rehabilitation. Being almost Muslim community, they naturally face wrath of hindutva forces. It is a pity that other political parties are more conscious of their vote banks rather than rohingyas safety and security