Khimber (Jammu and Kashmir): Hassan Sheikh struggled to control his emotions as he talked about the “sufferings and harassment” faced by Rohingya Muslims in Jammu.
“We were given a ten days ultimatum to leave Jammu earlier this month,” Sheikh told The Wire. Then, he said, the police raided their shanties in the Bathinda area one evening and whisked away several men on “frivolous” charges.
“I wasn’t home that time, but the raid was the indication of the horrible times to come. By midnight, we packed our bags and set out for Kashmir.”
Sheikh’s is one of the many families to have fled Jammu in search of safety in Kashmir, and is among 18 Rohingya families who have now taken refuge in a village on top of a mountain in Khimber, almost 40 km from the summer capital of Srinagar.
A religious seminary has given the group three buildings, comprising of 18 two-room residential sets, to live in.
From Myanmar to Kashmir
A labourer, 34-year-old Sheikh said his family, including his wife and two children, were the “luckiest” to have arrived in the village when they did, he says. When they reached on September 17, only one apartment remained unoccupied in the buildings.
“Since we arrived here we have been able to sleep properly after many months. I don’t know how long it will continue, I am concerned about my young children and their future,” Sheikh’s wife told The Wire as their son, five-year-old Anwar Sadiq, listened to her carefully.
There are now 18 Rohingya families – comprising 85 people – who have arrived in Khimber over the last 15-18 months, after a sense of fear gripped them in Jammu. They arrived in the state starting from 2010, the families say.
While the men leave in search of work early in the morning, most of the time returning disappointed, the women and children stay indoors. Only a few families who could afford it have admitted their children to a nearby school. Most of these Rohingya families don’t speak fluent Urdu.
Yasmeena, her husband Mohammad Kabir and their three daughters – the eldest now six years old – fled Myanmar in June 2016. They stayed in Jammu for three months before shifting to the village.
The family ran out of stocks last week, and Kabir went to Baramulla district in North Kashmir in search of work five days ago. He hasn’t returned yet.
“We had nothing to cook for our children,” a visibly-disturbed Yasmeena said, hoping her husband will come back with money.
It is not just their daily expenditures, in the absence of any permanent source of livelihood, that is worrying these Rohingya families. The safety of their relatives in Jammu as well as back in Myanmar is a constant cause of concern.
“My uncle Muhammad Shafi and his family were killed in latest violence back home. Some days ago, I was told by my relatives in Jammu that one of my three brothers, Muhammad Ridwan, was shot dead while trying to leave his village in Myanmar. While my parents and two sisters have reached Bangladesh, my two other brothers are still missing,” Yasmeena said, breaking down.
The immediate worry for her, however, is the safety of her sister Hameeda and her family, including five children, who are living in Jammu. Last time the two sisters talked on phone on August 29, Hameeda pleaded with Yasmeena to arrange space for her family in the mountain village.
“She was concerned about the safety of her children amid threats by Hindu activists and politicians,” Yasmeena said.
A business organisation, the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as smaller groups linked to the RSS have openly said that if the state government does not deport the Rohingya, “we will identify and kill them”.
Running out of time
On September 18, the Centre told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that the continued stay of Rohingya people was “seriously harming the national security of the country”. The government was responding to a petition by Rohingya refugees who have challenged the Centre’s proposed move to deport them.
The Centre’s stand led to the UN high commissioner for human rights criticising New Delhi.
A few days later, however, on September 21, Union home minister Rajnath Singh talked more specifically about the government plans for deporting the Rohingya – designated by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority – during a seminar organised by National Human Rights Commission.
“They have entered India from Myanmar. Rohingya are not refugees, we need to understand this reality. There is a procedure to acquire refugee status and none of them have followed that,” Singh said.
The families in Khimber, who are living away from the public gaze and don’t regularly follow the news, have no idea about the Centre’s latest plans.
“We haven’t fled our country out of choice. We too are humans and have a right to life. We have been pleading with everybody to look at our issue from the humanity point of view and not as Muslims. Does humanity allows any government to push refugees back to their country where they are being hunted down and killed?” asked Noor Hassan, who came to the village with with his wife and three children from Jammu last December.
He also talked about the violence his family is facing back in Myanmar. Hassan’s only brother and father have been missing for more than a month, he said, after they were allegedly forced out by the soldiers from their village in Rakhine State.
“My mother has fled to Bangladesh. She had called our relatives in Jammu and said that I should send some money to her. But I have nothing to offer except prayers. She has been surviving on alms for the past few weeks,” 27-year-old Hassan told The Wire.
Moments of peace amidst constant fear
Earlier this year, Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state assembly that a total of 1,219 Rohingya families comprising 5,743 people are living in the state, all of them in Jammu. She also dismissed apprehensions about instances of radicalisation in the community, though she revealed that 17 FIRs have been registered against 38 Rohingya for various offences, including those related to illegal border crossing,
While the families in Kashmir are not sure how long they will be allowed to stay, they say they have been able to witness moments of both peace and
Haroon Rashid was amongst the first group of Rohingya to move to Kashmir. His daughters are now all married here. Other families too say they found acceptance from the local people.
“People here are good to us. They help us financially and even let us use their mobile phones to talk to our relatives in Jammu, Mayanmar and Bangladesh,” Yasmeena said. Her views were shared by other women: “People have assured us that they won’t let anybody to force us out from here.”
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Other than the general public, Rohingya in Kashmir have also found support from civil society forums as well as separatist group, who have spoken out against their deportation. Over the past few weeks, protests have been held in Srinagar against the Centre’s decision to deport Rohingya Muslims.
But grappling with the violence in Myanmar and facing the threat of being driven out of Jammu and Kashmir, Rohingya people in Khimber find it hard to let go of their fear, especially given the hardened stand taken by the Centre. As Hassan told The Wire, “At times we feel like even god has forgotten us. We are probably the most cursed and ill-fated people on earth.”