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Nuh (Haryana): Before the break of dawn on July 26, 10 police jeeps and six police buses encircled the 10 Rohingya refugee camps in the Nuh district of Haryana. More than 600 policemen walked into the camps and allegedly barged into each jhuggi, pushing people out of their makeshift homes to carry out a ‘verification drive’.
“‘Darwaza kholo warna darwaza tod dunga (Open the door or we will break it down)’. That’s what the policemen shouted at 4.30 am,” recalled a woman in her thirties, cradling her crying baby.
Sofika, who stays at the Chandeni-1 Rohingya camp, clutched my hand and said, “Madam, hisaab laga lo (if you count), then for every family, there were around 10-15 policemen.”
Sofika and her brother Hasan, both of whom are vocal about atrocities visited on the Rohingya refugees, guided me to the Ward-07 camp in Nangeli, where cases of violence by the police had been reported.
There, according to Nurbahar, a woman in her 60s, the police had hit her, her son, her daughter-in-law and her daughter-in-law’s sister with lathis. This was because 17-year-old Sabakun Nahar, a resident of a camp in the suburbs of Bangalore and a patient of acute tuberculosis, had come to stay with her sister in Nangeli in the hope of getting treatment. Apparently, Rohingya refugees are not allowed to leave even the area of their biometric registration, let alone the state. So the police decided to punish this sick girl by thrashing her with their lathis, and also thrashed the other inhabitants of the jhuggi for providing Sabakun with shelter.
“They dragged me by my neck and kept beating me with their lathis,” said Nurbahar, sobbing with a mix of fury and helplessness.
Islam, a resident of the Nangeli camp, said, “We Rohingya have no home of our own. The earth below our feet is our land and the sky above our heads is our roof. We are illiterate people. We do odd jobs like scrap collection, daily-wage construction work (beldari), and domestic work. And when we try to leave the area to find better-paying work, we are not allowed.”
Generations of alienation
The kind of suspicion the Rohingya refugees face in India is not new to them. Even when Myanmar was a democracy, the Rohingya community could not travel from one place to another without administrative permission.
“We had to fill a document that had questions like, ‘For how long will you stay? When will you be back?’ And we couldn’t stay in the other place even an hour longer than what we had filled in the forms,” said Islam. “We have now left the country, but that dark law hasn’t left us. It feels as if we are still in Myanmar. The Indian government is like a badshah (ruler). It has immense power. It can provide a home to all the homeless and poor. Then what is holding it back? Why doesn’t it help us?”
“Probably, these people don’t want to let us live,” said Mohammed Basheer, another resident of the camp at Nangeli. Pointing to the group of women trying to comfort Nurbahar, he said, “No policewoman came. The policemen were pushing all these women out. They barged in like it was a raid and we had been hiding terrorists in our jhuggis. They treat us like mujrims (criminals).”
Ramzan Ali, a man in his 20s, recalled, “It was around 4.30 in the morning and I was sleeping when the police came. It took me minutes to realise what was happening. Suddenly they started beating me with lathis and pushed me out of my house.”
The action by the police has upset not only the refugees, but also the local villagers. “The villagers have started looking at us with suspicion,” said Basheer. “Suddenly, the police have begun raiding our houses at odd hours. Every now and then, they call us to the police station. They line us up and pick us up like criminals. All of this has made the locals suspicious of us.”
“The police treat us like terrorists,” said Islam. “For every step we take, we need their permission. India is such a big country. Can’t they let us refugees live here? We came here to save our lives. Despite having rented this piece of land from the villagers, we face lathis every other day.”
Dejected, he added, “The Government of India sheltered us in our time of need. I salute them for that. But I am not able to understand what is happening now. What has changed? But even if the government decides to not give us any food, it’s okay. Just let our children study. We will do anything to educate our children.”
Hasan and Sofika told me about the dark, precarious lives the Rohingyas have been living for generations. With no country to call their own since Myanmar rejects the community, no guarantee of the next meal, no schools for their children, no security of life, living at the mercy of the locals and the police in a foreign land, their fates seem sealed with gloom.
Since 2012, when they moved from Delhi to Mewat hoping that they would be safer in a Muslim majority area, these refugees have been forced to change their homes several times, from Khanpur village to Rawasan to Salaheri to the camps at the recent location, which they have rented from two local brothers at Rs 60,000 per month.
Most of the people in the camps work as daily wage construction workers, some collect scrap and sell it to the scrap dealers. The average wage for construction labourers is Rs 500 per day. No camp gets electricity for longer than eight hours a day.
With the help of ActionAid, the Development and Justice Initiative and some local NGOs, the Rohingya children have been admitted to government schools. These NGOs also teach girls and women to read, write and at least use their own signatures instead of a thumbprint while receiving the aid.
However, the situation in government schools is appalling, say the Rohingya refugees. The schools run without teachers and without books; children who have been in the schools for more than ten years are unable to recognise the alphabet.
When I asked Varun Singla, the superintendent of police at Nuh, why the Rohingya camps had been singled out for verification drives, he said, “These operations happen every year. It is our duty to make sure that no person who can be a threat to national security stays hidden from us.”
He denied that the operation had had any connection with the various calls of boycott against Muslims in Hindu panchayats across Haryana, and when asked about the various allegations of harassment by police officers, Singla said, “The police officers were sensitised before the drive. No harassment took place. If somebody has an issue, please lodge a complaint and we will look into it.”
In contrast to Singla’s statement that that these operations take place once a year, Sofika told me that such a thing had happened only once before – “during the 2021 lockdown”.
More than 1,000 police personnel, accompanied by army troops, had arrived at that time. But though the government conducted a verification drive during the lockdown, it failed to provide the Rohingya refugees with food. Abandoned by the government, left with no work and no access to food, the Rohingya community had to turn to NGOs for help.
Pointing to the broken door handle of her jhuggi, Sofika told me that it broke because some policemen kept forcefully banging on the door. She added, “It reminded us of our days in Burma, when army personnel, more of them than the total population of Rohingya, barged into our houses and committed atrocities against us.”
The police verification drive involves matching the names and other details of all the members of the Rohingya community with the list of biometric details held by the police. On July 26, the police confiscated 30 vehicles and only two have been recovered so far, Sofika laments. “They [the policemen] said, ‘you are Burma wala (people from Myanmar). You cannot purchase anything. You have no address proof. How did you get the vehicle? Where did you get the licence?'”
Pointing to Mohammed Idris, a short man whose thumbs were severed during riots in Myanmar, Hasan said, “He had a rehri (cart) which he used to transport scrap. Because of his hands, he cannot do construction work and nobody will employ him as a labourer.”
“I don’t have the money to buy a new vehicle and I cannot do any other work,” said Idris. “So I go to the police station daily to beg and plead. But they are not giving my rehri back.”
Mohammed Rafeek from the Chandeni-3 camp told me, “They [the police] barged into all the jhopdis (huts) twice, some jhopdis even thrice. They pulled out all our belongings and even checked between the clothes kept in the boxes. They even barged into our latrines and bathrooms.”
He broke off to laugh. “I said, okay, check the latrines. But when a policeman went inside, he couldn’t bear the stink and immediately rushed out.”
Unemployment and fear
Hifzul Rahman, one of Hasan’s neighbours, said, “When I saw so many troops early in the morning, I was scared that they would pick us up like they did to our brethren in Jammu.”
Hundreds of Rohingya living in the camps in Jammu had been picked up by the police in March 2021 and detained in Hiranagar jail.
Mehrunisaa, a 25-year-old woman at the Chandeni-2 camp, said, “In Jammu, there were families where mothers were picked up and infants were left behind, children were arrested and the parents were left behind. They didn’t even spare the old people.”
Sofika added, “Two of the old people died in the Hiranagar jail. Around 250 Rohingya were locked up in the jails [the official number is 155]. Initially, they were tortured as well. One of my sisters stays in a Jammu camp, while my entire family is here. But the government won’t allow me to bring my sister here. They say that her details are in Jammu, so she cannot leave Jammu. So I had to abandon my own sister.”
When two of Hifzul’s relatives arrived from Jammu a few days ago, the police did not allow them to stay.
“The woman has a chronic heart disease and her daughter was also sick. They wanted to get treatment here. Since the police have instructed us that we should inform them whenever a relative comes to stay, I did as they had asked. But even after much begging and pleading, the police would not let my relatives stay for treatment. We were forced to send them back,” said Hizful.
Abu Tahir, a resident of Chandeni-3 camp, explained how arbitrary rules have led to joblessness, which has broken the backs of all the Rohingya refugees.
“The government says that we can’t stay anywhere else. We have to return here every night. They say we should work for the locals, but how many of us will get work here? Only four or five people have work. The rest are left unemployed. Earlier, some of us travelled for work. Some worked at a company in Punjab, some worked at a factory in Mohammadpur, Delhi. But now all of us are jobless and cannot feed our families,” Tahir said.
Despite the suspicion of some of the locals, the Rohingya refugees see a sign of hope in the helpfulness of other villagers.
Holding the hand of a local woman, Arastu, Sofika said, “The villagers and locals support us. They treat us dearly, like a family. They have always helped us in times of need. When there was a short-circuit in our jhuggi and it caught fire, the locals supported us. Back then, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have a morsel. But within an hour, the locals arranged food for us. They arranged beds for us. They spent the whole night with us.”
Sofika added that the refugee community wants nothing from India but education for their children.
“The moment we came to India, we had it in mind that we would go back to our homeland whenever the situation there improves,” she said. “We have no greed for India’s money. We have no greed for its citizenship. We just want to live in peace. We want to teach our kids. The value of education is something we learned here. In our country, most of our people are illiterate because the government doesn’t give us any opportunity to study. So we request the Indian government to not look at us, but at the innocent faces of our children who get an education here. Let them stay and study. If we go back, their lives will be ruined like ours.”