Jammu: Sitting along with a group of fellow Rohingya refugees in a makeshift tin shanty in the Narwal area of Jammu, Mohammad Younis is glued to a small TV and watching a national news channel, which is hosting a debate on the immigrants’ involvement in the local army station attack in Jammu on February 10.
Younis and his fellow refugees from Myanmar have been living in the area since 2009, and some others from 2012, when they fled the country following the violence perpetuated on them – called a “human rights nightmare” by the secretary-general of the United Nations a few months ago.
According to Younis, the Rohingya refugees are being portrayed as a threat to Indian security on media channels. They have been feeling insecure since ever since the fidayeen attack in the Sunjwan area.
“Why would we be against the country that gave us asylum? I don’t know why the media is after us, although the people of Jammu are very cooperative. There are some forces who don’t want us to be here,” said Younis.
Younis says they fled their country because they were humiliated and intimidated by the government and army. “They raped and murdered our women and made our lives hell, so we left the country and thought we will live peacefully in another country,” he says.
Younis, who has a wife and four children, is working as a labourer for Reliance and pays rent of Rs 1,000 per month to a local landlord. He crossed the border to Bangladesh in 2012, but decided to take refuge in India.
“In September, 2012, I came to Delhi and I was looking for work and a space to live. It was very hard there, and one day a maulvi sahib (cleric) told me at a railway station that I should go to Jammu and Kashmir, where people are warm-hearted. So I came to Jammu,” says Younis.
Dil Mohammad, 41, who fled Myanmar in 2013, says the media is playing “tricks” to make sure they are deported.
“How do they jump to conclusions when they don’t have any evidence? I was shocked to see some reporters blaming us for the attack without any proof. They are using different tactics to deport us, but I want to tell them – kill us but don’t defame us. We are not terrorists,” Dil says.
It all started on February 11, when four heavily-armed militants, who are yet to be identified, stormed an army station in Jammu. The encounter that followed went on for two days, leaving ten people, including the four militants, dead.
At the first blush, Jammu-based media channels started linking Rohingya Muslims to the attack. A local reporter was seen in a video asking locals and some MLAs whether the militants may have got support from Rohingya refugees settled on private plots in various areas of Narwal Balla and Channi Himmat. The reporter was trying his best to get some quotes on the involvement of these refugees.
Earlier the same day, in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, Speaker Kavinder Gupta blamed the Rohingya refugees for the attack, sparking an uproar in the house. Gupta had to take back his remarks after he was cornered by opposition members and the ruling People’s Democratic Party. The BJP, which is a partner in the ruling coalition and of which Gupta is a member, works overtime to ensure that other refugees, such as those who come for Pakistan and have settled in Jammu, get better amenities.
Right-wing parties have started a massive campaign asking Rohingya Muslims to leave Jammu; this campaign has only gained momentum after the attack. Graffiti which says “Don’t save Rohingayas” and “Rohingyas go back” has surfaced.
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Manoj Joshi argues that shunning Rohingya refugees is a bad geopolitical strategy for India
The narrative of the Rohingya being a security threat was initially supported by the BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir unit. The regional Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP) later joined the cause.
BJP leaders in Jammu have said that the Rohingya are being used by the Kashmiri militants and could also potentially join ISIS or spy for Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency.
At the same time, the JKNPP has said that the Rohingya are a threat to the demography of Jammu, which is a Hindu-majority region. In February, the party put up billboards across the area calling for Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees to leave the city.
The refuges are worried. “Although the residents of Jammu are very cooperative, there are some communal forces that are hell-bent to throw us out,” says Mohammad Hussain, another refugee.
“These communal forces are present in the Indian media also, which has been running a special campaign against us. Tell me, how can men who have left their country and taken shelter in another country do the things they are alleging? We want to live with others like a family and cannot even think of attacking military camps,” says another refugee, Mohammad Aslam. “This country provided us with space and food, and we are living an honourable life here. Why should we be involved in anti-national activity?”
“The fear [of deportation] has been there from the first day, but we don’t have any option. We don’t want to go back because the Myanmar army will kill us, we have been attacked there many times,” says Dil Mohammad.
“We came here hoping to get safety, but it seems god has written only hardships in our fate.”
“In my childhood, my grandfather used to tell me that when Aung San Suu Kyi will come to power, she will save us from the army’s wrath and we will live happily. He didn’t see her rule, he died. When I was older, my father used to tell me that if Suu Kyi comes to power, we can live an honourable life. But he also died before she came to power,” Aslam says.
“When the time came for elections and Suu Kyi was one of the candidates, I along with my family members – in fact, all Muslims in Myanmar – voted for her, keeping in mind that she was a Nobel peace prize winner. We thought she will fight for us….but what happened then is before world to see. She betrayed us and turned out to be more ruthless then previous leaders.”
The United Nations has accused Myanmar of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign by forcing the Rohingya into exile. The UN has documented mass gangrapes and killings, including of infants and young children, as well as brutal beatings and disappearances orchestrated by security personnel. In a report, UN investigators said that such violations may constitute crimes against humanity.
At present, there are around 1,219 Rohingya families – over 5,700 people – living in slum settlements across the Jammu district.
Spokesperson of the army’s Udhampur-based Northern Command, Colonel N.N. Joshi, said an investigation into the Sunjwan attack is ongoing. “We should not jump to conclusions. Let the inquiry be completed, the things will come out.”
A senior police official from Jammu who is investigating the case said on the condition of anonymity, “We are looking into all angles, but can’t say whether Rohingya Muslims were involved in the attack or not as the investigation is going on.”
In January, Mehbooba Mufti, the state’s chief minister, told the state assembly that the Rohingya are being kept under “strict surveillance” and “no instance of radicalising” has been reported so far. However, sections of the media and right-wing parties have not been deterred and continue their campaign against the refugees.
Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist. He tweets at @AuqibBinJavaad.