India’s recent crackdown on Rohingyas has forced them to uproot their makeshift homes once again.
Bhat Burhan and Yashraj Sharma
ABU Hameed rested his back on the wall, closed his eyes, and sighed, as he prepared himself for a haircut. As the barber sprayed water on his hair, families in the Rohingyas’ makeshift camp in Jammu and Kashmir, were packing their bags and hand-picked belongings, preparing to flee – yet again.
To Hameed, arrest is imminent. “I don’t know when they will arrest me. I’ll get my head shaved before they take me…[in jail] my hair will grow long,” said the 30-year-old.
The detentions of his sisters – 40-year-old Arfa Begum and 25-year-old Asma Begum – on March 6, when the local police rounded up hundreds of Rohingya Muslims, have intensified Hameed’s fears and left him anxious.
“Jammu and Kashmir police is like the Myanmar military, there is no difference,” he said. “My sisters never committed a crime. They don’t even know how to use a mobile phone, they are illiterates.”
With more than 40,000 refugees in the country, India is home to one of the largest concentrations of Rohingyas outside of Bangladesh.
Hameed’s family of four haven’t left their shack in Jammu in a week, since the police detained 170 Rohingya Muslims, including pregnant women and children, to “identify the illegal immigrants”, jail them in “holding centers” and start their forced deportation back to Myanmar.
Even the idea of returning to Myanmar’s shores frightens Hameed. He vividly remembers the night when Myanmar’s junta knocked on his door in Rakhine state on an evening in 2012. Hameed’s uncle, Abu Samah, was dragged out of the house; he tried to flee detention but was shot dead.
“I remember everything,” Hameed says of the genocide that was to unfold. “Our parents told us to leave, however, they stayed back.”
Hameed escaped the burning fields of Myanmar, running away from his past as the military hunted Rohingyas, and he never saw his parents again. Since then, he has made a living as a day-labourer in Jammu city to bring food to his makeshift tin-shack in the makeshift camp.
But the Indian government regards them as “termites” and “terrorists”, polluting the Hindutva ideals of a country that has taken a sharp turn towards religious authoritarianism in the last decade.
India’s recent crackdown on Rohingyas has uprooted their makeshift homes again. Losing the ceiling or loved ones doesn’t scare Hameed anymore. “Don’t put me in a dirty place like jail again. If [India] has to do it, please shoot me. I’m ready to die!”
Local political parties have fed into the Islamophobic narrative too.
Last year, an ultra-right social group went political as it vowed to continue their fight to “weed out all illegal encroachers” including Rohingyas and Bangladeshis from Jammu. On April 15, 2017, a mysterious fire gutted five Rohingya homes in Jammu city while apprehensions and fears rose.
This is parallel to the rise of polarisation between religious groups after New Delhi unilaterally revoked the limited-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019 – and imposed curfews, a communication blackout, and detained over 7,000 people.
Much like the August 2019 Kashmir episode, the crackdown on Muslims in India feeds the thirst of Hindu nationalists.
Modi’s de-facto deputy, Amit Shah, had even vowed to throw “illegal immigrants” into the Bay of Bengal.
“Infiltrators are like termites in the soil … a Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal,” he said while addressing an election rally in April 2019, referring to Rohingyas.
This anti-Muslim sentiment eventually reached Jammu too. On March 10, in a shack in Jammu, three men in civilian clothes held a list of papers, with names and photos of Rohingya refugees on it. One of them called out the names and the questioning started, rekindling the fears of detention. On March 6, a similar event took place before hundreds were rounded up.
The makeshift camps resemble a Rohingya locality. The refugees, who survived massacre after massacre in Myanmar, have huddled up to mirror their identity and their homes. Most of them speak varying local dialects of Bengali while the men wear the lungi or loincloth. Every refugee family has made a little effort of their own – even unconsciously – to help create a mirage of home, almost 1,500 miles away, that isn’t.
Similarly, a 60-year-old cleric, Hamid Abdullah, runs a madrassa where he teaches the Quran to about 300 refugee children. Like Hameed, Abdullah also ran towards India from Myanmar in 2012 after the military “locked the mosque where we prayed…cut, burnt, and chased us.”
For nearly a decade, Abdullah made Jammu his home. “Thanks to Allah, we were living with peace as the United Nations and its [refugee] card was with us,” he said. “But I’m not sure what happened to them suddenly and the police came and told us to leave.”
Out of fear, Abdullah has locked up the madrassa too. “If the United Nations can’t protect us in India, they should take us somewhere else where we can live without fear,” he said. “In India, now I feel I’m in danger.”
The frequent battles have troubled his younger son, 19, Jawad ur Rehman. The closure of the madrassa meant his schedule – waking up early to offer Fajr prayers, then breakfast, followed by the Quran classes – has been turned upside down.
He came to know about the detention last week from his brother, who won’t stop shouting: “Jammu khali karna hai (We have to vacate Jammu).” This place, Rehman thought, wasn’t his homeland. “I knew, one day we’d need to leave and the day had come.” He packed up his bags, tucked in all he could in a run sweeping the shack, to hide from police vehicles.
Leaving a makeshift home doesn’t pain Rehman as much as the uncertainty does. “We would have left this place if they had told us a week before. [But] authorities are the rulers here. If they say, we have to leave. If we won’t, they will still throw us out of this place.”
While India is forcing refugees back to their treacherous homeland, the Rohingyas are aware of the recent military coup. The infamous icon, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, remains behind bars as the junta have formally taken over the country amid pro-democracy protests – that have been met with an iron fist. This is all happening as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas continue.
Last time Rehman spoke to his relatives before the military cut communications, was on an IMO call, an instant-messaging platform. He said he heard gunshots in the background. “I spent my childhood [in Myanmar]. I want to go back but if peace prevails,” he added. “But relatives cautioned us against returning. It would be scary in Myanmar like it is here at the present.”
Hameed has three children at home, growing up as the family shifts from shack to shack. In their lives as refugees, killed in their own country and despised in their makeshift shelter, the stateless populace awaits an uncertain future.
“We came here [India] to escape, not to get jailed. We are ready to leave this place but let peace prevail in our country,” says Hameed, his hair now trimmed short. “If both the countries [Myanmar and India] are doing the same then what is the difference?”