In the violence of Partition, Rakesh Gupta’s family fled Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to seek refuge in Jammu. Seventy years later, he is running a campaign against another set of persecuted minorities fleeing violence, living on the fringes of Jammu – Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
“If the government does not deport Rohingyas, we will identify and kill them,” Rakesh says without any emotion. “Otherwise, people will have no choice but to deport them against the law. It can be civil war or communal riots.” Rakesh is the president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). He says, “They (the Rohingyas) want to change Jammu into an Islamic state which will not be tolerated by the people.”
These incendiary claims and paranoia have made Jammu the unwitting battleground for anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. This sentiment now has official sanction – the central government has declared Rohingyas illegal, a security threat and ordered their deportation. But these pronouncements are at odds with the government’s own policy and what we found on ground, making the whole exercise seem suspect.
At stake is the future of thousands of people who have nowhere to go.
Barely four kilometres away from the JCCI office, an uphill road dug up in parts, leads to a Rohingya settlement in Qasim Nagar. Nestled amongst surrounding hills, it is dotted with tin shanties held together with pieces of wood or tarp. A small, neat market on the main road has grocery shops, one selling fish and a tea shop where fried rice with black grams are sold. The men do odd jobs as ragpickers or labourers while the women shell walnuts.
Mohd. Yunus, 42, in charge of the camp, asks me in a hushed voice, “Is it true that we are being deported? Where will they send us?”
In the last two weeks, 270,000 people fled Myanmar’s Rakhine province as military action intensified against the Rohingyas. A United Nations advisor said that the situation neared ‘genocide’.
In February this year, Hunar Gupta, a member of the BJP’s legal cell filed a PIL in the J&K high court asking for their deportation, citing ‘national security’. “A lawyer can be called the master of all jacks,” says Hunar who believes law can enlighten people about their rights. He also believes that Rohingyas don’t deserve any rights. “We’ll give rights to outsiders while our own starve?” he asks. “As per latest data the number is enormous. I just saw the other day that three crore Bangladeshis and Rohingyas have infiltrated India.” When asked about the source of this figure, he replies, “I saw it on television”.
According to the Centre, there are 40,000 Rohingyas in India. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered 16,500 Rohingyas in India, who’ve been issued refugee cards. Of these, about 5,700 are in Jammu while the rest are spread across Delhi, Jaipur and Hyderabad. The state police and CID have been monitoring the Rohingyas closely. Both agencies have lists with names and numbers of Rohingyas living in the city, as well as records of arrivals and departures. This ‘census’ was last carried out about two-three months ago. Unlike Hunar’s claim, the number of Rohingyas was found to have gone up by 800-1,000 compared to last year.
Yunus shows forms that each family has been asked to fill and submit by both agencies. As we speak, an assistant inspector of CID arrives. The inspector says he comes to the camp at least five to 10 times every month for a check. Much of the concern of Rohingyas as a security threat appears to be based on the actions of Arakan Salvation Army (Arsa), the militant Rohingya outfit locked in violent conflict with Myanmar’s security forces.
A Home Ministry notification to state governments on August 8 refers to the “security challenges” posed by “infiltration from Rakhine state of Myanmar.” So far however, there is no credible evidence to suggest the Rohingyas in India have links to Arsa, or are tilting towards violent radicalisation. Instead, those anxieties are fuelled by nebulous media reports quoting intelligence sources.