Forty-two-year-old Mohammed Haroon is a man of many words. After all, he is one of the respected elders in the cluster of 50 Rohingya Muslim families living in Kanchan Kunj, on the outskirts of Delhi. Clad in a blue-and-white lungi and a white vest, he sits inside his 10ftx10ft room, which also functions as a makeshift chai stall, and updates the five-odd people sitting outside on a plywood slab about the ongoing case in the Supreme Court with respect to a petition challenging the deportation of Rohingyas from India. “When I first came to India around 17 years ago, I was living in Bengal, near Kalyani. Almost a year after shifting there, the person I was working for said he could help me get an Indian ration card, albeit illegally. I was so scared that I ran away and came to Delhi. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have had to worry about deportation now had I accepted the deal. But then, I would have had to live a lie till my death and I did not want that. We Rohingyas have seen too much violence in our lives. We just want to live in peace,” he says.
Last week, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar on an official trip, the Centre said it has started the process of identifying Rohingya refugees in India so that they can be deported as they are “illegal” immigrants to the country. As the country faced international backlash, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju defended the government’s decision and told reporters, “India has absorbed maximum number of refugees in the world so nobody should give India any lessons on how to deal with refugees.”
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. A Home Ministry notification to state governments on August 8 refers to the “security challenges” posed by the “infiltration from Rakhine state of Myanmar.” “Like many other nations, India is concerned about illegal migrants, in particular, with the possibility that they could pose security challenges. Enforcing the laws should not be mistaken for lack of compassion,” said Rajiv K Chander, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations in Geneva, in response to the criticism voiced by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 36th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this week.
Among the world’s most persecuted ethnic Muslim communities, the Rohingyas have traditionally lived in the Rakhine province of Myanmar. Though the etymological root of the word Rohingya is disputed, the most widely accepted theory is that “Rohang” derives from the word “Arakan” in the Rohingya dialect and “ga” or “gya” means “from”. Since independence in 1948, however, successive governments in Myanmar have denied the Rohingyas recognition as one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups and claimed time and again that they are “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”. They have been barred from holding government offices and denied state benefits; even marriages and birth rates within the community have been monitored closely. Over the last year, the Myanmar Army has used attacks by Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) to launch ever widening crackdowns on the community. Media reports suggest that at least over 1,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed in the violence in Myanmar since August 25, 2017. In the last three weeks alone, tens of thousands have fled Rakhine and crossed the border into Bangladesh.
It had taken Haroon five days and nearly Rs 10,000 to come to India across Bangladesh. “No one wants to leave their own country on purpose. It is always some majboori. Ours was the worst kind. We don’t want to go back to get killed but if India wants to deport us, we will have to go back. You won’t even get to know but we will die within days of reaching,” he says.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, who is representing two Rohingya refugees who have filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s decision on deportation, says, “Article 21 of the Indian Constitution gives everyone living in India the right to life, even if they aren’t citizens. Moreover, the deportation plan violates international laws as well as India’s long-drawn policy of giving refuge to anyone who can be persecuted in their own country. This government is discriminating against the Rohingya just because they are Muslims.”
After the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in 2012, Zakat Foundation, a charitable organisation, had provided them with an 11,000 sq ft plot of land at Kanchan Kunj, where about 50 families have pitched makeshift tents. Since August, there has been no new entrant to the camp. The conditions are dire — families of five to 10 members live in single-room tenements. As we speak, the chatter of children can be heard. A group of seven-eight boys return from the neighbouring God’s Grace School in Abul Fazal Enclave. Haroon’s son, Javed, 12, is among them, but today he is unusually quiet. As his father serves him his lunch, the boy suddenly asks, “Papa, mere school ke har dost ko pata hai unka kaum kya hai, hume kyon nahi pata (All my schoolfriends know where they belong, why don’t I)?” It catches the usually garrulous Haroon unaware and the rest of the meal passes in silence.
Outside, Shamshida, 25, sits with her deck attached to her phone at her tailoring shop. She plays all the Rohingya taraana that she gets from relatives in Myanmar and Bangladesh — the only way she can hold on to a part of her old identity. She remembers the time in 2012, when she spent four days in transit to escape the violence, when only music from her homeland would give her hope. She wonders if her sister is still alive. “Given the present situation in Myanmar, phone connections are gone for days. We barely get to know anything about those left behind,” she says.
As the first taraana begins, the children huddle closer to listen to it as do many elderly Rohingyas. Soon, only the music can be heard: “Kandi kandi din katailam,/ Kandi kandi din katailam,/ Mog Bormar vitore./ Helom pori no parilam hokumoter dore/ Kandi kandi buk vashailam/ Arkan nor vitore Helom pori no parilam/ Hokumoter dore (We spent our days crying/ Surrounded by the Mogs in Burma/ So we’ve left behind our homeland/ Fearing torture from the government. We spent our life crying/ In a home called Arakan/ So we’ve left behind our homeland/ Fearing torture from the government).”
At a distance, Md Farooq, 28, sits by himself, looking at photographs on his mobile phone gallery. “We show these to our children to tell them about home. We haven’t dropped from thin air, have we? Of course, we belong somewhere. Myanmar says we are illegal but they know we are not,” he says.
Minara, 26, a mother of three, is unfazed by all the nostalgia. As she sets up her UN-backed shop, she says she’s glad to have escaped the horrors back home. “I remember I was 12 and I was playing with my cousin. They caught hold of her and started torturing her. I ran for my life without even trying to save her. I got married at 13 because they were targetting girls and unmarried women first. I escaped somehow with my three-month-old child. Yes, I do think of my home that was not a jhuggi, my relatives, my garden, but this is my home now,” she says. Her husband, Abdul Karim, says, “It’s not like the Indian government did not know we were living here. We have the UNHRC card and the one-year visas that we have to get renewed every year. So why this sudden decision to deport us?”
As Minara walks into the shop, she turns back and says, “I won’t go back. Never.”
Caption: What lies in between: (Clockwise from top) Rohingya children dry spices collected from the homes they have left behind; Minara at her UN-backed grocery shop in Kanchan Kunj; and an elderly Rohingya woman with her five-month-old granddaughter.