India is home to a culturally diverse population and the birthplace of various religions. As such, one would expect almost anyone to be given a big-hearted welcome upon stepping into such a land. Yet for refugees, and Rohingyas in particular, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rohingyas constitute the largest minority in Myanmar, yet estimates of their exact numbers vary widely. It’s safe to say, however, that there are at least a million in the Northwestern state of Rakhine, while an even larger number has been forced to flee to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh among others, due to government-sponsored persecution and violence. In India, the community of Rohingyas is relatively small in comparison to these other nations, but their struggle is no less compelling.
As of March 2016, 35 thousand refugees and asylum-seekers had registered with UNHCR in India, around 13 thousand of whom were Rohingyas. In Delhi, there is a community of approximately six to seven hundred, living primarily in pockets of Kalindi Kunj, Shaheen Bagh, JJ Colony, Bodola Goung and Hastall.
In contrast to Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, Rohingyas are Muslim and are not recognised as citizens of the country per the 1982 Citizenship Act. “The citizenship laws exclude them from the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar denying them citizenship and rendering them ‘stateless’,” explains Ipshita Sengupta, Policy Associate at UNHCR India. Apart from having no civil documents, they have faced countless episodes of human-rights violations for decades such as“forced labour, extortion, restriction on freedom of movement, absence of residence rights and land confiscation” to name a few.
Despite its large oil resources, Rhakine is the second poorest state in Myanmar. According to Dr. Syed Zafar Mahmood, President of India’s Zakat Foundation, the economic issues at hand are key to understanding the origin of the problem.
“There is a lack of resources for the whole population; less supply, more demand. So why not target a particular group and condemn it for some reason or the other even though it is unjustified, and then try to dislodge them from their home?”
Zakat Foundation, which has been running for 20 years, is one of the several charitable trusts that has helped Rohingyas living in the capital. But, for all of its efforts, the situation at stake is such that a much broader and long-term solution is imperative. For the time being, the charity has provided them with an 11-thousand-square-feet plot of land, where about 50 families have pitched makeshift tents out of plastic, cardboard and planks of old wood. The conditions are dire, to say the least. Families of 5 to 10 members are all forced to live in single-room huts without even the basic facilities.
I meet Imam Hussain, a 75-year old man who arrived in India with his wife in the year 2000. Imam recounts how the military set his house on fire two years before escaping Myanmar. Now a father of three, the 200 to 300 rupees he earns per day as a vendour must be stretched to the limit in order to feed his family. Yet for all the hardships, he still manages a smile.
Noor Fatima, 30, is another resident of the camp. She came four years ago along with her husband Mohammed Haroon, 44. Like Imam Hussain, her three children were born here, yet the Indian government does not recognise them as nationals. They have the so-called ‘blue cards’, just like everyone else; permits issued by the UNHCR which must be renewed every number of years. Mohammed’s cousin was raped by a group of soldiers. She went to the police station with her father to file a case, but instead of getting the justice she was hoping for, both of them were brutally murdered.
Stories like these are not mere extravaganzas. They are every bit as real as their daily plight in this city to survive. I interview almost 10 people, and all of them have had to endure brutal episodes of terror.
Up until December of 2015, Abdul Karim, 36, was working as a community volunteer for BOSCO (Bosco Organization for Social Concern and Operation) assisting Rohingya members to access medical facilities. Due to the general lack of sanitation, dysentery and other forms of gastroenteritis are the most common diseases, he explains.
A few metres away from the camp is Gyandeep Vidya Mandir School where approximately 40 Rohingya children attend regular classes, and another 20 or so are in the process of enrollment. The children seem happy. And at least for a few hours every day, they can do what any child is entitled to do; learn, play and socialise with his peers. Yet these children are the lucky few, whose education is paid for by Zakat Foundation. For the great majority, school is still a luxury they can’t afford.
In an opposite end of Delhi is another area where Rohingyas have found a place for themselves and the location for the newly-founded Rohingya Refugee Committee headed by Neza Mudden.
The Committee was created in March 2016 as a form of lobby group to push the Rohingyas’ cause forward and assist them in emergency situations. Like many of his fellow countrymen, Mr. Mudden left Myanmar following the two waves of communal violence that broke out in Rakhine state during June and October of 2012, which resulted in more than 140 deaths, 100 thousand displaced persons, and hundreds of Muslim homes and buildings that were either looted or burnt.
Mr. Mudden had to pay the military MMK two million, approximately INR 112,130; a sum which, to a man of his status, was a sheer fortune. But, even after he paid up, the military refused to leave him alone. That’s when he fled. “At the time, people were being killed like chickens. There was no court process, no court hearing, nothing…so I was worried about my life,” he explains.
The perilous journey to the Burmese-Bangladeshi border through mountains, forest and paddy fields took him two days. He then lived in Bangladesh for another four to five months before reaching India. But, he claims the situation in India isn’t any better either. “Refugee cards don’t allow us to travel abroad, so we don’t even have the choice to return home. It’s something like a cage in India, so it’s worse for us. We don’t even have a work permit. We are also poor and can’t have businesses so finding a future in India is very hard,” he asserts.
And the criticism they have faced from part of the political spectrum–particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad–doesn’t make things easier either. VHP leader Praveen Togadia openly referred to Rohingyas as a ‘security risk’ due to some people’s supposed links to Islamist extremist cells. Although I spoke to more than one party member, no one could comment on the matter.
Allegations aside, it appeared to me that–at least, from the men and women I met–these are completely dispossessed people who sincerely hope for a better future. But, at least for now, these hopes seem bleak at the very least. Four hundred Rohingyas are currently detained in India–particularly in Kolkata–for not having documents, and in Shaheen Bagh, they’ve been given a one-month notice to clear out the area they occupy by the owner.
As Mr. Mudden says, “We left our country just to save our lives.” Unfortunately, their lives in India aren’t being made much easier either.