AN OLD man wearing a tattered shirt breaks down as he sits on his knees, holding his head. At least two women at a distance have fainted, they are being given water by girls, all with veils on their faces. Scarcely dressed toddlers with bare feet are also crying amid the chaos.
There is a large crowd standing under the sole tree at the center of the open plot, all of them with beads of sweat on their foreheads and expressionless faces. Few in the center are constantly shouting at each other in Burmese. This is when two young men guard the gate of the plot allowing a few select people inside after exhaustive questioning. Everyone here is scared.
In the Bathandi area of Jammu, thousands of Rohingya refugees seem perturbed. They took shelter in Jammu after a “genocide” was initiated against them in Myanmar. Many are living here since 15 years.
In the crowd, there are less than five graduates. One standing atop a table is reading out the English transcript on their UNHCR identity cards. He is translating it into Burmese. As he reads each line, he asks others to repeat it in Burmese.
The writing on the card says, “The bearer of this card is a refugee under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. As a refugee, she/he should in particular be protected from arbitrary detention or forcible return to her/his country or to any other country where she/he would face threats to her/his life or freedom. During her/his stay in India, the bearer is subject to and has obligation to respect national laws.”
The reporter visited this settlement three days after 25 of these refugees were detained by Jammu and Kashmir Police in the Ramban area. The Senior Superintendent of Police at Ramban, Mohita Sharma, told India Ahead that “there were orders for their detention”. She refused to say who gave the orders though.
Earlier as well, refugees say, over 180 people were called in for questioning and later detained permanently.
Those detained include both women and men, old and young. Zahoora Begum, a refugee, said her daughter Yasmeen Akhter was taken to the police station for questioning last year. She never returned.
She says, that her daughter is a juvenile and was taken by the police during the night. “I neither am able to call her, neither do I know where to visit her,” she says.
Other refugees say that she may be lodged in the Hiranagar Jail which government says is a “detention center” for the Rohingyan refugees.
There have been detentions in the past as well. “235 refugees have been detained by the government since last year. This includes women and men. They are innocent and have had no criminal record. They have children back in Jammu who have been left without support,” said Kalim Ahmed, a refugee.
He added that last year three refugees were arrested by the J&K Police after fake Aadhar Cards and PAN cards were found in their possession.
“Later, they fed the police with money and they were released. Following that, 235 more were arrested. They did not do any crime at all,” he said, adding that after the arrest at the local police station, they were also sent to Hiranagar Jail.
Shahida Jan, a refugee in her 50s said her husband who was the sole bread earner in the family was arrested. “What was his crime? He had gone to a Masjid to offer prayers,” she said. Jan has 5 children, all very young, including a toddler.
Similarly, another refugee, Hasina Begum, who had taken shelter in the Jammu province along with thousands more like her, was deported from Hiranagar jail to Myanmar few days ago.
Begum was arrested by the Jammu and Kashmir Police on March 6 last year and later shifted to Hiranagar Jail.
PK Modi, Jail Superintendent had told India Ahead. “One has been deported. Her name is Hasina Begum. There are over 200 more. When more deportation orders come in, we shall send them back too,” he said.
On reports of selectively choosing people to be detained and deported among thousands in Jammu, he said, “It is the choice of government who they choose to deport. We have many families that are detained here. They are in the jail along with their children.”
A day after India Ahead reported on Hasina’s departure, Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “The Indian government’s forced return of an ethnic Rohingya woman to Myanmar on March 22, 2022, highlights the life-threatening risks facing Rohingya refugees in India. International law prohibits the forced return of refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.”
“The Indian government gains nothing by forcibly returning a Rohingya woman to Myanmar, while she is separated from her children and put at grave risk,” it added.
“The government’s decision to expel Rohingya refugees despite mountains of evidence that their lives and freedoms would be at risk in Myanmar shows cruel disregard for human life and international law,” the Human Rights Watch went on to say.
Meanwhile, the refugees say the government even shows no regard for the imminent rights body, UNHCR. “The cards that are given by them are snatched and then the detention process is started.”
While the senior leaders of these refugees who call themseleves “Zimmedars” say they are sending a delegation to the United Nations office in Delhi as to why the card given by them is being treated like trash by the authorities, SSP Mohita Sharma implied the possession of these cards hardly mattered.
She said India is not a signatory to “UN conventions allowing their stay” and that the other crime of those recently arrested from a Masjid in Ramban was that “they were part of the Tableeghi Jamaat”.
While Tablighi Jamaat is a missionary movement to profess Islam, it is no crime to be a part of it, as per legal experts.
They say, the SSP has not been articulate enough to either comprehend it or explain it. Experts say the only grounds for such detention can be that “only citizens” have a right to profess religion and not foreigners.
The refugees back in Jammu even refute this, saying the ones detained were only a group of Rohingyas and there was none from Tablighi Jamaat with them, and neither any of them had shown any allegiance to it.
What The Govt Says
Meanwhile, the government said in Parliament that it has “no laws allowing the refugees to stay” apart from an LTV or Long Term Visa that it can give after due review.
The government in response to a parliamentary question said, there is no “effective framework for the protection and regulation of refugees in India” as “India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees”.
However, HRW says that by pushing them back to Myanmar, India is exposing them to a “grave risk of mass atrocity crimes”.
About Hasina, the authorities have, reports say, forcibly returned her to Myanmar despite a March 21, 2022 order by the Manipur State Human Rights Commission putting the deportation on hold.
What Experts Say
Experts say that by arbitrarily detaining and deporting these refugees, India despite being a major contributor and signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), is flouting it.
The very second article of the UDHR says that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms” without distinction of any kind including the “national or social origin”.
It adds, “No distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”
Is Religion Behind The Targeting Of Rohingyas In Jammu?
In Jammu, there is severe infighting between refugees too. “No one is trusting each other. Some are even blaming the community leaders for deliberately not talking to the police to get released, the detainees.”
A refugee, Karam Ahmed says that Jammu is only the particular target. “There are Rohingyas in Mewat and Hyderabad too. The government does not detain them. They detain us because Jammu is a Hindu-dominated area and they feel our growing population may change the demographics here. It is not about us staying here illegally, it is all about our religion,” he said.
Amid all the debate on legalities and religion, tens of refugee children have been separated by the government from their parents.
Noor, the daughter of Hasina has been constantly crying after hearing about her mother’s deportation. Her father, who worked as a rag picker, says he is afraid to leave her alone in the shanty and is now unable to go to work.
She is just nine and the only photo that she has of her mother is a duplicate copy of her UNHCR card where her little fingers won’t stop touching Hasina’s face.