The Rohingya make the arduous journey from beyond India’s eastern border, all the way to Jammu to start a new life.
They appear to have it relatively easy in trying to build a life here, surprisingly, but find no favour among the local people and authorities, who see a sinister plot at work.
This is our ground report from Jammu:
Sayed Hussain, 60, offers a rather implausible explanation for how he ended up in faraway Jammu after crossing the border in West Bengal. “I boarded the first train I saw [at Kolkata station]. It was noon. The journey ended at Jammu,” he says. Hussain is among the first Rohingya to have settled in Jammu’s Bhatindi 10 years ago.
In an adjoining camp, 27-year-old Mohammed Tahir, who arrived last year, gives the same reason.
Later, a senior officer in the intelligence wing of Jammu and Kashmir Police laughs off this explanation. “By all accounts, they boarded the Sealdah Express that crosses Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab before reaching Jammu. It’s an arduous two-day journey. Why did they not alight at any of the stations in between?”
Now visibly annoyed, the officer says with an air of finality, “There is a syndicate active in Kolkata that facilitates their migration to Jammu. They tell the Rohingya that the only Muslim-majority state in India is their natural home.”
The new home of these runaways, ironically, is always Hindu-majority Jammu and never Muslim-majority Kashmir, the officer observes with a smirk as he produces a break-up of Rohingya settlements in the region. The Rohingya are scattered over 42 sites, Muslim-populated Bhatindi a home to the largest and oldest camp, housing 192 of the 1,548 Rohingya families in Jammu, as of January 2018.
“You see a pattern?”
I pore over the list in reply.
“They are being settled all over the region. Some areas have just two Rohingya families. Many Army camps in Jammu city are now surrounded by them.”
The officer says they are keeping a tight vigil on the community as authorities are apprehensive about the Rohingya people’s links to terror groups. In 2015, a militant killed by security forces in south Kashmir – Abdur Rehman al Arkani, initially identified by the pseudonym “Chota Burmi” – was found to be from Rakhine, the Myanmar epicentre for the Rohingya refugee crisis.
“It has come to our notice that some of them helped Pakistani militants trespass the Jammu border. You see, Rohingyas are experts in infiltration, they are deft in cutting the fence, they know tunneling, they are skilled in camouflage.”
Security forces are increasingly noticing the use of the word ‘Burmi’ in conversations between militants. “Rakhine militants are known to have direct links with ISI [Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence] and we are not ruling this connection out. They have a victimhood narrative of being wronged by non-Muslims. There are definitive leads that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba is trying to exploit them for carrying out terror activities in India and Bangladesh,” the officer says.
“Of course this does not mean that all of them have links with terrorists.”
These revelations are unnerving. They have led to calls for the deportation of the Rohingya. But amid these disturbing possibilities of the community being a security risk, the sight of their children playing with trash, their clothes in tatters, tugs at the heart as one walks through the cramped, grubby streets of Bhatindi’s Kiryani Talab. The blazing sun makes passage more difficult, but inhabitants of the 50-odd shanties, all huddled together, offer a welcome with a cheerful demeanour.
The men help with chairs to sit while children crowd around. Women, too shy to speak, smile and look away. They have harrowing tales to tell, of rape and murder of their neighbours at the hands of Buddhists and security forces back in their native Rakhine state in Myanmar. “They killed our men, raped our women, imprisoned them on frivolous grounds, set our houses on fire,” they say in unison.
The tales of their eventual escape are as chilling.
Mohammed Idris, 30, recalls how, fearing for his life, he left everything behind and joined a crowd of about 250 Rohingya to reach the Myanmar border on foot in 2015. It took them two days. Once in Bangladesh, he rented a hut and reached out to his contacts in India. “I bought a SIM card and called up my friend in Hyderabad [also a Rohingya]. Then I paid Rs 3,000 to a person who put me on to a mini-bus to Bengal. Later I reached Hyderabad. A few months later, I was told life is better in Jammu, so I came here,” he narrates his story.
Their shanties are flanked by high-rises under construction on either side. The Rohingya say they find plenty of work in such buildings that appear to dot the entire Bhatindi area. Those who made stopovers at other cities like Delhi and Hyderabad say they somehow find Jammu better. When asked why they never consider Kashmir for their new home, they say the city is not fit to live. “We won’t find any work in Kashmir. It’s always under curfew. Gunshots are always being fired. It’s also too cold for comfort,” says Idris.
Their tales are heart-breaking. Yet, many of their claims don’t add up.
They keep correcting each other when providing accounts of the losses they faced. “I had 500 cows in Rakhine,” says a despondent Mohammed Hussain, a claim that evokes laughter from others. “Did you have even ten?” someone grins.
“If I go to Rakhine, I’ll be killed,” says Mohammed Yunus, who seems to forget this claim minutes later. He says three months ago, he went to Rakhine to attend a family wedding and stayed for a week. He returned with his brother’s family in tow.
They say none of the Rohingya women go out to work and remain strictly to home, but scores of factories in the area admit to having employed Rohingya women in large numbers for cracking walnuts. The factory owners show us inside and introduce us to their ‘Burmi’ employees, mostly adolescent girls.
The Rohingya say they ended up in Jammu somehow, but it is clear they are brought here. They are not only welcomed with open doors but also pampered. They are taken care of.
Bhatindi’s ‘Burmi market’, run by the Rohingya, is bigger and better-stocked than all the adjoining ones existing for decades.
Billa Ram, who runs a small general provision shop nearby, shrugs as he says it’s only a wonder how refugees who had nothing on them have managed to own shops much bigger than his. “What they have made in five years, I could not in 20 years. Obviously, they are being helped with land and resources.”
What Ram means is that the administration and the Kashmiris living in the area want the Rohingya to not just stay but flourish.
“This market is a thorn in everyone’s eye,” says a bitter Noor Mohammad, a Rohingya who owns a meat shop in ‘Burmi market’. He demands to be left alone. His neighbour, who owns a grocery shop and refuses to tell his name, looks away and says no one in the market is “allowed” to talk.
There are enough hints that the administration is going out of its way to settle the Rohingya. They have been found possessing ration cards, Aadhaar cards, voter identity cards and, most shocking, the permanent resident certificate (PRC), all obtained through fraudulent means. Only the citizens of J&K are entitled to a PRC, which allows them to buy land, get government jobs, and pursue higher studies in the state. A Crime Investigation Department (CID) officer reveals, “Rohingyas have managed to buy state land on the outskirts. We recently found one possessing a bungalow on the outskirts worth two crores!”
A Jammu-based senior journalist, who retired as an editor of a leading daily, says all this is happening in connivance with officials at the helm of affairs. “It’s next to impossible for me to get a PRC for my children. The process is just too cumbersome. But Rohingyas seem to have been served it on a platter.”
Many suspect that at the heart of this fraud is an attempt to change the demography of Jammu. Others sound alarm bells that the Rohingya settlement is essentially an Islamist project. It suits the politics of some, and the Islamist ideology of the militants.
“How come none of the West Pakistan refugees, who are mostly Hindus, have never been made state subjects in seven decades?” asks J&K Assembly Speaker Kavinder Gupta. He is referring to an estimated 19,960 families of West Pakistan refugees who migrated to Jammu during the 1947 partition and, for years, have been protesting denial of citizenship.
The Bharatiya Janata Party leader had pointed fingers at the Rohingya for the 10 February terror attack on Sunjwan military station while speaking in the state legislative assembly. Six soldiers, a civilian, and three Jaish-e-Mohammed militants were killed in the attack carried out at the crack of dawn.
Gupta expunged his remarks after protests by the opposition party, National Conference, and the ruling Peoples Democratic Party. “I was forced to withdraw my statement. You see, they can’t hear a word against Rohingyas. Their solidarity for refugees is limited to Rohingyas!”
Also perturbed is Harsh Dev Singh, chairman of National Panthers Party. He calls the Rohingya settlement a “deep-rooted conspiracy” to alter Jammu’s demography so that Dogras are reduced to a minority. “What kind of refugees settle in a disturbed state like J&K?” he asks. “The manner in which they have come all the way here seems very sinister. Foreign hand cannot be ruled out. It’s a ticking time bomb,” declares Singh, who has been leading rallies and protests to free Jammu of the Rohingya. Singh has been demanding immediate measures for their deportation, saying any further delay is fraught with danger. Jammu has seen several rallies and protests by activists and residents demanding that the Rohingya leave.
Among these activists is advocate Ankur Sharma, who earlier filed a public interest litigation (PIL) petition in Supreme Court for scrapping of minority benefits to Muslims in J&K. Sharma says he has no doubt that the Rohingya settlement is part of a multi-pronged attack on Jammu, aimed at Islamising the region.
Sharma explains his allegations in several points, “One, we have Roshni Act legislated in Hindu-dominated areas under which state land was given primarily to Muslims in and around Jammu, Udhampur, Samba, Kathua, etc. Even as cases of Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists were kept pending. Two, actual minorities are denied minority rights in J&K. Three, Muslims from outside Jammu are being settled here with the aid and support of hawala money. They are being clandestinely registered as migrants (due to terrorist-related activities) and are given all incentives and sops available to Kashmiri Pandits. Four, by Kashmiri leaders’ own confession, Article 370 and 35A are aimed at maintaining the Muslim-majority character of the state. This is dangerous, bad, suicidal, and unwarranted. And now, we see planned and organised settling of the Rohingya and Bangladeshi Muslims here, with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] from the valley helping with money, taking public stands in their favour.”
Sharma further asks, “If the aim is not to propagate Islamism, why is it that militants who vow to wipe the area of ‘cow-worshipping Hindus’ have been warning against any move to deport Rohingyas?” Among others, Zakir Musa, the head of al-Qaeda’s offshoot in Kashmir, and the outfit Mutahida Majlis-e-Ulma, headed by separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have expressed solidarity with the Rohingya in Jammu.
Fall-outs of Islamism in the state are only too familiar. No wonder Jammu has been witnessing marches against the Rohingya people, at times bordering on violence.
But even as activists and political leaders talk of conspiracy theories and security threats, residents around the Rohingya settlements, who have no idea of the events in Rakhine or even the term ‘Rohingya’, want their new neighbours gone because they see them as criminals.
In Bhatindi, cross the Burmi market to enter Hindu-inhabited Rajeev Nagar and residents say they are scared of the ‘Burmi’ people. “Every night, they crowd these streets selling drugs. Stay here for an evening and see for yourself,” says an angry Satpal Sharma, a shopkeeper. “Looks like they never sleep. They are always out.”
The Rohingya have been found involved in drug trade. Across Jammu, 25 first information reports (FIRs) have been registered against them for drug-trafficking. A senior police officer said 65-70kg of heroin was seized from them. “It’s worrying because heroin, unlike marijuana that comes from central UP [Uttar Pradesh], is sourced from Pakistan-Afghanistan border,” he said.
Residents also point with disgust to the houses of Kashmiri men who have married Rohingya girls much younger in age. “Sometimes, they don’t even marry them,” says Neelam Kumari in a low voice, referring implicitly to prostitution.
At least three FIRs are registered against the Rohingya for flesh trade. That many of the Rohingya girls are brought to India on the pretext of work and “sold” to Muslim men is a claim made by intelligence agencies and supported by media reports. Recently, a Hindi daily reported on a flesh trade racket busted by the police in Jammu, where Rohingya men were found selling girls to Kashmiris.
“Kashmiri men who aren’t exactly eligible bachelors and cannot cough up enough mehr [mandatory payment by Muslim grooms to brides] go for these young girls who come for cheap. Many of the girls go to Kashmir,” a CID officer said.
Residents around the city talk of “new faces” flooding the streets as beggars, infiltrating homes as domestic help. They also object to their “ways”. Opposite the Sunjwan army camp that was recently attacked by terrorists, used to be a Rohingya camp of about 10 families in Channi Rama area. In December, the families slaughtered a cow in public. Angry residents protested and called the police. The Rohingya were then asked to leave.
Rajendra Singh, 65, whose house is adjacent to the now-uprooted camp, recalls the incident. “It was a horrible sight. The cow was pregnant and its calf was also slaughtered.” Singh remembers his ‘Burmi neighbours’ as a violent lot who would keep fighting among themselves and roaming in the night. “Had they stayed, I would have sold my house. I would feel so scared.” While residents’ grudge with the Rohingya is mostly attributed to their high involvement in crime and cultural difference, activists say it’s worrying that with the rise in their numbers, their criminal activities have intensified.
For the police, the headache is that they don’t know what to do with the criminals. “We arrest them and send them to jails. We also slap a case of illegal trespassing. They serve their sentence and return to a life of crime again. Because we can’t deport them. Myanmar doesn’t recognise them as their citizens and refuse to take them back. So the cycle keeps repeating.”
No Rohingya, however notorious a criminal he is, leaves. But more of them keep coming in. After all, Rs 3,000 is all it takes to trespass the border at West Bengal. Their eventual journey to Jammu is, of course, a cakewalk.