Jammu: Abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir will not change the status of the Rohingya refugees, the Bengali-dialect speaking Muslim minority from Myanmar who for the past few years have made Jammu their home.
The Rohingya refugees, however, fear being deported or put in illegal detention. They pray for peace and safety in Jammu so that they can stay here till they are able to return to their own country.
In Jammu, they are battling for day-to-day sustenance by doing menial jobs. Some 1,100 Rohingya families are living amid extremely poor hygienic conditions in the refugee camps in the city and nearby Samba town. They hope they could go back to their native country Myanmar ‘the moment normalcy returns there’.
Dil Mohammad, 60, father of six children, said he has no plans to settle permanently in India. “We came here after the Buddhist community attacked us and forced us to flee. We fled, leaving behind our homes and agricultural lands,” Mohammad, who is staying in a camp in the Kirana Talab area of Jammu city, told IANS.
He said striking down of Article 370 would not change their status. “We have nothing to do with Article 370 as nothing will change for us. We are not citizens of India and we are not demanding the citizenship here either. We came here as refugees, and we are longing to return to our homeland one day where we were doing farming,” he said.
Hundreds of Rohingya families have found refuge in Jammu owing to the work opportunities available in the unorganised labour sector here.
As per the local authorities, the first Rohingya family, comprising of the parents and two children, came here accidentally in 1994. That family was detained at the Kahna Chak police post, close to the Pakistan border. The family later settled as illegal immigrants in Jammu.
Later, more Rohingya refugees came here between 2007 and 2015 to eke out a living; a chunk of them are now working as rag-pickers or scrap dealers or earning by digging land for telephone cable contractors.
The Rohingya women, mainly widows, earn a living by extracting nuts from walnut shells.
A handful of educated Rohingyas have got jobs in private enterprises. One of them is Mohammad Tahir, who is pursuing Bachelor of Arts from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU).
“We want to return to our country as we have no future here. Fearing resentment and anger against the refugees, the local factories are not willing to offer jobs to us. So most of us are involved in petty jobs like rag-picking or setting up kiosks that too in slums,” Tahir told IANS.
He said most of the children of Rohingya refugees living in a refugee camp in Kirana Talab are studying in a nearby Government Middle School. A few of them are now studying in class XI.
Most of the Rohingya refugees speak Hindi. “When we came here in 2008, we knew Urdu also. After seeing Hindi movies and television serials, we learnt Hindi too,” another refugee Mustaq Mohammad said.
Roadside ice-cream seller Hari Nath said a majority of the Rohingya refugees do not believe in hostility and prefer to live in brotherhood. “It is wrong to label them as criminals,” he said.
From time to time, Hindu hardline groups have been demanding the eviction of the Rohingya refugees from Jammu, which has the biggest population of Rohingyas in the country after Delhi.
In 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party put up hoardings in Jammu, asking Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees to ‘quit Jammu’.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state unit spokesperson Sunil Sethi said that the Rohingya refugees are a security threat and they should be evicted from Jammu.
“The Rohingya refugees are illegal immigrants and they should be sent back immediately. They are also a high security threat,” Sethi told IANS. According to him, around 30,000 Rohingya refugees are settled in Jammu and nearby areas.
Police officials, however, say there is no evidence so far linking Rohingya refugees with terror activities. “There are stray cases of petty crimes like theft or quarrels with the Rohingya refugees,” said a top police officer, who did not wish to be identified.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered and issued identity cards to a majority of the Rohingyas to protect them from harassment and arbitrary arrest.
Syed Hussain, a refugee in Maratha Mohalla near the railway station, said the local authorities were cooperating with those who have UNHCR identity cards. Even the police are not harassing them unnecessarily.
With no medical facilities available, the Rohingya refugees mostly rely on the faith healers from their own community.
Researcher Shabaz Kazmi of Jammu University told IANS that the Rohingya settlements lack basic amenities. “They are living in unhygienic conditions with water sources contaminated by faeces and inhabitants suffering from tuberculosis and scabies,” he said. They have a patriarchal society, where the men work and the women stay at home. Only destitutes and widows work in factories. Kazmi is doing his doctoral degree on the Rohingya refugees.
(Vishal Gulati can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)