On a hot summer afternoon in Jammu, Mohammad Abdullah sold his cooler worth Rs 5,000 for just about Rs 500. He is a Rohingya Muslim who has been living in Jammu & Kashmir after fleeing Myanmar in 2009 at the age of 23.
Abdullah fled Myanmar so that his children could lead a life without persecution due to their religious identity. The Buddhist-controlled Myanmar army has subjected the Rohingya to widespread arson, rape, and mass murder.
For more than a decade, Jammu felt safe, despite hostilities from local right-wing groups. Since the last two years, however, Abdullah and many others are again feeling vulnerable and uncertain about their future as authorities have begun detaining refugees.
“They say our refugee cards are fake,” said Abdullah.
200 Jailed Since Last Year
The authorities in Jammu have arrested and jailed more than 200 refugees since last year. Among them was Hasina Begum, who spent nearly a year in the Hira Nagar jail, separated from her three children and husband. “That filled our hearts with fear,” he said.
On 23 April, last month, she was deported back to Myanmar, the country they had fled from. After her deportation, fears solidified further after Jafar Alam, a Rohingya man, was detained in April and deported on 4 May.
Phone calls and text messages to the Divisional Commissioner Jammu, Raghav Langer (now transferred), and Senior Superintendent of Police Chandan Kohli requesting their comments went unanswered.
“If they pick up children, the parents will be stranded here. If they pick up the parents, the children will be stranded,” said Abdullah said. “We are distressed.”
'They've Orders to Pick Three and Leave Two Behind'
The thought of separation has unnerved the Rohingya, described by the United Nations as the world’s most persecuted people, who fled a renewed persecution — now acknowledged as ‘genocide’ — by Myanmar’s Buddhist-controlled government.
While nearly a million found refuge in the neighbouring Bangladesh, about 40,000 entered India, with about 5,000 to 6,000 arriving in Jammu, a city that had already been a melting pot of displaced people.
For the last two years, Abdullah said, local officials in Jammu have been routinely threatening them with deportation, besides arresting refugees after summoning them for allegedly verifying their UNHCR-issued refugee cards.
Several have been detained during “verification drives” or from the streets, seemingly randomly. But the refugees say the authorities always come with “lists” to the camps. “They tell us they have orders to pick three and leave two behind,” said Abdullah.
On 1 April, about 25 Rohingya men were arrested from the erstwhile state’s Ramban district and sent to the Hira Nagar jail, from which Hasina was sent back to Myanmar, despite having a valid refugee card, as per Human Rights Watch.
Hasina and her family have been living in Jammu since 2012. Last year, she was summoned on the pretext of getting the refugees tested for COVID-19 but was instead sent to jail. “Of all the people there [in jail], they singled her out and deported her,” said her husband Ali Johar.
Living hand to mouth, the family barely met Hasina while she was in jail. Johar has spoken to her just once since her deportation. “There is nobody left in our village back in Myanmar,” Johar said. “We don’t know where the government is keeping her currently.”
'I Had to Hand Over My 2-Year-Old Kid'
Mohammad Miya, father of four, is also among those whose family has been torn apart by Indian authorities in Jammu. On 17 April, his family was in their tin-walled house in Jammu when local police officials arrived with a “list” of three names, those of his wife and two children aged 11 and 6 years.
They were told that their names had figured after their cards showed up some issues. “They barged into our home,” said Miya, sitting outside his shack. He had gone to the mosque when the officials had arrived. “When I reached here, I saw my wife and kids being bundled into separate vehicles.”
For two days, his wife Khatja Begum and the two children were in jail, while the police told him that they were “verifying” their refugee cards. He maintains that the family’s cards are UN-issued and still valid as per the dates stated on them.
When the authorities insisted that their cards were fake and sent them to Hira Nagar jail, Miya decided to hand over their youngest child, Mohammad Rehan, two years old, to jail, along with his wife and two other children. “I handed him over to my wife,” he said. “I told them [authorities] to take the baby to jail as well. How can he survive here without his mother?”
“How can they just arrest three and leave behind three,” said Miya, adding that he was unaware of any legal recourse to reunite with his family. “If the government wants to arrest us, then let them arrets us as per the law. Don't break our families apart.”
Nowhere to Go
The distress of the Rohingya has come as an opportunity for some. For the past month, dozens of local residents have been thronging the camps, hoping to buy everyday necessities like fans and coolers but also blankets, cooking utensils, and anything else that they can buy at throwaway prices.
On a hot summer afternoon, Rohingya refugee Murshid Alam was trying to sell the refrigerator and fan of his small shop in the Kirana Talab refugee camp in Jammu, one of the largest settlements there. Each time a potential buyer entered his shop, they turned back after hearing the prices sought by Alam.
“They are offering Rs 4,000 or Rs 5,000 for a fridge that costs three times more,” he said, disgusted.
In another camp, Dil Mohammad cleared out his entire shack and shop — selling a fan, a fridge, some mattresses and sheets, and packed food items — for a mere Rs 6,000. He refuses to say anything more than that.
After years of working as a ragpicker and laying down internet cables in the city, Abdullah, too, has cleared his shack of everyday items amid the uncertainty, ready to leave at a moment's notice if the authorities arrive in their camp.
'We'll Return, But Send Us Together'
“There is no saying when the government will come for us,” he said, adding that they could survive the hot weather without a cooler but not without each other. “I am worried about my family.”
Abdullah now wants to leave Jammu, but that requires a safe passage out, and money, which the Rohingya are in part arranging by selling their household items.
“We came to this country to save our lives but it’s troubling you [the government] now, so we will go,” he said. “They should at least ensure we are not harassed on the way.”
“There is nobody who raises a voice for us,” he rued. “It is better to die here since we can’t live there [in Myanmar] either, it is dangerous,” he said. “But still, we are ready if they send our family together.”
(Rayan Naqash is an independent journalist based in Kashmir. He tweets @rayan_naqash)