Rohingyas: Second-Class Refugees

The Rohingyas are among the most persecuted people in the world. In India,they are viewed with suspicion and their close association with the Tablighi Jama’at fuels fears of radicalisation. They are denied equal economic opportunities in comparison to other refugees

Sadiq Naqvi & Abeer Kapoor Mewat (Haryana)

Shahzad Khan is one of the 873 Rohingya refugees who have settled in Mewat, one of the most backward regions in the country, which happens to be a part of the National Capital Territory region (NCT). Khan, who is educated, unlike most other Rohingya refugees, has been employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as a go-between with the community in Mewat and the UN body. “I work as an interpreter and a liaison person, relaying the issues of the community here to the UNHCR officials in Delhi,” he says. Others are not so lucky. Most of them work as daily wagers. “Some call us beggars while others think we are Bangladeshis,” Khan points out.

In Nuh, the biggest town in Mewat, inhabited mostly by Meos who are predominantly Muslim, a few refugees who pull rickshaws have been thrashed by the locals engaged in the same business. “They think the Rohingyas are eating into their share,” Khan says in broken Hindi, a language he and other members of his community are still picking up.  

The UNHCR, the body responsible for their welfare, too has given them a raw deal, unlike other refugees. India, which recently gave citizenship rights to ‘persecuted minorities’, the Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan and Bangladesh, is yet to give the Muslim Rohingyas a long-term visa. Not just this, they are also under the radar of the country’s security agencies who believe they could be easily used by the terror outfits in fomenting disturbances. A lot of them continue to be in jail, including those who have been granted refugee status by the UNHCR.     

Meanwhile, before coming to India, Khan spent five years in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, after fleeing Myanmar in 2007. “We left Bouthi Dong village in Block 5 of Rakhine state under cover of darkness,” he narrates, vividly recalling the treacherous journey. Crossing the river that separated the two countries, it took several hours before they crossed at Mongduaw, Khan’s large family in tow. One of nine siblings, he fled with his three sisters, father and mother. Only one of his brothers, a doctor, was left behind. “He wasn’t around when we set out for Bangladesh.”

Khan, a trained Hafiz (someone who can recite the Koran) worked at a madrassa in Bouthi Dong, while his father taught at a private school. He left Myanmar as the Buddhist state’s oppressive policies grew harsher. “If we had a child, calf or a chicken we had to pay for their registration. Movement from one ward to another ward too required permission from the police, even to marry we had to seek permission of the state; in some cases 10 years passed and permission to marry didn’t come.” Khan also narrated how many people from the Rohingya community would just randomly disappear. “My father was growing worried. He suspected that he would also be picked up and killed by the local police,” he says.  

Cox’s Bazar was better than Rakhine but not the kind of place one would run to to escape prosecution. Although ethnically and linguistically close to the local population, even there Rohingyas were perceived as outsiders. To ensure a basic income, Khan learnt how to repair cellphones. He later set up a shop of his own. “Life was not easy. Harassment by the police was routine,” he says. Not just the police, even the locals would look at them as easy targets. “After years of harassment they burnt down my shop one day,” Khan narrates. In 2012, Khan decided to move to India. 

“Some friends had told me about a friendly officer at the border who would take a bribe and let people cross over,” he says. Khan had an old Nokia N95 phone which came in handy with the Border Security Force officer. “I gave it to him and he agreed to let me go.” From the border, he managed to get to Agartala from where he took a bus to Malda Station and then a train to Delhi. He left his parents and other siblings in Bangladesh. “It wasn’t possible for everyone to come together. And everyone thought maybe one member should go and find out how it is in India.”     

There is an interesting background to how these Rohingya refugees ended up in Mewat, which, owing to its record as one of the most backward regions on all development indices, seems like an unusual place for any such migration. Khan told Hardnews how he first heard of Mewat when he was working in the madrassa. He is a follower of Tablighi Jamaat, an ultra-orthodox movement which grew out of the Deobandi branch and began as a call to go back to the teachings of the Koran. The founder of the movement, Maulvi Ilyas, started it from Mewat in 1927.

“Back in Myanmar people believe Mewat to be this one good place which is inhabited by Muslims and one could go and settle there without any problems,” Khan told Hardnews. “I first read about it in this book called Fazail e Amaal in my madrassa,” he recounts. Fazail e Amaal or Tableeghi Nisaab, a book on ‘the merits of good deeds’, was written by Maulana Zakariya Kandhlawi, a Tableeghi Jamaat ideologue. “Even during our stay in Delhi we were told by several clerics from the Deoband seminary who were interested in our rehabilitation and so on to look at Mewat as a possible option to settle down and work.”       

An association with the Tablighi Jamaat is also one of the reasons why these refugees have been treated rather well by the local Muslim population, many of whom are also followers of the Tablighi movement, despite the inherent feeling of them being perceived as outsiders. The land on which the six Rohingya settlements have come up either belongs to the locals or is community land belonging to the gram samaj. The refugee community, with many of its members experts at the art of working with bamboo, have built houses of bamboo and tarpaulin which are shared by up to three families. There are no proper toilets. Locals say some organisations like the Tayyab Foundation, close to the Deoband seminary, are mobilising funds from India and other countries to provide them with basic housing facilities. 

The Tablighi Jamaat and the routine visits by several of its preachers on tourist visas has been a cause of discomfort for the security agencies of the country. A Ministry of Home advisory earlier this year directed the security agencies to deport all Tablighi preachers, for India doesn’t allow religious preachings by foreign nationals. Reports suggest that the agencies believe that terrorists could enter the country in the garb of preachers. 

The association with the Tablighi Jamaat could be a reason why the agencies are wary of the Rohingyas in the country. Although there is no evidence of involvement of these refugees in any incident barring the case of Khalid Mohammad who is said to be a citizen of Myanmar and is suspected to be involved in the Burdwan case, the agencies have tightened their vigil. The only other incident which apparently alerted the agencies was the presence of a Kashmiri man with some Rohingyas who were apprehended at the Indo-Bangladesh border.  

Earlier this year, Deputy National Security Advisor Arvind Gupta held a meeting with senior officials of the agencies to discuss the threat posed by the Rohingyas in India and how to ensure that they don’t get radicalised. In July, the MHA called a meeting of police heads from seven states where the Rohingyas have settled. 

Back in 2013, there were reports in the Indian media attributed to ‘sources’ in the Home Ministry on how the Rohingyas were being sent to Lashkar-e-Toiba training camps in Myanmar. The agencies are also worried at the way Rohingya men are marrying Indian girls especially in Jammu and Kashmir. A similar narrative exists in Hyderabad where the local police is said to be keeping a close watch on the Rohingya refugees for it sees them as a possible security threat. UNHCR officials Hardnews spoke to confirmed that the Andhra Pradesh police may issue a separate identity card to the refugees. “This is really sad. Back in Myanmar they also had a similar card given by the police to keep a ‘check’ on them. What is the need for another card when they already have one,” a UNHCR official says. “There is a belief that a lot of Bangladeshis are coming in as Rohingyas,” says another UNHCR official. This is despite the fact that most of them have UNHCR cards which are only issued after a multi-step verification. A top intelligence official in Assam this reporter spoke to also denies any threat of radicalisation in the Northeast, an area which shares a porous border with Bangladesh and is the only route through which the Rohingyas enter India. “There may be one or two stray incidents like the Burdwan case. There is no big threat as such,” he told this reporter in March this year.       

Individuals and think-tanks close to the RSS, the ideological parent of the ruling BJP government, are also deeply suspicious of the Rohingyas. Praveen Togadia, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader infamous for his hate speeches, wrote a letter to the then PM, Manmohan Singh, and the United Nations, saying that the ‘Jehadi Rohingyas’ were a source of ‘danger and dirt’ in the national capital and hence should be deported. Interestingly, in October 2014 there were reports of how the RSS was trying to build a coalition called the Hindu-Buddhist peace zone with the militant Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The Bodu Bala Sena of Sri Lanka which confirmed such talks is close to Ashwin Wirathu, the face of Buddhist militancy targetting the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The RSS continues to deny it.     

Meanwhile, in Nuh, the local police refuses to be weighed down by the ‘so-called threat perception’. Parmanand Kumar, a police official at the police headquarters in Nuh, believes the Rohingyas are poor and somehow trying to survive and assimilate. “I haven’t come across any instance of these refugees engaging in any illegal activity,” he says. Kumar is responsible for keeping a tab on the Rohingyas in the region. He is in regular touch with people like Khan and gets information on when people leave or if new people come in.  

Khan, too, says the local administration has been quite cooperative. “We haven’t faced any problems from the local police or any other security agency,” he says. Unlike Jammu and Kashmir, where reports claim that Rohingya men are marrying Kashmiri women, in Nuh, there have been a few cases of refugee girls marrying the locals. “The locals wouldn’t marry their daughters to the refugee men. We have no proper jobs, no houses,” Khan says.

Indeed, the identity card given by the UNHCR hasn’t been able to help them in finding jobs or access healthcare. The Rohingyas say the UN agency treats them badly while it continues to pamper the other refugees like the Afghans or even the Chins from Myanmar. The grouse with the UNHCR goes back to 2012 when the anger amongst the Rohingya refugee community culminated in a protest against the agency in New Delhi. The UNHCR was not agreeing to grant them refugee status. The Rohingya settlements in the Mewat region are now also home to many who came from Jammu, another big Rohingya settlement, and didn’t go back after the local Muslim community leader suggested that they wouldn’t be uprooted again.     

“Look at how the UNHCR treats Chin refugees from Myanmar. They are entitled to all the benefits while we get none except for this card,” says Ahmedullah. Like Khan, he also works for the UNHCR. Ahmedullah fears losing his job if he speaks out against the UN agency. “The contract they made me sign bars me from speaking out against them,” he pointed out. However, after a little prodding he agreed to speak. “I am left with no money. My wife barely survived after she was diagnosed with dengue. I had no money for the private hospital,” he recounts. The UNHCR, which otherwise pays an allowance to refugees under special circumstances, doesn’t pay any of the Rohingyas in the Mewat region. Not even those who are not fit to work owing to disability or old age. The refugees claim that the education of their children also continues to suffer because of the apathy shown by the UN agency towards them. “The local schools have denied admission to our children because it says the UNHCR card is not valid,” Ahmedullah points out.    

Officials of the UN agency admitted that Rohingyas are not being looked after well by them. But it’s not because of any bias, they say. There is a serious funds crunch at the agency and the UNHCR is seriously considering stopping the allowances paid to refugees. “For the Rohingyas, we are pushing for long-term visas. If that happens, jobs and other facilities will become easier for them,” Shuchi Mehta, a UNHCR official, said.  

However, the buck doesn’t stop at the UN agency. The policies of the Indian government regarding refugees are arbitrary and the treatment meted out to different nationalities depends on the whims of the government of the day. The UNHCR, for example, is not allowed to go into the camps of refugees from Sri Lanka who are dealt with directly by the government owing to their strategic value. The UNHCR is also not allowed to work in the Northeast and has to seek permission from the government. “India shares a long border and concerns with all the neighbouring countries are different,” says Kuldeep Dhatwalia, spokesperson for the Home Ministry.  

Sometimes there is an element of bias depending on the religious affiliation of the refugees. The India government recently decided to grant citizenship rights to similarly persecuted Hindu and Sikh minorities from Pakistan and Bangladesh. This was done despite opposition from the native Assamese groups who are against ‘Bangladeshis’ settling in their state. The issue could blow up into a major problem as the Assembly elections approach in the important Northeastern state and there are considerable complexities involved. 

The December 2014 Supreme Court order which asked the Assam government to deport all ‘illegal Bangla immigrants’ led to formation of special teams by the state police to round up suspects. The number of people who are yet to prove their credentials is said to be around 38,000 and includes both Hindus and Muslims. “While the Hindus are now safe after the Government of India’s decision, it is the Muslims who would suffer,” says Aman Wadud, a lawyer who is fighting several cases of deportation and says even people who have been living in Assam for more than seven-eight decades are being labelled Bangladeshis. 

He cites the case of Moinul Mollah from Barpeta district in Assam which has recently been admitted by the Supreme Court. While Mollah’s parents and grandparents have been declared citizens of India and have all the documents, Mollah continues to be in the detention camp in Gwalpara and faces deportation unless the Supreme Court intervenes. The deportation has been stayed by the Court temporarily. 

Like Mollah, there are several Rohingya refugees too, who continue to be in jails in West Bengal. “There are people from Nuh who have valid refugee cards and even they have been arrested by the police in West Bengal when they travelled to get their relatives from the border. In such circumstances how do we ask our families stuck in Bangladesh to come here?” says Ahmedullah. 

(The names of the refugees have been changed to protect their identities.)

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2015