“Sometimes I weep when I hear Saare Jahan Se Achcha. It’s hard for us here, as it would be anywhere else. We want to go home, but how do we go back now?” asks Mohammad Yunus, the representative of the Muslim-Burmese refugees called the Rohingyas, who settled in Jammu five years ago. A natural diplomat, his narration of the stark facts of their lives seldom betrays emotion. We are sitting in his hut in the Rohingya settlement in Kassim Nagar in Narwal on the outskirts of Jammu, along with several other men from the community who are unobtrusively squatting on the floor. One of them turns to us and says, “When you’ve been exposed to police interrogations and molestations so many times, the fear sinks deep. That’s why we let Yunus speak on our behalf, though he is much younger. The fear hasn’t got hold of him yet.”
Nearly 1,700 families are believed to have settled in and around Jammu, with several more settlements spread across Punjab, Delhi and Hyderabad. The huts in the Kassim Nagar camp are made of wooden panels, metal, black nylon covers and jute sacks, all put together in a way that can protect the residents during heavy rains. There is no communal bathroom, but next to every other hut, a tiny space is curtained off and used as a toilet. The government supply of water comes once a day for half an hour on two taps (the government, Yunus says, has completely shut down the water supply since 4 October). Two buffaloes and a white horse are tied to wooden poles at the farthest end of the settlement. They belong to the owner of that piece of land, which is being rented out to the Rohingyas for a monthly payment of Rs 500 (or more) per hut.
“When you have no nationality, you can’t even book a train ticket. There’s nothing to write in that little blank slot,” one of the Rohingya men says, as Yunus’ wife cooks omelettes. Meanwhile, his nine-year-old son serves us cups of hot water with two packets of Burmese instant coffee mixture placed neatly on the saucers. Since nationality, or a defined identity, is the prerequisite to securing civil rights, the Rohingyas, having been granted none of the above, have become a vulnerable and legally invisible ethnic group. When Burma gained independence in 1948, Rohingyas were not formally recognised as one of the country’s official national groups. The 1982 Citizenship Act left them further marginalised, officially classified as stateless Bengali Muslims from present-day Bangladesh.
Being rendered stateless, the Rohingyas have been exposed to all sorts of maltreatment, partly because no international law is breached if a criminal act is committed against a stateless person. The mistreatment, as confirmed in various United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports as well as by the Rohingyas themselves, includes forced labour, restriction on freedom of movement, extortion, the absence of residence rights, inequitable marriage regulations, land confiscation and limited access to secondary and tertiary education and other public services. Rohingyas have become one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Their ancestry — originating, according to a 2011 UNHCR report, in people who have immigrated or passed through Burma from the seventh century onwards: Arabs, Moors, Turks, Persians, Moguls, Pathans and the local Bengali and Rakhine — is a bone of contention constantly gnawed at by both the Rohingyas’ advocates and political adversaries. The former tend to assert the immemorial link that the Rohingyas have with Burma, while the latter dismiss any such claims and see them as Bengali Muslims from the Burmese British era. The somewhat obscure arguments on the community’s origins shed little light on why it continues to remain stateless and without rights.
“These men gathered here,” Yunus says, “form a committee that meets once a week to discuss current issues or prepare for the pan-Indian meetings that take place once a month, mostly in Delhi.” The committee’s full name is the Myanmar Rohingya Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Committee, of which Yunus is the vice-president, and its aims are “to unite, solve day-to-day problems, provide food, water, shelter, education, medication, legal aid, solve social issues, have good contacts with NGOs and like-minded people who can help this cause”. Though its registration with the Ministry of Home Affairs failed, it continues to be the Rohingya refugees’ primary political body.
Brusquely getting up from his chair, Yunus goes to an adjoining room and returns with a pink plastic purse. He pulls out a fat pile of documents and hands over a photocopy of a newspaper article from the Daily Excelsior, Jammu and Kashmir’s largest news daily. The headline reads: “BJP demands probe into foreigners residing in J&K”. The party’s state convenor Rajeev Charak is quoted as saying, “These people are suspected to be indulging in many types of criminal activities like robbery, kidnapping and killing… [they] even harm the integrity of the State as well as India.”
To avoid possible deportation, the Rohingya committee petitioned the UNHCR’s Chief of Mission in a letter stating that they had valid asylum-seeker cards. They further said that none of them had been involved in any of the criminal cases listed. They are often visited by the police, the CID and the IB, and found to be guilty of nothing. They live on rented land, and request “that as per international laws and agreements, to which India has also signed, we who have lost everything in our home country, should not be ill-treated and harassed in a democratic country like India”.
“There have been papers written about us,” one of the Rohingya men says, “that we have come here to join hands to fight, so we are being followed and tracked to know where we go and what we do.” He feels helpless, ignored. “How will you put any pressure on the UN if you have no strength? It’s been five years since I’ve applied for refugee status, but they’ve only given me an asylum-seeker card. They have been giving rights to other refugees, like the Afghans or the Somalis, but not to us.”
“Back in 2005,” Yunus tells me, “an English reporter came to Burma. This was at a time when people from Geneva were also visiting to assess the situation. I gave her a letter that spoke about the conditions of our life in Burma. There was a lot of security surveillance back then. Someone heard about this and had people sent out to kill me. I fled my madrassa. First, I went to Bangladesh and from there to Saudi Arabia. In 2008, I brought my wife and child to India with me. Since then, nothing has moved ahead for us. Every time I’ve been at the UNHCR headquarters, I’ve requested for facilities for the children, for their education. Not to this day have the UNHCR officials raised their voices against the government on our behalf.”
Suddenly, it begins to pour outside. Several children strip themselves naked and run out in the open to dance around the newly formed puddles. The men inside the living room are silent. For a few moments, the water is the only audible sound. “This Ramadan, during the rains,” Yunus recalls, “a snake crawled into one of the huts and bit two kids. A six-year-old and a nine-year-old died on the spot.”
For a long time, the Rohingyas did not have a burial ground. Until many men in the settlement agreed to clean a Kashmiri cemetery because they were promised that they could use the land for burials. When a three-year-old passed away, they buried her there. After three days, however, they were forced to exhume her body and carry her back to their camp. The Rohingyas have now found a small burial ground in the forest. Apparently, local people took up the Rohingyas’ cause and stood up to the forest guards. “If they don’t have a place to stay, let them at least have a space to bury their dead,” they argued.
The following day we come back to the settlement around 1 pm to attend the wedding celebrations of one of their girls who is marrying a Rohingya boy from the neighbouring camp. The afternoon ceremonies are to start in three hours. As we enter a faded wedding tent, we are offered potato and onion biriyani, deep fried eggs, spiced chicken, aloo tikkis and potato patties filled with minced mutton. The men have made the chicken, we are told, while the women cooked the biriyani.
The bride is in the hut right next to the tent. Her father, a well-built man with a long grey goatee, invites us inside. Sitting among piles of wedding gifts, he shows me a plastic envelope containing a bulky heap of photocopied documents. One of the photocopies is the bride’s ID issued in Burma in 1992. This card, he says, was a one-way exit pass offered to the Rohingyas by the Burmese authorities, which allowed them to leave the country but not come back. He cannot read, and gives the card to his wife who has “got some education”. Her family “was quite well-to-do in those days”. Contemplating the stark contrast between what their lives might have been back home and their current situation, this sweltering room and the frayed photocopies they must cling onto, I look up and spot a white horse cantering past the tent.
It’s 4 pm. The men and the children have gathered under the tent, putting the wedding gifts in the middle. They will escort the bride to the groom’s settlement, along with the gifts as soon as the afternoon namaaz is over. “The weddings here last for an entire day,” says a man sitting next to us. “Whichever girl is chosen by the family, the boy agrees. There are a few who have chosen their own partners, which is also welcome. There is no such parent who would kill the love of their child.”
At 4.45, the men go to their makeshift mosque and offer prayers. Soon the women come out of the hut with the bride covered from head to toe in a black tunic embroidered with silver. The frenzy heightens. A teenage boy appears to be recording the event with two mobile phones, but one is used to play music. From high-pitched Bollywood songs, he switches to low-key instrumentals to soundtrack the emotionally charged bidaai. It’s live editing at its best.
Across the road, a grey Maruti car, especially rented for the occasion, is waiting for the bride. Initially, the women accompanying her sit inside, but realising their collective mistake, a hand reaches out for the bride and pulls her in.
Following the last namaaz of the day, after 9 pm, the nikah ceremony takes place.
The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee, said, in reference to the stateless Jews in World War II, that it was evident that one could do as one pleased with the stateless. In her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she put it more clearly: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships — except that they were still human.”
Though the paths to statelessness are intricate, the ways out of it are clear from numerous human rights treaties and conventions. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone “the right to a nationality”, while the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (India ratified it in 1979) states that “every child has the right to acquire nationality”. Along the same lines, but more specifically, the issue of statelessness is addressed in the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, according to which state parties must take preemptive measures in situations in which persons may be rendered stateless, and those born on their territory should be given access to means of obtaining citizenship based on the jus soli principle.
By putting some of these political imperatives into effect, the problem of the stateless Rohingyas could be dealt with, and partially solved within one generation by keeping in mind that Rohingya children in Jammu, for example, outnumber the actual immigrants, their parents, by almost two thirds. On the other hand, a more pertinent perspective on the Rohingya dilemma is offered in Article 1 of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as a person “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it”.
However, most of these prescribed remedies for statelessness fall short of recognising the sheer scale of everyday problems that refugees encounter. Their children are born on the run or in unregistered refugee camps, far from government hospitals and necessary bureaucratic apparatus. Documentation is lost or is altogether non-existent, and if they don’t possess valid documents, many stateless persons are denied political asylum and are sometimes jailed in the countries to which they flee. They are then deported to yet another state that also detains them. In the process, they often fall prey to human traffickers and their families or communities are forced to pay ransoms.
Not having a nationality prevents them from legally working, travelling, marrying, receiving healthcare, having access to education and registering births and deaths in any country they go to. It is no different for the Rohingyas in Jammu. The fastest and most efficient temporary solution would be to alleviate the daily challenges through local and international NGOs, until a more permanent political solution is found.
After the bride is accompanied to the groom’s camp, we walk towards the city. One of the Rohingya men runs after us, shouting raspily: “My life is over. I just want a better life for my children!” It is the same phrase I found quoted in a report from a camp in Malaysia in the early ’90s. For the embattled Rohingyas, time, it seems, has stood still.