Without Home, Without Hope

  • Ishtiyaq Sibtian Joo
  • Publish Date: May 6 2017 9:44PM
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  • Updated Date: May 12 2017 9:16PM
Without Home, Without Hope

                                                         Photo: Kashmir Ink

Driven from their home in Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims came to start a new life in Jammu, only to find it’s no better 

A fortnight ago, a small shanti colony in Bhagwati Nagar area of Jammu was lit up with decorative lights to celebrate the wedding of Noor-ul-Islam. The 26-year-old is a Rohingya refugee and is settled in Bhagwati Nagar with several other families of the persecuted Muslim minority from Myanmar.

The colony was again lit up on the night of April 16, only this time by a fire that reduced almost the entire colony to ashes. The “mysterious” fire that gutted seven of the nine shanties started at around three in the night. So intense was the fire nobody could save anything from their shanties, except themselves. 

Noor-ul-Islam had spent his savings to get a few things for himself and his new bride. And his sister, who had been evicted by the state authorities along with other refugees from their shanties in nearby Gol Puli, had moved all her belongings to Noor’s home. The fire destroyed everything. 

“Honestly, I don’t know what I will do now. Whatever little savings I had left after my marriage are also gone. Being refugees we don’t have bank accounts. So we keep our savings in our juggies. Like everything else, my savings also got burnt in the fire,” says Noor-ul-Islam, who works as labourer.

The refugee families had been dreading such a calamity as many attempts had been made by “unknown people” over the previous month to burn down the refugee shanties in the adjacent DC plot. 

The victims, though, are quick to deny the allegation that they were slack in preventing the tragedy. “Along with our plot owner Farman Ali, we used to sit on guard every day until midnight. But we are labourers striving hard the entire day to make ends meet. We need some rest to go back to work the next day,” says Mohammad Noor, whose shanty was also gutted.

The refugees had been living in Bhagwati Nagar for six-seven years. Most of them make a living doing manual labour or rag-picking. In the past month, there have been many attacks on the Rohingyas in Jammu, making the community anxious about its future. 

The victims of Bhagwati Nagar said the police visited them the day of the fire and advised them to leave the area and shift to Narwal. “They are trying to safeguard their jobs. Instead of assuring us protection, the police advised us to move from here,” says another victim Mohammad Ayub, 3. “They asked us to move to Narwal. They said that area will be safe for us because a majority of our people reside there.”

Left with no choice, several families have started migrating to Narwal. “We can’t take chances with our lives. They had made several attempts to burn our juggies in the last one month. We are lucky to still have our belongings. We want to live, so we are going to stay among our own people,” said Ali Zuhar of the DC plot, loading his belongings onto a lorry.

In Jammu, the Rohingya refugees are concentrated in Narwal and Bathindi areas. In Narwal, most stay on Jammat Ali plot, Pappu plot, Kallo plot, Veeru plot and Kargil colony. The plots are owned mostly by people from the Gujjar community and each houses 60-80 shanties. The Rohingyas pay Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 as monthly rent for erecting their shanties on these plots as well as Rs 2,000 for water and electricity.

Not that Narwal is any safer. A fire in November left five refugees dead and destroyed 56 of the 84 juggies on Jammat Ali plot, leaving many families roofless through several weeks of winter. The cause of the fire is still a mystery as no police investigation was carried out. 

According to official records, less than 6,000 Rohingyas are currently living in Jammu and Kashmir. “At least 5,743 Burmese are staying in the state and no instance of radicalisation has been reported among them so far,” Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti had told the assembly in a written reply to a BJP MLA’s question during the last winter session.

It’s believed that violence against the community escalated after February when the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party erected billboards reading: “Rohingyas, Bangladeshis quit Jammu.” 

“Everything was fine until that billboard came up. It seemed as if the board changed our image overnight. Those who used to meet us with kind hearts turned their back on us,” says Hameedullah, a community worker for an international NGO that works with the Rohingya. 

Earlier this month, a Rohingya scrap dealer Karimullah was beaten up and his shop ransacked by a group of 10-12 people. The attackers also warned of dire consequences if the community did not leave Jammu.

If this was not enough to scare the community, Bajrang Dal members, brandishing swords and tridents, took out a massive motorbike rally in Old City on April 11. The stated aim was to strengthen the movement to evict Rohingyas from Jammu. “We have pledged to drive Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis out of Jammu,” Bajran Dal leader Rakesh Sharma said.

No surprise then that fear has gripped the community. “We never thought India would become worse than Burma for us. We don’t understand why they are harassing us when we never did anything wrong to them. We believe they are harassing us to make us leave the place,” said Moulana Younis, who is one of the “group of elders” who make decisions for community. He also runs a grocery store for the community in Narwal.

“We have been living here peacefully for years. No one had any problem with us until recently. Plot owners were earning around 40,000-50,000 rupees a month as rent from our juggies. But now they are harassing even the plot owners so they make us vacate,” Younis said.

Many can’t make sense of why they are being targeted. “Half of this country’s population is refugees. If we go by the bizarre logic of the right-wing groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal, then half the country’s population has to leave,” says Farman Ali, plot owner of land in Bhagwati Nagar where seven out of nine shanties belonging to Burmese refugees got burnt in a “mysterious” fire.

“India has refugees from 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars. Ask them all to leave then. You are using Dalia Lama for your vested interests so the people from Nepal and Tibet are offered jobs and accommodation across the country. But refugees from Myanmar who have suffered so much in their country are forced to leave the India. You can’t use different yardsticks for the same category of people,” Farman Ali reasoned.

All is not lost though for the refugees. Several organisations have started raising their voice against the violence being inflicted on the Rohingyas. Some Muslim organisations have even warned the state government of “consequences” if the Rohingyas are asked to leave Jammu.

“We have warned the government that if they make the Rohingya Muslims leave Jammu, then the native Muslims here will demand the eviction of every non-state subject from Jammu,” said Sharif Sartaj, president of Muslim Action Committee.

“For us, a refugee is a refugee, whether it is a Rohingya or a West Pakistan refugee. If the government has problems with less than six thousand Muslim Rohingyas, then they should consider the eviction of other refugees, primarily those from West Pakistan living in the state, whose number is in lakhs,” Sartaj demanded.

He alleged the West Pakistan refuges and people from other states of India who have illegally settled here are receiving all kind of assistance in preparing ration cards, Aadhar cards and in purchase of state land, but life is made difficult for Rohingyas who are living in their shanties.

“Their only problem with refugees from Burma is that they are Muslim,” alleged Sartaj.

Muslim Unity Council, which has members from various Muslim schools of thought, including Sunnis, Shias, Barelvis and Deobandis, too, discussed the attacks on Rohingya at a recent meeting.

“Rohingya Muslims are not illegally staying in Jammu. They have proper permission from the Indian government and documentation from the United Nations Humanitarian Commission for Refugees,” said Prof Zahoor-ud-Din, who presided over the meeting. 

Prof Zahoor-ud-Din said his organisation is not demanding the permanent settlement of the Rohingya in Jammu. “If you want to send them to any other country, then do that. However, it should be done properly. Besides, if we can tolerate people who have come from Pakistan and sought refuge in India, then what is the problem in tolerating Rohingyas?” he asked.

The council is now planning to meet the chief minister to discuss the issue. “It is strange that with so much happening to the Rohingyas in Jammu, the state government is quiet. Not a single statement has come from them expressing concern over the attacks on the Rohingyas. So, we are going to meet the chief minister and ask what they are planning to do with the community,” Prof Zahoor- ud-Din said.

While that happens, Noor-ul-Islam has to sleeps in the open near his burnt shanty along with other men from the neighbourhood, while his wife spends her nights on a raised platform with other women. They are living at the mercy of the plot owner Farman Ali, who is providing food for all nine families whose juggies were burnt. 

Noor is planning to send his wife to her parents in Narwal until he can build a new shanty for the family, which includes his parents. But there is a worry that is keeping him up nights: how will he manage Rs 14,000 needed to build a new home?