Jammu, J&K: “Are you from the media? Can you help me meet the Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police chief? I’ll plead with him to let my kids meet their mother,” a panic-stricken Mukhtar Ahmed (49) asked this journalist, a day after the J&K police launched a drive to deport Rohingya Muslims who were staying in India without valid documents. Ahmed’s wife Rehana Begum was one of the 168 Rohingya refugees who are sent to a ‘holding centre’ in the Kathua district of south-east Jammu on March 6, 2021. Their identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were invalid, that’s why.
A government official told Indian Express that the nationality of those detained will be verified and the procedure to deport the refugees will be initiated. Whether they will be sent back to Myanmar or elsewhere, PD Nitya, superintendent of police, Jammu north, did not respond to this query by 101Reporters.
Meanwhile, the representatives of the UNHCR have discussed the issue of Rohingya detention with the J&K government and are planning to hold another meeting with the local authorities in Jammu to placate the tension, an India Today report states. The leaders of Rohingya communities in Jammu have also filed a plea in the Supreme Court to release the detainees, informs Ibrahim, whose wife Sajida is lodged in Hiranagar sub-jail — the holding centre. “We’re hopeful that the country’s top court will come to our rescue,” he adds.
Families await reunion
As uncertainty over their future continues, an atmosphere of fear and anger has descended on Kiryani Tallab, a colony on the outskirts of Jammu where 300-400 Rohingya families stay, including Ahmed’s. Every time a camera person or a journalist visits the colony, the residents come rushing to them to seek the whereabouts of their relatives, who were taken away without prior intimation, they claim. Others stand outside their hutments, sobbing and looking distraught.
“My son and daughter (aged 5 and 6) have been constantly asking where their mother is. What should I tell them?” asked Ahmed as tears rolled down his cheeks. “What kind of a drive was this that children as young as five and elderly citizens as old as 80 have been separated from their dear ones?” questioned Ahmed, who works as a cleaner at a hotel.
“In our country (Myanmar), our relatives were killed like animals but here in India, we’re not even being treated like animals, who also have the right to live in herds. Please shift us to jails so that we can live with our family members,” sobbed Ahmed.
Nitya denied the allegation that the J&K police hasn’t taken measures to reunite the family members. “We have reunited the children with their mothers. We’ve also provided them with their clothes that we collected from their colonies,” he stated.
Not all children though. Salamatullah, who is the leader of the Rohingya community living in the Kaloo Plot-2 area of Kiryani Tallab, said that he is taking care of five children since their mothers were rounded up from Jammu’s Nanak Nagar locality and sent to the Kathua holding centre.
“After the arrests were made, the police personnel did approach us and demand that we hand over our children to them. But we have lost our faith in the J&K police. Even our children were not ready to go with them,” he informed.
Shabikunnahar got separated from her elderly father Molok Sohar and mother Madina Khatun in that drive. Both her parents suffer from breathing disorders. “If the UNHCR and the Indian government cannot settle us here in the Jammu plains, please settle us somewhere in the mountains or along the riverside. We’ll not demand government jobs. We’ll earn our living as labourers, manual scavengers, and street vendors but please let us happily live with our dear ones,” pleads the young mother.
Initially, the family members of the detained Rohingyas could not meet or talk to them but now they are now allowed to speak to them over the landline phone, informs Ibrahim.
'Give time to extend ID validity’
There are over 40,000 Rohingya Muslims in India; of which, 5,743 are living in Jammu & Kashmir, mainly in Jammu. Most of them survive by selling dry fishes from Bengal, selling vegetables, doing manual scavenging or engaging in labour work.
The call to send Rohingyas back has been brewing in the Valley for a while now. In 2017, Mehbooba Mufti, the then Chief Minister of J&K, had claimed that 17 FIRs were filed against 37 Rohingyas for their involvement in various offences, some of serious nature. One Chotta Burmi from the Rohingya group was reported to have received the patronage of Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind behind the Mumbai 26/11 terror attacks.
Concerned over Rohingya refugees’ involvement in crimes, everyone from the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party to the regional party Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, and the trade union body Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry have been demanding the eviction of Rohingyas from the state.
In the recent drive, the police detained the Rohingya refugees whose identity cards as issued by the UNHCR had expired. Such as that of septuagenarian Lalu Bibi from Kiryani Tallab. Her children Imam Hussain (40) and Mohammad Zohar (33) feel their mother was arrested unfairly.
“The ID card issued [to our mother] by the UNHCR expired in April last year. Usually, Rohingya refugees go to New Delhi every year to get the validity of their documents, including their ID proofs, extended. But this year, due to the spread of COVID-19, the office of the UNHCR was closed. Hence, the J&K government thought this was a good time to detain and deport us. Had the government given us some time, we would have got the validity of our identity proofs extended,” said the siblings.
The UNHRC cards issued to these Rohingya refugees are valid for a year or two, and sometimes they are extended for only a few months.
“Until we get the validity of our documents extended, we demand that our relatives be sent back to their temporary homes in Jammu,” the brothers demanded.
‘We get nightmares’
To live under the fear of constant displacement and state terror is incomprehensible to many of us. But Abdul Samad, a Rohingya refugee in his 30s, tells us what it feels like, “I have suffered three (minor) heart attacks just over the fear of being deported back to Myanmar.”
Samad doesn’t have a lucrative job in Jammu yet he wants to stay back at all costs. “Whosoever is involved in crimes should be dealt with strictly as per the law of the land. But those living in peace should not be treated the same way as criminals,” says Samad, who works as a manual scavenger at Jammu’s railway station.
Dil Mohammad (59), a Rohingya refugee leader in Jammu, feels the same. He fled the persecutions by the army and the Myanmar government and came to India in 2011. After a stop-over at Uttar Pradesh for a year, he moved to Jammu along with his in-laws. However, the J&K administration’s deportation drive is starting to threaten the life he and thousands of Rohingyas like him have slowly and painfully built, he says.
“We get nightmares when we see the Jammu media building anti-Rohingya narratives. Where do you think we shall go? To Myanmar? If Myanmar is the only place where the UNHCR and the Indian government wants to send us to, then please kill us here only, in Jammu," Samad said plainly.
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