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Rohingya Refugees Dream of Safety in Jammu

By Umar Sofi

On February 10 this year, as dawn broke in the city of Jammu, the Indian Army base camp in Sunjwan witnessed a suicide attack by militants. While the encounter took place, all eyes were on the legislative assembly session that was to be held on the same day.
The speaker, BJP’s Kavinder Gupta – who visited the camp gates in the morning – said without hesitation in the assembly, “Had these Rohingya refugees not been around the camp, the attack would not have taken place.” Soon, primetime media in the country began a campaign against those who they decided were the attackers. Rohingya refugees living near the camp were labelled as terrorists, motivated from across the border.
Mohammad Saleem, a 48-year-old Rohingya refugee from Pangi, Myanmar told The Wire, “As the night of February 10 approached, a protesting crowd marched towards our refugee settlement area. First stones were pelted and later, the mob attempted to burn us alive in the dead of the night.” The Rohingya claim that it was the Jammu and Kashmir police who foiled this attempt and saved them. “Jammu seemed like a haunting of Myanmar that day,” Saleem sighed.
The arson attackers were stopped by the police that night, but never arrested. Since then, the refugees – referred to as ‘parasites’ by many in Jammu – are living in constant fear.
Abject poverty is a part of life for the 8,000 refugees who have been living in Jammu since about 2009. The educated ones had earlier taken jobs at some private enterprises, while others worked as daily labourers. However, this came to an abrupt end. Local labourers’ associations, along with the Dogra Front and Shiv Sena, started a massive agitation in late 2016, claiming that the Rohingya had taken their jobs, leaving them unemployed.
“We are a very small number in a state of 15 million people. This was nothing but a motivated agitation,” said Rasheed, a Rohingya refugee who works as a ragpicker now, and alleged that he has been mistreated by the police. “When we started to collect rags, we were summoned by the police and accused of theft. Since then, it is routine to spend several hours inside the police station often, and then be told by a grinning SHO to be careful next time.”
The Rohingya also claim that people come, search their shacks and question them about any lost goods, even if a theft has taken place somewhere far away.
Last year, on September 10, the Jammu and Kashmir police reportedly detained 13 Rohingya refugees. They were allegedly beaten badly because the carcass of a dead cow was found on some empty land near a refugee settlement in Channi Himmat. At least 13 refugees, including two women, were allegedly assaulted in the Channi Himmat police station. Some were even detained for 11 days. They were never produced before a court, IANS reported.
“We were beaten with rods and belts. We wailed, asking the police how someone can hurt the religious sentiments of a native when he is a refugee himself, that too one who has been exiled for his religious identity. But they kept torturing us,” Noor Hussain, who was arrested along with others from outside their mosque, told The Wire.
“My infant son kept crying, but the policemen showed no mercy,” said a woman who was detained with her four-day-old infant.
Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party had protested after the carcass was found.
When The Wire contacted the Channi Himmat police station about the incident, officers there said to reach out to concerned SHO Sajjad Mir, who was the in-charge at that time, and had been transferred immediately after the incident.
Mir said, “I am not posted at Channi right now. It is someone else, you should ask him about anything that happens within the station premises.” When told that the officers there referred this reporter to him, he finally said, “Yes, I had detained some three Rohingya.” Was it three or 13? “Yes, somewhere around that only. I have a career spanning over 20 years. I don’t have time to keep a note of who I detain and for what crime,” Mir said and hung up.
Refugees say they have also faced accusations of flesh trade and drug trafficking, leading to multiple arson attacks by unknown men. “We have now assigned duties to each other on alternate days, to keep a vigil at night,” said Rafiq, a refugee who runs a tea stall outside the settlement area. He said, “A few days ago, on September 13, a journalist from Republic TV entered into a scuffle with a Gujjar local here. Soon, the journalist stepped into a van and went away. Later on, most local newspapers and even some national media channels ran a video wherein the same journalist, at a police station, claimed that 150 Rohingya had attempted to murder him, though he was not even touched by us. We are thankful to the local Gujjar who confessed to his involvement in the scuffle and went behind bars himself, to save us.”
Major local newspapers like the Daily Excelsior and even the national Times of India had labelled the Rohingya as the suspected attackers. Zee News even ran a campaign against the Rohingya based on this questionable news – while also showing a video in which the journalist can be seen in a fight with a single man, a local Gujjar.
“Purana sukoon cheen liya Modi ke logon ne (Modi’s people have snatched away our sense of peace),” added Rafiq in his broken Urdu. Survival in Jammu has become much harder after 2014, according to him, though many Rohingya refugees have been here since 2009, previously unquestioned.