Whenever Zehra* makes an effort to sleep, she remembers how her mother screamed before being killed in Myanmar. The 19-year-old often tosses and turns in bed due to nightmares before she gets up with a pounding heart.
Zehra is among around 7,000 Rohingya refugees living in Jammu and Kashmir’s Bathindi Jammu. Even as the recent crackdown on Rohingya Refugees has caused clutter in India, nothing has improved. Around 40,000 Rohingyas live in India, most of whom live in different slums in Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad, and New Delhi with fear about their future in the country that “dehumanises” them regularly.
Tin sheets sapped with rust and wooden blocks are used to set up temporary structures in which Zehra lives. Days into her marriage, her husband was detained by Indian officials.
“I wish I had died in Myanmar. This everyday suffering has become intolerable,” Zehra said in tears.
“I escaped to live a peaceful life and took buses and trains to find safer refuge. But I haven’t seen a single day of relaxation. I lost my childhood, my parents, and now my husband too. I don’t remember what my husband’s face looks like now. I am living with my mother-in-law. Our eyes visualize my husband at the doorstep each day, but we are powerless.”
Zehra had left her family and had crossed the Bangladesh border with her maternal uncle. Zehra’s uncle assisted her in taking the train to Howrah, where they took a train to Delhi and then to Jammu.
“We have not heard from him for years. We are barely managing our one-time meal and monthly rent to the landowner. Under what chargers he had been under custody, we have not any clue.” Zehra laments.
Zehra and her mother-in-law live in a temporary housing settlement without any male members. Both women look for work as labourers or housemaid. Sometimes, when they don’t find any work, they both beg.
“We used to go for cleaning houses, working as labourers to make two ends meet. But we are not able to find work now as we are being looked at with suspicion. We are being called terrorists or land bandits because of continuous crackdowns by the government. We don’t know what our turn will be inside the prison. Whosoever comes here to help is followed by government agencies and is being questioned for helping.”
On an extremely hot day in September, in a hut made of old blankets, rusted tin, bamboo sticks, and frayed pieces of clothes lives Fatima Begum*, a sun-tanned woman in her mid-fifties, sharing one single bed with her nine daughters, their children and her son who had an otolaryngology surgery.
Begum used to work as a house cleaner after her husband was arrested last year but lost her job due to repeated police crackdowns.
“We have no idea when our turn will be inside the detention centre like my husband,” says Begum.
In March 2021, Rohingya refugees from different camps in Bathindi Jammu were detained for verification of documents and then sent to a “holding centre”.
“Men, women, kids, and pregnant women started running away. Whosoever came into their grip that day landed in jail. My elder daughter and I were there for her five-month-old for verification. When her baby started crying, one female police officer approached us and said run away from this place.”
Begum and her daughter took warning signs from police personnel earnestly and ran away from the spot.
“When we returned to our camps, it was a nightmare. Everyone was weeping, screaming, and veiling for their loved ones. Husbands couldn’t find wives, sisters lost their brothers, and some lost their daughters. It was the darkest evening for us. Me and my daughter’s were waiting for my husband to come, but it was late. We got to hear the news that he was detained too,” she said.
Begum’s son-in-law is also detained, forcing her daughter 20-year-old Safeena* and five-month-old granddaughter to move in with her.
“The world fell apart for me, my mother and our family that day. The government is purposely setting traps for us. In the name of document verification, they set traps for detaining Rohingya Muslims. It has been almost a year since we were not allowed to meet our father or my husband. Before we used to meet him and send him food, clothes, and other basic items. Almost a year has passed, and we don’t know how he is. The last time we heard from him was when he said they are deliberately beating him, torturing him,” Safeena told Maktoob.
A report by Fortify Rights, a rights group, said Indian authorities were beating Rohingya refugees, denying them due process rights and indefinitely detaining them. They released a video of the assault faced by the refugees in the holding centre and urged India to end the crackdown.
“The Indian government must end its indefinite detention of refugees and investigate the violent crackdown and beatings of Rohingya refugees in detention,” said Zaw Win, Human Rights Specialist at Fortify Rights.
“Is it a crime to be a refugee in India or is it a crime to be a refugee who is Muslim? We want an answer. We don’t want to receive our father’s or my husband’s dead body at the end by giving inaccurate excuses like others,” Safeena said.
On 18 July 2023, more than 200 Rohingya protested inside the Hiranagar sub-jail at Kathua, demanding they be either deported to their homeland, Myanmar, or released.
The protest resulted in the death of the five-month-old girl. After security forces fired teargas at Rohingya Refugees attempting to escape a detention centre where they have been held for more than two years.
Fear has gripped Rohingya refugees in Jammu and Kashmir after continuous crackdowns that follow clashes at Kathua, Hiranagar sub-jail. About 270 Rohingya detainees at the centre in Jammu and Kashmir have been on hunger strike since April over their indefinite detention.
The video went viral after being sent to Rohingya activists by detainees at Hiranagar jail, now operating as a holding centre, appears to show women and men amid a mist of teargas.
A young refugee from the camp, who wants to remain anonymous, told Maktoob that Police are intentionally arresting them on inaccurate allegations despite having identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees( UNHCR).
“There should be reasons for arresting people. They have no legal reasons to arrest us. But still, for vote banks or the government’s interests, they arrest people. It was a peaceful protest going inside the jail. The demand was either release or deportation. Police used tear gas, which caused multiple injuries and the death of a five-month-old. If anyone dies inside the detention centre, the family can only see the deceased body after the postmortem. They made our lives hell here. We are Rohingya refugees but Muslims, too; that is our crime.”
In September 2022, the Union government refused to provide documentation for a Rohingya woman and her children to move to the United States. The government said that it cannot grant exit to illegal migrants to a third country as it would be totally against the existing guidelines, and added that there is no binding obligation on them under any international convention or treaty.
“Indian media are characterizing us through the windows of terrorism and threats to national security. In contrast, they carry no such evidence against us. Why can’t they go deep down on the issue when Indian forces violate their law? Who kills people inside jails? We are afraid to move around. We were being called refugees, and our name has been changed to illegal immigrants.”
Government crackdowns on the Rohingya have escalated. On 24 July, six days after the Hiranagar episode, the anti-terrorism squad of the Uttar Pradesh police raided Rohingya settlements in various districts and arrested 74 Rohingya including 10 juveniles.
“We don’t feel safe in India now, nor were we safe in our country. India is the only country in the world that has deported some Rohingya refugees who survived the genocide back to Myanmar. It is as if we are being thrown back into the killing field,” he said.
“If the Rohingya were non-Muslim, I believe they would be treated better by the government.”
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the refugees.
Mashkoora Khan is an independent journalist in Kashmir.