For almost half a decade, hundreds of Rohingya Muslims are living in Jammu almost in pathetic state. Aakash Hassan visits the Narwal ghetto to understand the situation in which Burma stripped them of the nationality and started their ethnic cleansing
Saleem is only seven year old. He spent most of his life in congested Narwal, Jammu. But he introduces himself to be a Burmese, a tiny Buddhist dominated nation that coerced him to flee. Being Musalman is our only fault, he says in broken Urdu.
It was 2011, when Saleem, then two and his family of five siblings and parents came to Jammu and began living here.
“I just have faint memories of that time,” Saleem says, “wasn’t I younger that time?”
Though he has lived his maximum of life in the Jammu Juggis, he is aware that it is not his home. “We live here, and my actual home is there in the Bengal side,” he stresses.
But, children like Saleem belong to nowhere. As they are born as Rohingyas’, they neither belong to Jammu not to Myanmar.
Rohingyas’ are now described as “amongst the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.” Though the Burmese dictators stripped them of their nationality in 1982, the government and the ultra-right forces of the tiny nation started persecuting them only in last eight years. The ‘ethnic cleansing’ continued even though the woman who rules it was awarded Nobel Prize for peace for her protracted battle for democracy.
Thousands of Rohingya have fled from Myanmar and are living in neighboring countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan after facing ethnic cleansing back home.
The atrocities are uncountable, Mohammad Johar, 34, recalls the days he fled with his family. Father of two, Johar had no option but to leave, for the sake of survival.
“It was summer day in 2012,” he recalls, “when military came and set our village on fire,” Johar remembers. “I left with my wife and two kids, one-year-old son, seven-year-old daughter, spending night in the dense woods.”
He had nothing in his possession except some jewelry of his wife.
“Next night, we started moving towards the border, with few other families, on foot through the jungle and met an agent who would cross us through,” Johar says.
He says that there are hundreds of agents who accompany and crossing borders without them is invitation to death. The border crossing in that part of the world is a surging business, the volume of which is linked directly with the quantum of repression that Myanmar military resorts to.
Johar had to give away golden ring of his wife, as the costs for the crossing.
“It was another night walk, crossing through the forest area and in morning we reached the sea,” he says.
Crossing through the sea route illegally, Johar and his family like many others reached West Bengal.
“We were made to cross the Indian border very cautiously by the agent and on next day we were in Kolkata,” he recalls.
From there Johar had to talk to another agent who would make arrangements for their further move.
Selling the rest of jewelry for Rs 15000, he had to pay Rs 7000 for his trip to Jammu. “Our agent managed train tickets for us and accompanied us to Jammu,” says Johar.
But despite being homeless that night at Kolkata railway station was exciting. “It was first time that we had slept under power light,” he recalls the night spend on the railway platform. “This time I realized how big and diverse the world is.”
Back home, they lacked access to basic facilities, like electricity supply, better roads and fast transportation. They have remained traditional farming families insulated by their geography from the modern world.
“We had not seen anything like what we witnessed in Kolkata,” Johar says in surprise, “But we were content and happy with our farming and our lives.”
After all it was their home.
“They would not listen to anyone but would set on fire entire village,” says Mahfooza, who fled from her Myanmar village unlike her husband who couldn’t make it.
“When the mob attacked the village, I was seven months pregnant, but there was no option left,” Mahfooza said, in the melancholic tone, kissing her daughter, Jabeena, who was born in Jammu and is now three years old. “I had to save my life and the baby that I was carrying in my womb,” she says.
With family like Johar, Mahfooza crossed the borders selling their belongings and managed to reach to Jammu in next six days.
Mahfooza, is now living with his brother in Narwal juggies.
“We arrived to Jammu and started living here in the juggies,” says Johar, who is now working in a private guest house.
There are many juggies in Jammu where the displaced Rohingya live.
“It is not good here to live in these juggies,” Johar says, “but can we have any other option.
But even the juggy is not for free. For each Juggy of 11 ft breadth and 12 feet length we have to pay Rs 1000 to the owner of the land every month, says Mohammad Aslam.
But he finds it is still good.
“We have got work here and manage our living,” says Aslam, “more than that, we came to know a world that we never thought exists outside.”
They find people here helpful and supportive.
When a conflagration recently vanished at least 30 juggies, Aslam says, they were surprised to see people helping them.
“Number of NGO’s came here and started taking care of us,” he says.
New juggies were setup for them and were provided ration and blankets. However, Johar is not aware of their future and longs for the day they will return home. “We had no facilities available back at home,” he says, “but it is still our home.”
Most of these refugees lack any document except an ID card from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
But most of them have got mobile SIM cards, some from their workplace and some from other means.
Mohammad Sadiq, 30, teaches in a ramshackle madrassa set in between the juggies. This facility was created by the refugees as their children are not accepted by the schools.
“We contribute and pay Rs 11000 rent for this land where we teach our children, Quran, Urdu, Burmese and other basics,” says Sadiq.
He himself has studied in a Jammu Madrassa and argues that world hardly cares for them.
“We were born in Burma, our grandparents were born there, there is our farming land, but because we are in minority we are being killed on the pretext that we don’t belong to Burma,” he articulates in firm voice. “So world should tell us where from we are. Have we been dropped directly from the sky?”
With the changing world, the new generation is using smart phones and accessing internet and connecting with other Rohingyas, displaced.
Showing the brute pictures on his phone that he has received from whatsapp group All Rohingya people, his eyes turn moist.
“I am surprised how no one cares for us, whether, we are roasted alive, slaughtered, our female folk raped, it hardly matters for world,” he says while breaking down.
He is not aware that how long they will sustain living like this as refugee.
“Today we are here and if tomorrow we are told to leave where would we go and till when we will keep moving from one place to another,” Sadiq says.
Perhaps the questions of Sadiq have no answers here and children like Saleem will still be called Burmese, the land that didn’t accept them.
Off late, there has been massive outpouring in their favour both amongst the Muslims and non-Muslims of J&K. In a select few cases, scores of Kashmiri Muslims have started marrying them as well. Officials are aware of 14 such marriages. A few religious groups have also tried to minimize their suffering by sometimes contributing to their basic well being.
But the major issue that could impact their prospects in J&K is the raging debate over demography. While some right wing groups have already stated publicly that the presence of Rohingyas in Jammu can impact the demographic profile of the temple city, various Muslim groups, despite being generous towards them and sympathetic of their crisis, see a lot of politics in their diversion from West Bengal to Jammu. They are literally the third lot of refugees. The first was hundreds of Hindu families who migrated from Sialkot and other neighbouring belts in 1947 and settled in Jammu. Known as West Pakistan Refugees, they are at the centre of the raging demography debate in J&K.
A few years later, when China invaded Tibet, hundreds of families from Lhasa reportedly having some Kashmiri origin were encouraged by then Prime Minister Pandit Nehru to settle in Srinagar. With them moved hundreds of Buddhist families from Tibet who first reached Dharmshala and later shifted and almost settled in Ladakh.
That could be one of the reasons why the 1200 plus families living in Jammu are under strict watch of the security set-up. Right now almost 10 of them are in jails for various offences and not all the refugees carry the UNHCR cards.