Critics call plan to relocate Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to 6,000-acre island “terrible”.
Jammu, India-administered Kashmir – Abdul Kareem and Zahida Begum run a small corner store in Bhatindi, an affluent residential area of Jammu city in Indian-administered Kashmir.
When they arrived here in 2012, after fleeing massacres in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the residents of this mainly Muslim neighbourhood of the largely Hindu city rallied around them, offering the young couple a space from which to run the shop.
Now they live in a cramped room beside the shop with their three sons, aged two, six and eight. The children do not attend school, although they say they are hoping to send the oldest one this year.
The family are Rohingya Muslims – one of the world’s most persecuted ethnic groups – but they say people here have been kind.
According to figures shared by the Development and Justice Initiative (DAJI), a non-governmental organisation that works with the UNHCR, and based on UNHCR data, there are an estimated 10,000 Rohingya refugees living in India. Approximately 5,700 live in and around the city of Jammu in Indian-administered Kashmir, although some sources claim the number could, in fact, be much higher.
But in early February, the Rohingya refugees started to notice billboards appearing around the city. “Rohingyas, Bangladeshis quit Jammu,” they declared, asking residents to “Wake up … save history, culture and identity of Dogras,” referring to the Hindu-majority community of Jammu.
Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party, a right-wing Hindu political party, whose leader, Harsh Dev Singh, has made public statements about a conspiracy to engineer “demographic changes” in the region, is behind the billboards.
His theories have found some resonance in a state fractured by the politics of demography; where a general mistrust exists between residents of the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and those of the southern Jammu region, where Hindus form two-thirds of the population.
“There is alarm among the general masses [in the city],” Singh told Al Jazeera about the presence of the Muslim Rohingya refugees.
The rumblings began last year, when India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs a coalition government in Indian-administered Kashmir with the regional People’s Democratic Party, began to raise the issue.
Last month, a member of the BJP, Hunar Gupta, petitioned the Jammu High Court, seeking the identification and deportation of Rohingya refugees. Arguing the case for Gupta, senior advocate Sunil Sethi, who is also the chief spokesperson for the BJP in the state, said there had been a sharp increase in the number of undocumented migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
“Our intelligence agencies have warned that Rohingya in India could potentially be exploited by terror groups in Pakistan. We are asking that they be resettled elsewhere in the country,” Ravinder Raina, a BJP legislator in the state, told Al Jazeera by phone.
In January, Mahbooba Mufti, the state’s chief minister, told the state assembly that Rohingya are being kept under “strict surveillance” and “no instance of radicalising” has so far been reported.
Now the Rohingya refugees and their advocates fear that after being rendered stateless in their homeland, they may face a second displacement as they become embroiled in a larger conflict in a region that has been wracked by decades of armed rebellion.
Warily scanning the street outside his office, Ravi Hemadri, who runs the DAJI, explains: “We are very apprehensive about the situation.”
There is no sign outside the office, which is housed inside a white bungalow – it was taken down a week ago when the tensions started to build in Jammu – not far from Abdul and Zahida’s shop.
The shop draws a steady stream of visitors, many of them Rohingya refugees visiting the DAJI office.
Thirty-year-old Abdul says he was jailed by Myanmar’s security forces after he married Zahida, his childhood sweetheart, in Buthidaung township of Rakhine state. Rohingya in Rakhine state must secure the permission of the local government before marrying, but such permission is rarely granted.
“It was for love,” he says softly, reflecting on his month in jail, during which he says he endured forced labour and daily beatings.
When he was released, the couple fled to Bangladesh. For five months, Abdul worked on a construction site in Leda at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, near the border with Myanmar, laying bricks and plastering.
But, seeking better wages and a less hostile environment, the couple decided to move to India. So they paid a Bangladeshi trafficker about $300 to smuggle them across the border into the Indian state of West Bengal.
Zahida’s mother and older sister were already living in Jammu city. They had fled Rakhine state eight years ago, after they say one of her sisters was abducted by the security forces.
“We could not even protest as they took her away,” Zahida, 24, says with a shrug. Abdul also has a missing sibling – the family has not heard from him since 2012, when he left for Bangladesh.
But even away from politics, the Rohingya refugees face daily struggles to survive. Pappu Camp is one of the many Rohingya settlements in Jammu city.
Here, more than 100 families live cheek by jowl in shanties built with recycled materials like tarpaulin sheets, bamboo, cardboard and plastic. They have little or no access to education, healthcare and sanitation.
Most of the men work as day labourers, at constructions sites and in local factories, earning anything between 350 to 500 rupees ($5-7), a day. Some of the women work in walnut factories. An air of despair hangs over the place.
Noora Begum, a mother of three arrived from Maungdaw, one of the worst-affected districts of Rakhine, the day before. People in the camp surround her, asking questions about their homeland.
“What is happening in Arakan? Tell us everything you saw,” asks Noorjehan, who has lived in Jammu for almost a decade and works in a pencil factory to support her four children.
Noora, who appears to be in her early 40s, replies haltingly in her mother tongue.
“They were killing people in the village next to mine. I was so scared. We ran away in the middle of the night,” says Noora.
Nearly 100,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar since last October when the military launched a deadly crackdown in the wake of an attack on an army post.
Noora lost her husband a few years ago. She has no savings and worries that she’s too old to start over again. Noorjehan reassures her that it is possible; she did it herself.
“In our culture, women don’t go out and work. But I’ve had to work for my children,” Noorjehan explains.
“And yet, look at my life. Look at how we live. Should any human be living like this?” she asks, pointing at the squalid conditions that surround her.
According to the UN refugee agency figures from 2011, there were about 204,600 refugees and asylum seekers in India. But, although India has a long tradition of accommodating refugees from neighbouring countries, it does not have a cohesive refugee policy and is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees.
Sahana Basavapatna, a Bangalore-based lawyer and researcher on refugees in India who has worked with Rohingya refugees, says that India can no longer sit on the fence on this issue. India must introduce legislation, she says.
“We insist that we are generous hosts, but we make it so difficult for people to live here. These people are not a burden, they are not taking away anything. They add to the local economy,” the lawyer explains.
Just a short distance from Pappu Camp is Jamaat Ali Camp, home to nearly 80 Rohingya families. Last November, a fire started in one of the shelters. It gutted the entire settlement, and four refugees were burned to death.
Now the camp looks different from the other refugee settlements. It has new houses with shiny tin roofs.
Zahid Hussain, an elderly refugee who is wearing a white kurta and lungi (the attire for most Rohingya men), describes how the camp was rebuilt.
Funds were collected from residents of the city who dropped their donations in a bedsheet left on the ground outside the settlement.
“Everyone gave money, people are generous in India,” he says.
A Rohingya woman standing beside him with a child in her hands asks: “Is it true, will we have to go from here as well? Where will we go?”