Anxiety is growing among thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi migrants who live in Indian Kashmir’s Jammu city over calls by mainstream political parties, including India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, to kick them out and even deport them.
In early February the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party (JKNPP), a local rightwing political outfit, began erecting billboards across Jammu asking the more than 13,000 Muslims from Bangladesh and Myanmar who reside in temporary shelters on the outskirts of town to leave immediately.
“Wake up, Jammu,” reads the headline on one of the billboards. “Rohingya, Bangladeshis quit Jammu. Let us all Jammuites unite to save history, culture and identity of Dogras,” it adds.
Dogras, an Indo-Aryan ethno-linguistic group, are believed to be the earliest group of settlers in Jammu, the only city in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir with a Hindu majority.
“There is a deep sense of insecurity among all of us ever since we heard of these billboards,” Mohammad Sadiq, 40, a Rohingya refugee who landed in Jammu several years ago. He said he fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar following a wave of attacks in the western Rakhine state against Rohingya Muslims.
“We are not staying here out of our own free will. We are here so we can live without fear of being persecuted or worse, killed. Government forces in Myanmar routinely rape our women and kill members of our community and even burn down entire villages,” Sadiq, a daily wage laborer living in a makeshift hut in the Narwal area of Jammu, told BenarNews.
A military crackdown in Rakhine in recent months has caused at least 66,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to southeastern Bangladesh. Newly arrived Rohingya refugees have reported witnessing cases of killings, rapes and acts of arson carried out by Burmese security forces against their people – allegations that Myanmar’s government has denied.
The government of Myanmar does not recognize Sadiq and the other refugees as citizens. Officials in that country often refer to them as “Bengalis.”
In India, the Rohingya are among more than 200,000 foreigners who have fled to India from conflicts in other countries. However, India has no legal framework that recognizes or protects them as refugees.
“We are hated in our country. They don’t want us there. We fear we would be subjected to torture and humiliation if we were forced to return,” said Sadiq, who lives with his wife and three children.
“Our lives aren’t that great here, either. We live in small huts and are barely able to make ends meet. But at least we have some dignity here. I beg the Indian government to let us continue living here,” he said.
Court ruling being violated: JKNPP
Some 10,600 Rohingya live in India, including nearly 6,700 in Jammu, according to figures from the Bureau of Immigration. No figures are available to determine the number of Bangladeshi migrants in the region.
Providing shelter to refugees in Jammu and Kashmir is in violation of a 2016 Supreme Court ruling, JKNPP founding member Bhim Singh told BenarNews.
“The Supreme Court last year passed a verdict that refugees cannot be settled in Jammu and Kashmir, which is mostly forested land. Despite this ruling, the state government has facilitated their settlement and allowed them to avail benefits like electricity and water,” Singh said.
“By raising these billboards, the JKNPP has exposed the double standards of the state’s incumbent coalition government,” Singh added, referring to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-BJP coalition in power in Jammu and Kashmir.
A BJP official said he backed demands to evict Bangladeshis and Rohingya from Jammu.
“These migrants have illegally entered our territory and continue staying here illegally. They must be deported to their native countries at the earliest as the state’s constitution does not allow them to stay in any part of Jammu and Kashmir,” BJP’s Ramesh Arora told BenarNews.
Arora said he spoke with state Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti regarding the issue earlier this week, and “urged her to take steps to deport Bangladeshi and Rohingya migrants.”
“Letting them continue staying means we are playing with the security of our nation. These migrants may be involved in crimes like drug trafficking,” Arora said.
‘Wake up and unite’
Shiv Sena, another rightwing political party, joined the chorus calling for Bangladeshis and Rohingya to be thrown out of Jammu.
“People of Jammu, especially Hindus, wake up and unite to throw migrants out of Jammu,” Dimpy Kohli, Shiv Sena’s Jammu and Kashmir president, said in a statement earlier this week.
But Bangladeshi national Mohammad Subhan, 55, who fled to India in the early 1990s, said he would rather be prosecuted in India than face persecution in his homeland.
“It would be better if the Indian government buried us here than send us back to Bangladesh to face disrespect, humiliation and other forms of excesses,” Subhan, who works as a barber in Jammu, told BenarNews.