“It became clear that Amir had lived in an open-air prison”: The history of brutality in a Rohingya refugee’s hometown

02 April 2021
Amir Hakim's letter addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner.
Courtesy Suchitra Vijayan
Amir Hakim's letter addressed to the United Nations High Commissioner.
Courtesy Suchitra Vijayan

Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, published recently by the journalist and lawyer Suchitra Vijayan, explores the lives of communities living along India’s borders, and through their stories, presents “a critique of the nation state, its violence and the arbitrariness of territorial sovereignty.”

This excerpted section focusses on Amir Hakim, a Rohingya refugee who fled his hometown, Buthidaung, because of Myanmar’s ongoing genocide against the Rohingya. He was held in Assam’s Goalpara District Jail from 2009 onwards, and released in 2020. There are an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India, living in camps in Jammu, Hyderabad and New Delhi, and over three hundred incarcerated in Indian jails.

Vijayan writes that “Buthidaung Prison, in Amir’s hometown, was full of people arrested and sentenced to up to five years ‘for offenses relating to marriages,’ and for travelling within Rakhine state without proper documents.” 

Amir Hakim wrote the letter on thin, fragile paper, folded many times over, and Imrul Islam smuggled it out of Goalpara District Jail in Assam that also doubled as the detention centre. The letter was a plea, a petition for help to the outside world. Amir is a Rohingya refugee who has been held in Goalpara District Jail since 2009. There are over 300 Rohingya refugees in Indian jails, all of them arrested for illegally entering India. Their crime: fleeing violence and Myanmar’s ongoing genocide against their people, and entering India without legal documents. Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar. Various waves of Rohingya refugees have arrived in India, fleeing violence, since then.

When I read Amir’s letter for the first time, I wondered what legal documents he could have possibly carried. Since the 1990s, the only proof of identity that most Rohingya have had was a “white card”’ issued by the Myanmar government that conferred on them neither citizenship nor rights. The only other proof of their partial existence was a “household list” provided by Myanmar authorities as part of the annual census. The census exercise was a bureaucratic “cordon-and-search” operation, done through the list-making and census-taking.

Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister-at-law, writer and researcher. She is the founder and executive director of The Polis Project, and the author of Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, recently published by Context, Westland.

Keywords: Rohingya Myanmar refugees prisoners