On 6 March, the Jammu police detained 155 Rohingya refugees in the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The refugees, who were living in camps in Jammu city, were sent to a sub-jail which had been converted into a holding centre in Hiranagar, a town in the Kathua district. They were first called to the Maulana Azad stadium in Jammu for the verification of their credentials and COVID-19 tests. Mukesh Singh, the inspector general of police of Jammu, told the Hindustan Times that those who were detained did not have “valid travel documents required in terms of section (3) of the Passports Act.” He added, “After sending them to the holding centre, their nationality verification will be done as per the prescribed norms. Following that, the process to deport these illegal immigrants will be initiated.”
On 11 March, the Delhi Police also detained 71 Rohingya refugees, who were protesting outside the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the capital, against the detentions in Jammu. According to a human-rights activist who works with Rohingya refugees, between 24 March and 31 March, the Delhi Police detained atleast 19 more refugees. The activist, who did not want to be named, said that 12 people were detained in Delhi on 24 March—six from Shaheen Bagh and another six from the Madanpur Khabar colony. Four days later, two people were detained from the Nizamuddin station. He added that in another round of detentions on 31 March, one person was detained from Shaheen Bagh and four people from the Madanpur Khabar colony.
The verification drive and detentions in Jammu came in the backdrop of an order from the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. The court was hearing a 2017 public interest litigation filed by Hunar Gupta, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s law and legal affairs wing in J&K. The PIL had sought inquiry to “identify all illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh.” In its order, the court asked the government to state what measures it is “taking or proposes to take to identify and to take proper action with regard to the illegal immigrants.” Gupta minced no words about why he filed the PIL. “I raised the concern of illegal Rohingyas living in sensitive Jammu area which is close to Pakistan border,” he told me. “These people should be deported or at least thrown out of Jammu and Kashmir. They were brought to Jammu and Kashmir to change the demography of the region.”
On 26 March, the Supreme Court reserved its verdict on an interim plea which sought the immediate release of the Rohingya refugees detained in Jammu. The plea was filed on 11 March by Mohammad Salimullah, a Rohingya refugee in India, as part of a 2017 petition which sought a restrain on deportation of Rohingyas. During the hearing on 26 March, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta argued on behalf of the centre that Rohingyas are “not refugees” and are “illegal immigrants.” Mehta added that the government was verifying their nationality with Myanmar. “We are always in touch with Myanmar and if they confirm so then they can be deported,” Mehta said. “We cannot send an Afghan national to Myanmar.”
There are an estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India, living in camps in Jammu, Hyderabad and New Delhi. They crossed the border into India fleeing persecution in Myanmar. However, India is not a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, which details the rights of refugees, and the legal obligations on countries to protect them. As evidenced by Mehta’s statement in court, India views Rohingya refugees as illegal immigrants.