On 28 September 2018, Dharmendra Kumar, the director general of the Railway Protection Force, issued a confidential note to all zones of the Indian Railways. The operations of the Indian Railways are divided into 16 zones across the country, and these zones are further split into a total of 68 divisions. The RPF is a central body responsible for ensuring the security of railway passengers and property across these zones. According to the DG’s note, “input” indicated that “huge numbers” of Rohingya were travelling “in groups along with their families.” The Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority from Myanmar. They were rendered stateless by the Buddhist-majority country’s campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.
The DG’s note said that members of the Rohingya community are boarding south-bound trains from “every corner” of north-eastern states in order to ultimately reach Kerala. It advised the zones to take “precautionary measures” in coordination with law-enforcement authorities to avoid “any untoward incident.” The note further asked the zones to sensitise the RPF and the railway staff about this input and put them on “maximum alert.” Soon, as the media caught wind of this advisory, news headlines had phrases such as “Rohingya refugee influx,” an “exodus to Kerala,” and a “move in large numbers towards the South,” and so on.
Between 26 September 2018 and 20 November 2018, the Indian Railways issued at least four such advisories to its zonal branches. This period coincided with election season in five states which were slated to go to polls at the end of that year. Among these were Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—three major states in the Hindi heartland that the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled at that time.
On the election campaign trail, Amit Shah, the BJP president who is now the union home minister, vociferously targeted illegal immigrants. It was at a rally in Rajasthan on 22 September 2018 that he first said that illegal immigrants in India are “termites.” He reasoned that “they are eating the grain that should go to the poor, they are taking our jobs.” His verbal attacks against “ghuspethiye”or infiltrators, as he calls them, increased in number and aggression, creating a paranoia about the number of such persons entering India.
Less than a year later, in June 2019, the Indian government admitted that there is no “accurate data” on the number of Rohingya living in the country. Moreover, according to responses to a right-to-information application that I filed, at least 27 divisions of the Indian Railways had been unable to identify even a single Rohingya in their trains as of July 2019. These included divisions from four southern states.