The struggles of being Rohingya women

Photograph by Nitya Choubey for The Caravan.
06 March, 2024

“When I was pregnant, I would not eat the entire day. Because if I eat, I will have to go to the toilets. And that is a problem here,” Minara Begam, a 25-year-old Rohingya refugee who lives in Delhi’s Kalindi Kunj Rohingya camp, told me. She runs a tiny shop in a small passage in the camp. The camp houses around 53 Rohingya families, and does not have a single toilet. “You can survive without food for a day, but can you survive without peeing?” she said, and added, “No one understands our necessity.” 

Minara Begum is one of roughly twelve hundred Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar—a Buddhist majority nation—who survived the state’s brutal crackdown and fled to India in 2012. The Kalindi Kunj camp is the largest Rohingya refugee camp in Delhi, but it operates with barely any support from the Indian government. India is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention of 1951—which defines who are refugees, what are their rights, and who can be granted asylum.

Minara Begum is a “no-one” for Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. She is a Muslim woman living in the fringes of Delhi, one among 70 other women with meagre healthcare, food, water, and sanitation.  “Earlier we had government (Delhi Urban Shelter Board) toilets but burglars broke it. Now, we go to the jungle or the barren ground one by one,” Shahinoor, a 10-year-old girl from the camp, told me. Before Shahinoor could continue, an electric fire broke out in the adjacent camp. With practised ease,  she briskly went down the handmade wooden staircase connecting her bunker bed to the exit door and instructed me to do the same.

The Rohingyas settled in Kalindi Kunj post-2012. In 2018, the entire Kalindi Kunj camp site burnt down in the middle of the night. Refugees reported that in the run-up to the incident, they had been repeatedly harassed by police and government officials.  Whatever possessions they had managed to build were lost in that fire. After the fire, the refugees relocated to Madanpur Khadar, a kilometre away from Uttar Pradesh state border, on a temporary basis. Three years passed by and tiny personal toilets were yet again constructed. On 12 June, 2021, some men identifying themselves as UP irrigation department officials entered the camp and informed the Rohingyas that they had illegally encroached the land owned by the UP irrigation board. Later that night, a fire broke out at the camp, decimating it. The refugees returned back to Kalindi Kunj campsite, and still stay there.

Not letting refugees station at one place, by bulldozing and blazing their camps, and keeping them from basic necessities like water and toilet is another way of killing them. The Indian state, in spite of a gory history of refugee migration during partition, is hostile to Rohingya refugees.

“You must have seen the Jal Board tanker on the road. It can come any time, 5 am in the morning or 10 at night.” Kulsuma, Shahinoor’s mother, told me just after she finished her daily chore of collecting six containers of water. Her husband is a construction worker while she takes up a few stitching gigs to cover at least one meal for her children. Like her husband, many in the camp site report kidney stones because of consuming less water daily while others suffer water borne infections like diarrhoea, gastrointestinal diseases and typhoid, regularly.

Kulsuma recalled the slaughter of some family members by the Myanmarese army in 2012, and felt guilty about not being able to send help back home. She had walked her way into India,  with her children. “Since the time we have come here, we hear people saying that Modi will shoo us back to Burma. If someone says that to me, I sometimes tell them firmly that I don’t want to go back there,” Kulsuma’s other daughter, Kohinoor, told me.

India’s lack of a refugee policy allows the BJP-led, Hindu-nationalist government to pick and choose who can seek asylum in the country. The union home ministry, headed by Amit Shah, once referred to Rohingya refugees as “termites.” In 2022, when the Delhi government proposed that Rohingya refugees be moved to Economically Weaker Section government housing, the union home ministry refused to allow the rehabilitation  on the ground that they were “illegal foreigners.” The Indian state’s disdain for the Rohingyas is ostensibly based on the security risks posed by Muslim immigrants and the economic burden of these “foreign illegal migrants.” 

Shahinoor belongs to the latest generation of Rohingya refugees, some of whom were born in India. Her school admission is taken care of by a UN Human Rights Council Refugee Card, held by almost all the camp residents. Sitting in her navy blue school uniform and finely braided hair with red ribbon, she said, “I don’t want to go to Burma. I go to school everyday. There are some Burmese students there, while others are Indians. We all play together, and all have fun.”

However, when asked about her homeland, Minara Begum’s face turned gloomy. “Whenever I get time, I see the internet for stories from Myanmar, the barbarity going on, there. Seeing that makes me teary. I wish I could live there. I never thought I would end up here.