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How the world’s largest democracy treats the world’s most persecuted minority

01 July 2019
In November 2016, this madrasa in one of the camps in Narwal, the largest Rohingya settlement in Jammu, caught fire. No one knows the origins of the fire. Most of the houses in the camp were charred, and it was rebuilt from scratch.
hashim badani
In November 2016, this madrasa in one of the camps in Narwal, the largest Rohingya settlement in Jammu, caught fire. No one knows the origins of the fire. Most of the houses in the camp were charred, and it was rebuilt from scratch.
hashim badani

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FIFTEEN KILOMETRES FROM the headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, located in the posh south-Delhi neighbourhood of Vasant Vihar, lie the dusty lanes of the industrial district of Okhla. Near the banks of the Yamuna, the neighbourhood of Madan Khadar houses Muslim migrant communities that provide cheap labour for Okhla’s furniture, sugar and leather factories.

Here, in a neat row of tenements that the locals call Darul Hijrat—abode of the migrant—Mohammad Salimullah’s wife, Fatima Begum, was brewing tea in a five-by-six-foot grocery store. It was December 2017. In the lane outside, the children were concluding their evening games in the mud, singing the popular Rohingya song “Arakan desher Rohingya jaati”—The Rohingya from the country of Arakan.

Salimullah left Myanmar in 2002, fleeing what the United Nations describes as a genocide. His first stop was Cox’s Bazar, the district in Bangladesh that borders the Arakan and today houses the largest refugee camp in the world. Five years later, he pushed further west, into India, drawn by the ideals historically attached to the world’s largest democracy: secularism, peace and prosperity. India, he was sure, would shelter him and his fellow countrymen.

After an itinerant existence spent doing odd jobs in different Indian cities, Salimullah settled in Delhi. Between 2012 and 2017, he started the grocery store, enrolled his three children in government schools and even sent a nephew to university. An uncanny placidity characterised his life in India, a luxury he had not known in Myanmar.

SOUMYA SHANKAR reports on politics, social movements and foreign policy. She teaches journalism at Stony Brook University, New York.

Keywords: Rohingya Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army Modi government Myanmar refugee refugee camps United Nations BJP deportation Jammu Kathua Okhla Haryana Adityanath Rakhine Indo-Bangladesh border Bangladesh
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