No Direction Home

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

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
01 July, 2019


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.

On 9 August 2017, during question hour at the Rajya Sabha, MV Rajeev Gowda, a Congress member from Karnataka, asked whether the home ministry had framed a policy with regard to Rohingya refugees in India, and whether reports stating that the government planned to deport forty thousand Rohingya refugees were true. Kiren Rijiju, then a junior home minister, responded that the Rohingya were “living illegally in the country,” and that the government had “issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas,” using its powers under the Foreigners Act, 1946.

Mysterious fires at Rohingya camps have broken out several times over the past few years. On 15 April 2018, Rohingya shelters in the Darul Hijrat neighbourhood in Okhla were destroyed in a fire. A member of the BJP’s youth wing claimed responsibility in a tweet, but has since deleted his Twitter account. money sharma / afp / getty images

As Rijiju acknowledged in his response to another question asked that day about the government’s Rohingya policy, over sixteen thousand Rohingya had been registered as refugees by the UNHCR. The designation of refugee—which is obtained after a process that can stretch for years, including at least one exhaustive interview at the UNHCR’s Delhi office—is supposed to protect them from “harassment, arbitrary arrests, detention and deportation.”

Rijiju, however, would have none of that. “We can’t stop them from registering” with the UNHCR, he told Reuters a week later. “But we are not signatories to the accord on refugees. As far as we are concerned, they are illegal immigrants. They have no basis to live here. Anyone who is illegal migrant will be deported.”

In the weeks that followed, the lives of the Rohingya refugees living in cramped accommodations—most of them in Delhi, Jammu, Haryana, Rajasthan, Hyderabad and West Bengal—began to change. In Okhla, Salimullah told me, “We feel a difference in the places we go to every day. People look at us differently after the government threatened to deport us.”

Soon after 3 am on 15 April 2018, Salimullah awoke to find that Darul Hijrat was on fire. Fire trucks arrived almost an hour after the fire started, and took four hours to contain the blaze. By dawn, almost all the houses were gutted. Most residents had lost everything they had scrounged together during their peripatetic existence, including the few photographs that remained from their days in Myanmar and the crucial documents that identified them as refugees.

No one was able to ascertain the source of the fire. However, within hours, Manish Chandela, a member of the youth wing of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, tweeted, “Yes we burnt the houses of Rohingya terrorists.” The following day, he again tweeted, “Yes, we did it and we do it again #ROHINGYA QUIT INDIA.” Chandela has since deleted his Twitter account.

As they picked up what remained of their lives, Salimullah and his family began to realise that India had changed. This was no longer the India whose democratic values attracted persecuted peoples from throughout the subcontinent. This was the India of Narendra Modi.

THE WORLD’S LARGEST DEMOCRACY is home to around three hundred thousand refugees from 28 different countries, including stateless people. However, as Rijiju pointed out, India is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention of 1951, or the 1967 additional protocol relating to the status of refugees, and offers no legal protection for refugees. The fate of its refugee communities has historically been determined by the politics of the day.

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world’s most persecuted minority, have mostly entered India in three waves, each of them in reaction to a ratcheting up of persecution in Myanmar—during the 1970s, in 2012 and in 2017. There has also been a steady trickle between the waves. In 2015, the Rohingya caught the attention of the international media as the ill-fated “boat people,” when several thousands were stranded at sea after repeatedly being denied entry by the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, none of which have signed the refugee convention either.

India’s strategic regional interests have put the Rohingya in an unenviable position, as their persecution continues in the context of geopolitical competition between India and China, both of which want more influence in Myanmar. On 25 August 2017, Rohingya insurgents armed with knives and homemade bombs attacked over thirty police posts in northern Rakhine State. In response, the military and Buddhist mobs burned villages and killed hundreds of Rohingya, leading to over four hundred thousand people fleeing into Bangladesh. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, called the crackdown “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Meanwhile, India’s foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement promising to stand firmly behind Myanmar in its “fight against terrorism.” The statement said nothing about Myanmar’s history of violence against the Rohingya.

Since coming to power, in 2014, the Modi government has sought to refashion domestic and foreign policy to suit its worldview. Its antagonism towards the Rohingya community is a sign of India’s drift towards Islamophobia, ultra-nationalism and communal disharmony under Modi. Its well-oiled propaganda machinery routinely denigrates the Rohingya as intruders who have no place in the country. This hatred is institutionalised, and given legitimacy by the top leadership. In September 2018 and again in April 2019, Amit Shah, the BJP president and now the home minister, called the Rohingya “termites,” and promised to remove them if the BJP was returned to power, which it did in this year’s general election.

“It is the normal politics of the BJP to spew venom against Muslims,” the lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan told me. “Here, they are doing three things: calling them Rohingya Muslim instead of refugees, calling them terrorists when there is no proof of this allegation, claiming they have come here to eat into our resources. These three strands of propaganda fit perfectly into the general communal politics of the BJP.” In Modi’s India, the Rohingya face near-complete ghettoisation. Their movement is carefully monitored, and they are not allowed to leave their designated camps. Their conversations with relatives in Bangladesh and Myanmar are under constant surveillance by Indian intelligence.

In Jammu, home to India’s largest concentration of the Rohingya, the community has learnt to maintain a stoic silence in the face of offensive propaganda and mob violence. In the early hours of 3 June this year, nearly a hundred and fifty houses in the Maratha Basti in Jammu, which is home to many Rohingya as well as other migrant labourers, were gutted in a mysterious fire, similar to the one in Okhla. It was the third such fire in the slum in the past three years.

The UNHCR issues identification cards to refugees, but the cards do not make much difference to the Rohingya, since the Indian government does not view them as grounds for legal residency. hashim badani

On 2 September 2017, a group of Rohingya living in the village of Mujedi in Haryana’s Faridabad district were planning to sacrifice two buffalo calves for Eid. They were attacked by a group of locals, who assaulted four men and molested two women before releasing the calves. “They said if we tried to tell the police or complain about what happened to us, they would come and kill us at night,” Mohammad Jamil, who was one of those attacked, told me. A UNHCR representative later helped them file a first-information report, charging “unidentified persons” with voluntarily causing hurt, rioting and other offences. As is increasingly the norm in such cases, nobody was arrested.

Jamil and the 45 Rohingya families living in Mujedi fled to Shahin Bagh in Delhi following the attack. For many of them, who had migrated to Mujedi from Delhi, this marked an ignominious return. Such circuitous migrations are becoming routine. Fearing mass deportation and further attacks, many Rohingya have begun fleeing back into Bangladesh—according to official statistics, over a thousand have done so since the beginning of this year.

FOR SALIMULLAH, Rijiju’s comment signalled an existential threat for his community. He resolved to fight the policy of mass deportations in court. Represented by Bhushan, Salimullah and Mohammad Shaqir, another Rohingya refugee, filed a petition in the Supreme Court, in August 2017.

Their petition argued that Rijiju’s threat violated the constitutional rights to equality, life and liberty, as well as India’s obligations under international law and treaties. The government had claimed in an affidavit that it was not bound by the principle of non-refoulement—which prohibits states from sending refugees back to where they face oppression—since it had not ratified the refugee convention. The petitioners responded that the principle was enshrined in the international covenant on civil and political rights, the universal declaration of human rights and the 1967 declaration on territorial asylum, all of which India had signed. They noted that the Supreme Court had upheld this principle as part of the right to life, enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. They argued that they were not “claiming the rights of an illegal immigrant to reside in India,” but the application of fundamental rights to all persons, including refugees.

In response to the government’s contention that it had intelligence inputs that the Rohingya have links with terror groups, the petitioners argued that “there is not a single FIR registered against the members of the Rohingya community so far, in any matter that would jeopardise national security.” They quoted the home minister of Jammu and Kashmir, who had told the state’s legislative assembly earlier that year that no Rohingya had been found to be involved in militancy-related incidents.

Unlike the Tibetans or Sri Lankan Tamils or Chin Buddhists from Myanmar, who were all granted asylum by Indian governments in the past, the Rohingya have never been granted refugee status. In 2012, some two thousand Rohingya squatted outside the UNHCR office for a month, asking for recognition as refugees, but their demands were never met. Instead, the government granted a few Rohingya—most of them settled in and around Delhi—long-term visas, ambiguous documents that allow them to stay in the country and enrol their children in government schools. These visas can be revoked, or made redundant, through a change in government policy, much like the one Rijiju was proposing.

The Supreme Court bench hearing the petition has not yet passed a judgement. However, on 4 October 2018, another bench refused to entertain a plea by Bhushan to halt the deportation of seven Rohingya refugees, who had been arrested in Manipur under the Foreigners Act. Human-rights groups have denounced the verdict. “Given the ethnic identity of the men, this is a flagrant denial of their right to protection and could amount to refoulement,” Tendayi Achiume, the UN special rapporteur on racism, said in response. Aakar Patel of Amnesty International’s India branch called the decision “a dark day for human rights in India” and “bereft of empathy.” He added that it “negates India’s proud tradition of providing refuge to those fleeing serious human rights violations.”


“WHEN I SAY WE FEEL FREE, it is compared to Burma that I feel free,” Sabber Kyaw Min, one of the key organisers of the 2012 UNHCR protest, told me. We met in a crowded street in central Delhi, and he was scanning our surroundings to make sure nobody was eavesdropping. His voice never rose above a whisper. “I am allowed to live here temporarily, so I cannot afford to rile up the authorities, even if things happened,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

In the years after the protest, Sabber started the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, to advocate for the community’s rights in India. He was grateful to India for giving him refuge. Despite his community’s many grievances, he said, “This can never be worse than Burma.”

Sabber grew up in Myanmar when the Rohingya there were dealing with what he called “soft genocide,” during the late 1990s and early 2000s. “The problem with the Western media is, you think our issues began with the genocide of 2012,” he said. “It goes back many years.”

At the start of 2017, there were a little over a million Rohingya living in Rakhine State. Among the many minority ethnicities in Myanmar, the Rohingya form the largest Muslim group. They trace their ancestry to Arab traders who arrived in the Arakan over a thousand years ago, and form a Sufi sect of Islam that has lived in the Buddhist-majority Rakhine State for generations, with a distinct identity, language and culture that are closer to the Bengali-speaking Muslims of neighbouring Bangladesh than their Rakhine compatriots.

Sabber Kyaw Min was a key organiser of the 2012 protest at the UNHCR office, and now runs the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative. shahid tantray for the caravan

Ethnic tensions have characterised the Arakan since at least the late eighteenth century. They were exacerbated by British colonial authorities, who supported Rohingya insurgents before their conquest of the region, and encouraged the mass migration of Indians into the newly conquered territories. In subsequent censuses, the Rohingya were classified as “Indian Muslims,” which did not help their claim to citizenship after Burmese independence. When the British left, in 1948, they armed the Rohingya as the region descended into communal violence, with Rohingya villages being attacked in Rakhine-dominated areas and vice versa. The Rakhine were, in turn, supported by the Burmese Independence Army, which had received aid from Japan.

The postcolonial government of Burma—which changed its name to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 1989—denied the Rohingya citizenship by refusing to recognise their existence as one of the country’s ethnic groups. Instead, it chose to refer to them as infiltrators from Bangladesh. Between 1965 and 2011, the government engaged in various rounds of ethnic cleansing—through institutional discrimination via restrictions on education, family planning, employment, freedom of movement, expression and political participation, as well as direct military intervention using murder, arson, loot and rape as tools. Rakhine State remains Myanmar’s least developed province, with a poverty rate of 78 percent, more than double the national average.

State violence has led to several mass exoduses, most notably in 1978, 1991, 2012 and 2017. The Rohingya diaspora spread across South, Southeast and West Asia, as well as Europe and North America, and has continued to fight for the emancipation of their people back home, but to little effect. The persecution of the Rohingya has not eased even after the transition away from military rule. The current head of the Myanmar government, the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, faces widespread condemnation—and calls for the revocation of her Nobel Prize—for her inaction in alleviating their plight. On 12 November 2018, Amnesty International stripped Suu Kyi of its Ambassador of Conscience award, with its secretary general writing to her that “we are profoundly dismayed that you no longer represent a symbol of hope, courage, and the undying defence of human rights.”

BORN TO A LOWER-MIDDLE-CLASS FAMILY, in the town of Buthidaung in Rakhine State, Sabber was enrolled in school only at the age of 11. He dropped out six years later to work in his father’s grocery store. When he was a teenager, the military would round up young Rohingya men in the state, forcing them to perform unpaid, indentured labour—“akin to slavery,” he said—and to fight insurgents in the states of Chin and Mon.

Sabber was sent to fight for three months at a stretch, without pay. He had to subsist on half a meal a day. The crackdown in Rakhine State had intensified during the 1980s, after the militant Rohingya Security Organisation began recruiting among the refugees in Bangladesh. Young boys suspected of having links to the militant group were taken away, and often never returned. Sometimes, their mutilated bodies were found in the Mayu river.

One spring evening in 2002, as Sabber returned home from the shop, he found a few soldiers accosting his uncle and grandfather. They blinded his grandfather in the left eye with a knife, and wounded him in the leg—punishment for refusing to give them free cigarettes and vegetables from their farm. When the family complained a few days later, the military lined up a hundred men and asked Sabber to identify the culprit. The soldier who had blinded his grandfather was not present. Instead of dispensing justice, the military fined the family a hundred thousand kyat—around seventy-five dollars.

A few days later, during the harvest festival of Bihu, Sabber went to his friend’s house for a Bollywood movie marathon. That evening, as they watched Shah Rukh Khan romancing Kajol in a mustard field during a song sequence in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Sabber told his friends that he would go to India and meet Khan someday. Everyone laughed.

Even though it was a holiday, a government-imposed curfew meant that all Rohingya had to be home before dark. At 7 pm, two of Sabber’s friends insisted that they drink a round of beers that one of them had illegally obtained. Sabber refused, and walked back home. The next day, he found that his friends had gone missing. One of them was found floating in the river a few days later.

Sabber figured it was time to leave. He packed his bags, sold his sister’s gold necklace and started on the perilous journey to Bangladesh. Like many Rohingya, he bribed a string of soldiers on a known route to cross the Naf river on the border. He reached Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar, which was then still a smallish camp, but now, with over a million Rohingya living there, has grown to become the world’s largest refugee camp. Sabber’s maternal uncle, whom he had never met, was living at Kutupalong at the time.

Life in the camp was not great. There was no work, and the Bangladeshis had little sympathy for the Rohingya, even though they spoke a similar language and practised the same religion. The Bangladesh government had also begun arresting unregistered refugees, and Sabber grew increasingly fearful. After working in a hotel for less than a dollar a day, he called another uncle, who was working in construction in Saudi Arabia. The uncle sent him money to make the further journey into India.

INDIA AND BANGLADESH share a half-fenced 4,096-kilometre border. The state of West Bengal, which shares over half of this border, has been the preferred destination for undocumented immigrants crossing over from Bangladesh. The Rohingya generally do not settle in West Bengal, preferring to push further away from the border and the constant surveillance of the police and paramilitary forces there.

Around eighty-five thousand personnel of the Border Security Force are posted on the Bangladesh border. However, PSR Anjaneyulu, the inspector general of the south Bengal frontier unit of the BSF, told me, in December 2017, that they had intercepted only ten to fifteen Rohingya since the August crackdown, probably because most refugees were being stopped earlier, while crossing into Bangladesh from Myanmar. Ever since the crisis came to light, he said, “what we have noticed is several of the Rohingyas in India wanted to move to Bangladesh or Burma.” Anjaneyulu acknowledged that the BSF had been facilitating this return movement to Bangladesh and Myanmar, while denying previous reports that violent measures had been used to deter immigration into India.

In January this year, a standoff between the BSF and its Bangladeshi counterpart, the Border Guards Bangladesh, ensured that 31 Rohingya remained stranded at the border for three days. Both forces alleged that the refugees were trying to cross into their territory from the other side. India ultimately agreed to take them, and sent them straight to detention.

Many Rohingya detained by the BSF are charged under the Foreigners Act, and sentenced to up to two years in prison. Most continue to languish in jails and children’s homes for years after their sentences are over. Currently, in the eastern states of West Bengal, Assam and Manipur, over two hundred Rohingya are being detained. The UNHCR used to make attempts to secure their release, by conducting interviews and issuing refugee cards. But activists working with the refugees told me that this practice has now stopped.

SABBER WAS CONVINCED that crossing into India would be easy. After all, he told himself, over three hundred thousand undocumented immigrants cross the porous border every year.

On 4 October 2018, seven Rohingya refugees, who had been arrested in Manipur, were deported to Myanmar. The UN special rapporteur on racism called the deportation “a flagrant denial of their right to protection” that could “amount to refoulement.” Reuters

On the day of the crossing, Sabber donned a three-piece suit and packed a suitcase. A bus dropped him at the border town of Benapole. At a tea stall near the crossing, three men sat discussing how to reach Kolkata. It was impossible to cross the border without a passport, they told him. There were unfenced areas that they could use, but these were far away.

But there was a way through. For around a hundred and twenty dollars in local currency, an “agent” gave Sabber a blank Bangladeshi passport, without a name or photograph, and helped him through the border crossing. Sabber flashed his passport at the Bangladeshi officials, who recognised the agent and let them pass.

In India, the Benapole crossing connects to Petrapole, a heavily manned checkpoint through which nearly half the annual trade across the border passes. Petrapole is the largest land customs station in Asia, and the only land crossing in southern Bengal. Here, immigration checks were stricter, but the agent told Sabber and his companions to bypass the immigration line, after bribing some officers to look the other way.

Soon after crossing into India, Sabber removed his business attire and slipped into casual local clothes—a shirt and a chequered lungi. Once he reached Kolkata, he boarded the first train to Mumbai, where he worked in a Bengali restaurant by day and took autorickshaw rides all evening across the city, loitering outside the bungalows of his favourite Bollywood stars. He eventually ran through the money his uncle had sent him, and decided to head north to the capital.

In Delhi, he made a living selling Chinese-made goods to foreigners at the Nizamuddin dargah. He earned ten to twenty dollars a day, and soon rented a one-room house in western Delhi. He also diversified his business, selling mobile-phone parts and buying a stake in a small restaurant.

Around this time, Shah Rukh Khan visited the dargah to promote his 2010 film My Name is Khan. Sabber jostled with thousands of other “devotees” to catch a glimpse of the star. He still remembered the promise he had made to his friends. In order to convince them that he had met Khan, he morphed an image of the two of them standing on a beach, and emailed the photo to his friends. They believed him for a while, he said, before eventually calling his bluff.

In the meantime, Sabber taught himself Hindi and English, and married a Rohingya girl. They had three children. After working for the UN as a translator for a few years, he set up the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative in his home after the 2012 protest.

Identification cards issued by the Myanmar government and old photos are often the only remaining connection the Rohingya have to their homeland. hashim badani

“My children don’t have citizenship of any nation in the world,” Sabber told me. “They have no language, no culture, no identity. In this whole wide world, what is their place? I am fighting so that they have a home.”

Sabber’s activism has intensified since Rijiju’s deportation threat. He sleeps three hours a night. He collects reports from Myanmar every day, as well as articles about the international community’s stance on the crisis, which he catalogues on his website, which has repeatedly been hacked by pro-Myanmar cyber warriors. He reaches out to the media, human-rights organisations and non-profits to spread awareness about the plight of the Rohingya in India.

“This is a debate in our community,” he told me. “Some people are saying if they beat us, we should retaliate with bigger force. Someone else says we should be absolutely silent.” He said that he wished he had the power to speak out about the hardships the Rohingya faced in India, but still retained faith in the idea of India. “If seventy percent Indians weren’t wise, genocides would have happened here, like Burma,” he said. “Hindus here have been very kind to us in the past.”


INDIA IS NOT A SIGNATORY to the refugee convention, but this does not mean it can deport all the Rohingya back to Myanmar. It is bound by the principle of non-refoulement and, in any case, the Rohingya are not wanted back in Myanmar, where they are not recognised as citizens. In the absence of a comprehensive legal framework, India’s treatment of refugees remains ad hoc.

Shekhana Parveen entered India from Bangladesh, in 2005, as an 11 year old, accompanied by her mother and seven siblings. As they attempted to cross over at an unfenced part of the border, the children got separated from their mother. The siblings were taken into custody by the West Bengal police, who took them to the Sukanya child home in Kolkata. Their mother, who made it to Jammu, heard from members of the community that the children were being held in a juvenile home, and returned to Kolkata to look for them.

Instead of reuniting her with her children, the police beat her mercilessly. “The dogs were let loose on me,” Parveen’s mother told me. “The police didn’t believe I had children. I was pleading with them to unite me with my children, and they kept telling me I was in India to sell my children.”

The police charged her with sex trafficking, and jailed her in Dum Dum for the next eight years. The children, the youngest of whom was six months old, languished in the juvenile home for nine years. Parveen, now 21 years old and married to a Kashmiri Muslim, recounted her horror. “I used to cry all day, with nobody to listen to us,” she said. “I smashed the glass in the prison.”

Identification cards issued by the Myanmar government and old photos are often the only remaining connection the Rohingya have to their homeland. hashim badani

The children and their mother were finally released, with the help of human-rights lawyers, after their father arrived from Myanmar with the necessary documentation.

The UNHCR issues identification cards to newly arrived refugees, but the cards do not make much of a difference to the Rohingya, since the Indian government does not view UNHCR recognition as grounds for legal residency. Nevertheless, the Rohingya cling to the cards as life preservers, especially when the police come knocking.

Historically, the Indian judiciary has often intervened in support of refugees. As Salimullah and Shaqir’s petition noted, the Supreme Court has declared that Articles 21 and 14, which grant the rights to life and equality under law, are applicable not just to citizens, but to everyone residing in India.

During a January 2018 hearing on their petition, the government argued that it did not want “India to become a refugee capital.” Tushar Mehta, the additional solicitor general, argued that the foremost constitutional duty of a sovereign nation was to ensure that the “demographic and social structure is not changed to their detriment.”

The judges, perhaps recognising the potential consequences of sending the Rohingya back to Myanmar, seemed inclined to stay their deportation, Bhushan told me, “but the government’s counsel desperately pleaded not to pass that order.”

India’s treatment of the Rohingya stands in stark contrast to its history with refugees. When Pakistan expelled ten million Bengali Muslims in 1971—one of the largest refugee migrations in human history—India willingly took them in. Since the 1950s, India welcomed the Dalai Lama and over a hundred thousand Tibetans, despite Chinese opposition. The country has opened its doors to Afghans, Sudanese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Burmese Christians and Pakistani Hindus, among others.

Even as the government threatens to deport the Rohingya, it is granting citizenship to thousands of Buddhist Chakmas and Hindu Hajongs who fled to India from East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—during the 1960s. It has also started naturalising Tibetans born in India between 1950 and 1987. In 2015, parliament amended rules to allow long-term visas to “minority” communities, namely Hindus and Buddhists, from Pakistan and Bangladesh. The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which lapsed without being passed in parliament after strident protests throughout the country’s northeast, proposed granting citizenship on the basis of religion, contradicting India’s secular constitution.

The inference here is that the danger to India only comes from Muslim immigrants, whether from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Indian security agencies say that Pakistan-based terror networks, most notably the Lashkar-e-Toiba, are working with the Rohingya in India. Ataullah abu Ammar Jununi, the founder of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, which carried out the August 2017 attack on security forces in Rakhine State, was born in a Rohingya camp in Karachi. However, there is little evidence that India’s Rohingya community is engaged in terrorism, with the government failing to cite any cases of Rohingya actually being caught engaging in terror activities on Indian soil.

Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament from the opposition Congress party, called India’s position on the Rohingya a betrayal of its refugee policy. “There is no country in the world that feels obliged to take somebody who is a genuine national-security threat,” he told me, “but to say that even the women, children and innocent men who’ve come from that particular community should be expelled as a security threat defies all reason.”

Even if, as some suggest, the government’s threat to deport the Rohingya is little more than political red meat for its base, the heightened rhetoric sets a bad precedent, a former senior spokesperson for Amnesty International told me, on condition of anonymity. “The fact that India is making these statements publicly is scary and irresponsible enough,” the spokesperson said. “It is dangerous and unbecoming of a regional power.”

For the Modi government, the Rohingya are an easy target. Unlike the Sri Lankan Tamils, they lack support in the international community. Apart from that community, the Rohingya are the only refugee community in the country that is not concentrated in India’s biggest cities. Since the UNHCR gives the Rohingya minimal or no monetary support, they wander from place to place, in search of subsistence.

Geopolitics also plays a major role in the attitude of the government. India would not dare mete out such treatment to Afghan refugees, for instance, who, despite being Muslim, are also crucial to India’s decades-long strategic partnership with Afghanistan. As India seeks deeper economic ties with Myanmar, there is little incentive for it to support that country’s outcasts.

Myanmar plays a central role in the Modi government’s Act East policy, which includes a proposed highway connecting India to Myanmar and Thailand, and a road-river-port cargo project known as the Kaladan Multimodal Project. The petrochemical-rich Rakhine State is a focal point in the competition between India and China to extract Myanmar’s resources. India is also working closely with the security forces in Myanmar, with which it shares a border of 1,643 kilometres, to target Naga insurgents operating from bases in Myanmar.

In November 2017, 135 UN member-states voted in favour of international intervention to help protect the Rohingya in Myanmar. Among the key dissenters were India, which abstained, and China, which opposed the resolution. In their competition over influence in Myanmar, though, China seems to have the upper hand, selling the country everything from weapons to consumer goods, and using it to project its naval power into the Indian Ocean.

SINCE 2012, around one and a half thousand Rohingya refugees have been camping in dingy, ramshackle settlements in the Mewat district of Haryana. One day in December 2017, I visited the camps to meet some of them.

One of the first refugees I met was a 50-year-old man with a gaunt face. He was sitting outside his tent, and when he found out that I was a reporter, he started whispering into his mobile phone. He was calling the authorities, he told me, once he had hung up.

“The duty of the police is to keep tight surveillance,” he told me later. “Whoever visits our house, and especially if it’s the media, we have to immediately call the CID and inform them. If we don’t, they hound us for days. Even if our relatives come to visit, we have to give a blow-by-blow account of who they are and what they are doing.”

Soon, the sound of motorbikes could be heard in the distance. Two Honda motorcycles pulled up near the entrance of the camp, and four men in civilian clothes hopped off and surrounded the old man. They were from the crime-investigation department of the Haryana police.

The old man smiled at me. “India is lovely,” he said. “We are very loved here.”

The CID men joined our conversation, assuring me that the refugees’ lives were full of joy and plenty. “The locals, Muslim NGOs and individual donors from Delhi ensure that their groceries are full,” one officer told me, asking that I not use his name. “This season, people have donated six or seven blankets to each family. Who says they’re poor? They have enough Muslims to help them.”

However, the officers confirmed that the Rohingya in Haryana are forbidden to move beyond their camps. “We have strict orders from above,” one of them told me. “We cannot allow them to disperse.”

India’s surveillance of the Rohingya was stepped up in November 2017, when members of the community across India were made to fill out nationality-verification forms, which mapped their minutest personal information—such as their level of education and occupations before leaving Myanmar, the colour of their eyes and hair, their home addresses in Myanmar, details of how they left and what mode of transport they used to reach India. The forms also asked for the “name, address and telephone number of travel agent or any other person/agency involved in sending the individual to India.”

In October last year, Rajnath Singh, then the union home minister, announced that he had asked state governments to identify and collect the biometric details of all Rohingya living in India. According to Sabber’s Rohingya Human Rights Initiative, the project was completed within two months.

The Rohingya living in Haryana have not been issued long-term visas, unlike their compatriots in Delhi and parts of Hyderabad. In any case, these visas are losing currency. In the past few months, the government has stopped renewing them or issuing new ones. The Rohingya fear that this is another step towards deportation.

Jafar Ullah, a young Rohingya activist who lives in Delhi, had agreed to meet me at a small dhaba, about ten kilometres from the camp. Two other young men soon joined us. Jafar had hoped to speak freely, away from the prying eyes of the CID, but as we ordered tea, the waiter lingered to eavesdrop. He whispered something to the dhaba owner, who swiftly picked up the phone—three bearded Muslim men were a source of instant suspicion in this small Haryana town. We got up and left, in search of a safer space to talk.

Jafar told me that the CID had forbidden him from living outside the camp, insisting all Rohingya should stay together, even if they could afford to live outside. He said that the police had formulated a strict set of rules to monitor the refugees’ lives, with regular checks and surveillance of their phones. Around Christmas that year, he said, a group of refugees were locked in a room and beaten by CID men, for the crime of calling to check on a relative in Bangladesh.

“Earlier, the questioning was sparse—once a month, or sometimes once in many months,” Jafar’s friend Abdul Jahan told me. “After the deportation threat, we are asked to log every minute of every hour we spend out of the camp.” Jahan had been one of those thrashed by the CID. Even when they left the camp to work, he said, they had to log their trips in a formal document, mentioning where they were going and for how long, who they met, who paid them and so on.

“God forbid if a call is made to Bangladesh or Pakistan,” Jafar said. “They beat us black and blue.”

A HALF HOUR AWAY, about forty Rohingya families had just arrived from Mathura, in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. They said that the police there routinely harassed them, and finally forced them to leave. A human-rights lawyer later told me that the police’s harassment had been at the behest of a landlord seeking to evict them from their settlement.

A refugee named Hasan offered me a tour of the mustard field they now called home. The 530-square-foot field was being cleared to set up a camp. Women hung up their saris to create curtains for makeshift bathrooms, where they would bathe using water drawn from a nearby well. There was no electricity, running water or sewerage, so people defecated in the open fields surrounding the campsite. To survive the cold until they could build houses, the refugees huddled together on bedsheets spread under the open sky.

Hasan told me that Uttar Pradesh had become a far more dangerous place for Muslims in general, and the Rohingya in particular, since the Hindu cleric and BJP leader Adityanath became the chief minister in March 2017. The trouble had started even before his appointment. In 2016, the police entered a small mosque Hasan and his fellow refugees had built, and destroyed it. When the Rohingya complained, the police beat them. When I reached out to Ashok Kumar Meena, the superintendent of police for Mathura district, I received no response.

In September 2017, Adityanath announced that the Rohingya were intruders in India, not refugees. It was sad, he said, that “some people are showing concern towards them, as in Myanmar, many innocent Hindus were killed brutally. It was also found that they have links with terrorist organisations.”

The following month, policemen came to Hasan’s camp to tell them to leave. When he protested, he said, they told him to “go and stay somewhere else in India, but not UP.” When the refugees showed them their UNHCR cards, claiming their right to live within India, the policemen told them, “This is from Delhi. Go to Delhi. The laws of Delhi don’t work in UP.”

When they realised they could no longer remain in Uttar Pradesh, the Rohingya approached the UNHCR. The agency gave each family about two hundred dollars. The new huts that they were building in Haryana cost almost as much. The aid was not nearly enough to cover their other costs: transportation, food and the loans they had taken from local Muslims in Mathura to build the settlement they had had to abandon.


THE NARWAL CAMP, the largest Rohingya settlement in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is also one of the oldest, among the first few such settlements to mushroom in the city of Jammu.

Here, cramped lanes are surrounded by open drains overflowing with toxic waste. It was just after dusk one evening in December 2017, and the men sat outdoors on wooden beds, playing cards and chewing paan as the women cooked dinner. The rich smell of spices filled the tiny, winding lanes. Next to a big pile of crumpled water bottles, which the Rohingya collect and sell for recycling, children played video games on an old television set—the only one in the camp. A skyscraper under construction, commissioned by a Dubai-based real-estate company, loomed over them. Many Rohingya men were returning home after working all day at the construction site.

As darkness enveloped the settlement, the chirping of birds grew almost cacophonous. Thirty-three-year-old Abdul Goffur stubbed out his beedi, and said, “The day Burma becomes a democracy like India, we will fly back, like these birds returning home.”

Waqar Bhatti, a Kashmiri activist, was sitting by him. “The Palestinians and the Kashmiri people are fighting equally terrible regimes, but they are not talking about running away,” he told Goffur. “Why did you run away?”

Goffur recounted his people’s history of being wronged by the British, the Burmese military and Suu Kyi’s democratically elected government. “Everything is banned for us,” he said. “The only freedom we have is to breathe the air, to drink the water. You don’t know how it feels to be this powerless. You have no idea.”

Night had fallen. Suspicious of reporters, Kifayatullah Aziz Arkani, one of the most educated men in the camp, stood in his tin doorway and barraged me with questions before opening up. “Since the problems started with the Rohingya people here, they have been scared, unnerved,” he said, indicating his three children and two nephews. He gestured to them to arrange plastic chairs outside the house. Although made of tin and mud, it was one of the bigger and sturdier houses in the camp. By refugee standards, Arkani was rich, earning Rs 7,000 a month teaching at a madrasa in the camp.

As one of his nephews poured tea, the night had grown cold and quiet. I asked Arkani about the silence I had noticed in Narwal. No Rohingya would talk about the violence that had coloured the last few months in Jammu, which is home to half of India’s Rohingya population. Nobody mentioned the arbitrary arrests, the burning of Rohingya slums, the punishments for alleged cow slaughter or the political parties spewing hate against them. Instead, their stories felt rehearsed: India as a doyen of democracy, where they found nothing but peace and love. If the Indian state wanted to deport them, they had told me, it was in the state’s hands, and they would do nothing but comply.

Arkani said his fellow countrymen were afraid. “The Rohingya don’t need training to talk like that, or to hide stuff from you, because the training has already been given to us in Burma,” he told me. “We should remember that local and government officials have power. When we speak to them, we must praise them and concur. The thought has been cemented in our minds since Burma.”

He did not like referring to his native province as Rakhine State, preferring to call it Arakan—“our home since the eighth century,” he said, with faint pride. “In India, you can blast namaz from a loudspeaker, celebrate festivals, say your prayers in the middle of the road, wear a skullcap to the parliament,” he told me. “In Myanmar, we were forced to remove our skullcaps, couldn’t call for azaan on speakers, couldn’t keep an Islamic beard and were subject to high fees in order to marry and reproduce.”

The last grievance referred to a local order passed in the northern Arakan in the late 1990s, requiring Rohingya couples seeking to marry to obtain official permission from local authorities, usually on the payment of hefty fees and bribes. Arkani had had to pay over seven thousand dollars to the military in order to marry, in 2008. “It is Burma’s final plan to end our people—to stop us from getting married and not produce more than two kids,” he told me.

In Jammu, Arkani was lucky enough to send his daughter to school. She is of the first generation of his family to get a formal education. Arkani said he gave up on activism last year, after participating in a rally that raised the question of their community’s future in India. Three of his fellow participants were jailed soon after. One of them is now in Bangladesh. The other two were released after human-rights groups intervened.

“We never insulted India,” Arkani said about the rally. “We were just seeking answers from the world, answers we cannot find anywhere. The people and their energy are scattered. Nobody speaks out now. All dissent has died down.”

The National Panthers Party held a protest in Jammu on 11 April 2018, demanding the deportation of the Rohingya and a CBI inquiry into the Kathua rape case. mukesh gupta / reuters

JAMMU’S ROHINGYA COMMUNITY is scattered over 24 sites. The Muslim-majority neighbourhood of Bathindi houses the largest and oldest camp, where 192 of the state’s 1,548 Rohingya families live. Other populous camps in the city include Narwal, Karani Talab and Channi.

Rohingya families here eke out a meagre living. Men work as garbage dealers, daily-wage labourers or sweepers, earning about three hundred rupees a day. Women pick walnuts at orchards owned by the locals, making around two hundred rupees. They live in rows of self-constructed shelters, crammed together, with tin roofs and patched walls. Their children mostly study in madrasas under clerics such as Arkani. Some also go to government schools.

Life for Jammu’s Rohingya, in other words, would have been similar to that of any other migrant labour community scraping by, were they not caught up in a larger historical conflict between Hindu-dominated Jammu and Muslim-dominated Kashmir.

In October 2015, two militants from the Jaish-e-Mohammad—believed to be the last two JeM commanders in south Kashmir—were shot dead by security forces in the district of Tral. One of them was Adil Pathan, the brother of the JeM’s Pakistan-based operational chief, Mufti Asghar. The other, known by his nom de guerre Chota Burmi, was a Myanmar national settled in Pakistan. The police told the mediathat his real name was Abdur Rehman al-Arkani and, along with right-wing politicians, alleged that the settlement of the Rohingya in Jammu was part of an Islamist conspiracy that involved Pakistan’s intelligence agencies.

The fear-mongering about the Rohingya hit a new low when, in January 2018, after an eight-year-old girl from the Muslim Bakerwal community was abducted, raped and killed near the town of Kathua, some BJP members blamed Rohingya refugees. The BJP-backed Jammu Bar Association prevented the police from filing a charge sheet against the eight Hindu men accused of the crime, claiming that they were being framed by the state government. On 10 June 2019, six of the seven adult accused were found guilty by a special court. By that time, the increased surveillance of Jammu’s Rohingya had forced Arkani to migrate with his family to Hyderabad, where he now teaches in another madrasa. Around a hundred families have fled Jammu in the past year, fearing violence.

These incidents reflect the suspicion Hindu nationalists in Jammu continue to harbour about the Rohingya community. “Today, they have made Aadhaar cards and are also obtaining permanent-resident cards, which has not been given to our West Pakistani Hindu brothers,” Hunar Gupta, a member of the Jammu BJP’s legal cell, who filed a petition before the high court in January 2017 seeking the identification and deportation of the Rohingya, told me. He argued that the wave of Rohingya refugees settling in Jammu was “a deliberate attempt” to take control of the state. “They are learning our language and mingling freely with the local population. Tomorrow, they will obtain voting rights in Jammu. Who will stop the Rohingya from changing the demographics of the state?”

The idea that seven thousand people could overhaul the demographics of Jammu, which has a population of 5.3 million, has its roots in the state’s longstanding communal tensions. Jammu has never controlled politics in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In the legislative assembly, it has 37 seats, while Kashmir accounts for 46. Whichever party wins Kashmir, therefore, tends to form the state government. The Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad is the only politician from Jammu to have ever been the state’s chief minister. Even if the Rohingya had never arrived, Hindus would have remained a minority in the state, with limited political power. The Modi years have seen attempts to increase Jammu’s clout in the state.

It is not just the BJP that has been mobilising against the Rohingya in Jammu. By February 2018, when four heavily armed militants stormed an Indian army base next to the Narwal camp, killing ten people, the climate had become poisonous. Several Jammu-based news channels linked the Rohingya to the attack. A year before, giant posters had been put up by the Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party. “Rohingyas, Bangladeshis quit Jammu,” the posters said. “Let us all Jammuites Unite to save History, Culture and Identity of Dogras”—referring to the dominant ethnic group in Jammu. Harsh Dev Singh, the chairman of the Panthers Party, told me that “the refugees are being trained by the Pakistani militant groups Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen to wage war against India.”

In April 2017, Rakesh Gupta, the chairman of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, threatened to start a “catch and kill” operation against the Rohingya. In response, Mehbooba Mufti, then the chief minister of the state, announced that there was no evidence to suggest that any Rohingya had been radicalised. Only 38 Rohingya refugees in the state had been charged for minor criminal offences, she said, none of which involved terrorism.

The climate in the state became so unwelcoming that, in September 2017, six Rohingya families who had been living in Jammu illegally made their way to Sri Lanka. There, however, members of the Sinhale Jathika Balumaluwa, an extremist Buddhist group, stormed the UN safe house that sheltered them, carrying banners and placards expressing solidarity with Suu Kyi and demanding their immediate removal from the country. The Sri Lankan government responded by locking the families up in Boosa, a camp used to detain Tamil militants during the country’s decades-long civil war, and said that they would eventually be settled in a third country, once their papers were processed.

Experts are beginning to suggest a strong link between Hindu and Buddhist extremists in South Asia—a joint political, intellectual and military collaboration to keep “Islamic terrorism” at bay. On 7 July 2014, while celebrating his seventy-ninth birthday, the Dalai Lama appealed to Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to stop attacking Muslims. Instead of heeding his words, leaders of Buddhist extremist groups in the two countries announced an alliance to make common cause against Muslims. “The time has come to ally internationally,” Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, said at a convention held in Colombo, in September that year. The guest of honour was Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has spearheaded the hate campaign against the Rohingya in Myanmar, and whom Time magazine put on its July 2018 cover as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”

In India, the freshly re-elected Modi government is speaking of resuscitating the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and supporting a genocide in Myanmar, as well as greater collaboration with Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka. South Asia is witnessing a redrawing of religious fault lines. The fate of the world’s most persecuted minority, now facing mass deportation from the world’s largest democracy, hangs in the balance.