Two reporters, one from Republic TV and the other from India News, were attacked on March 13 at Kiryani Talab in Jammu’s Bathindi area. They were investigating whether Rohingya refugees who have phone numbers in the area had obtained SIM cards by providing fake documents. A section of the local media immediately blamed the refugees for the attack. But the police arrested two locals later and said “preliminary investigations revealed that the Rohingyas were not involved…”
The rhetoric of Rohingyas posing a danger to national security has given rise to fear among refugees. Even locals allege that harassment and questioning by media has become a routine affair. There is a sustained campaign by the media and Jammu-based political parties to convince people in this Hindu-majority region that Rohingya immigrants are a future risk.
Local newspapers have splashed front-page advertisements, paid for by members of political parties and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Jammu, underlining the need to remove Rohingyas from the region.
“Threat of Rohingyas looms large over the heads of peace loving Jammuites. Let’s all unite to save Jammu” read a full-page advertisement issued by Rajeev Mahajan, president of Shri Ram Sena, in the local paper, Early Times, on March 6. The advertisement had a picture of Mahajan and the colours of the Indian flag in the background.
In an editorial titled ‘Rohingyas: A threat to national security’, published in Early Times (again) on September 11 last year, state spokesperson of the governing BJP, (retd) Brig Anil Gupta, had warned: “The jihadi mind-set of the Rohingyas is well established. It is therefore no denying the fact that their presence in India is a threat to national security more so in the sensitive Jammu region and their early deportation is in national interest”. He went on to say, “The nation can ill afford to let the design of ISI succeed in strategically vital Jammu.”
The issue of “threat from Rohingyas” was raised in an aggressive manner even after the attack on Sunjwan military station in Jammu on February 10. The military station is close to Bathindi, where the majority of Rohingyas live. The speaker of the J&K Assembly, Kevinder Gupta, had said the presence of Rohingyas around the camp could have led to the attack. Intelligence officials and police, however, have not been able to corroborate the suspicion.
Meanwhile, Republic TV’s Jammu bureau chief Tejinder Singh Sodhi, one of the two journalists attacked on Tuesday, said his investigation on ‘phone numbers with Rohingyas’ was on the basis of an RTI reply — which showed there were a total of 198 Rohingya refugees in Jammu Tehsil and 27 of them had accessed a phone connection. Sodhi said the story is important because “SIM cards with Rohingyas could be a danger to national security”.
‘Travelled from Myanmar to earn living, not be terrorists’
Government estimates claim there were 5,743 Rohingyas in the state of Jammu & Kashmir until January 6, 2017. Intelligence sources estimate the number has swelled to more than 10,000 after the aggressive persecution of the community in Myanmar last year. The Indian government does not want to entertain more refugees. On March 16, 2018, the ministry of home affairs told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that national interest requires that only those holding valid travel documents be permitted to enter Indian soil.
Locals mention they are benefiting from their presence as they have come to be a part of the local economy. The refugees mostly live in shanties rented out to them, and usually work as daily wagers, construction labourers, or perform menial work at roadside kiosks, deal in scrap-dealing, or run petty businesses.
A 47-year-old Rohingya who came to Bathindi after travelling thousands of kilometres from Myanmar’s Rakhine in 2016 “after it became impossible to live there due to the military action” said the community is settling here to earn a living and not to destroy peace in the area.
“It seems as if we are not humans,” he said. “On the one hand our own government threw us out of the country and, on the other, we are not welcome even in India. I fail to understand why people of Jammu feel threatened by us. Media has made a monster out of us.”
Another 28-year-old Rohingya, who runs a tea stall in Bathindi, said, “Media and politicians say that we are helping terrorists launch attacks in Jammu. With such a security apparatus and intelligence officials keeping an eye on us, is it really possible for us to help terrorists? We took an arduous journey from West Bengal to Jammu to earn a living and not become terrorists.”
Rahil Murad, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Kashmir who also has a home in Bathindi, points out that after the concentration of Rohingyas increased in Jammu “political parties have started attacking these Muslim settlers to woo the Hindu vote bank”. Police and other agencies should verify the credentials of these settlers and allow them to live a peaceful life if they are innocent, he said.
They should be deported immediately, said Zorawar Singh Jamwal, a former journalist who has launched a pressure group called Team Jammu. He questioned why the Rohingyas were not settling in Muslim-dominated Kashmir region instead. He said, “Chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is supporting the settlement of illegal Rohingyas in Jammu to change the region’s demography from Hindu-dominated to a Muslim-dominated one. The settlement of illegal Rohingyas in Jammu is a clear manifestation of this agenda.”
Showkat Ahmad, of Sakhawat, an NGO working to improve living conditions for the Rohingya refugees, explains that most Rohingyas come to Jammu in search of better wages. “Many times even the wages of those working as labourers are delayed since they are afraid of reporting such matters to the police,” he said. “These immigrants are present in Jammu only for a better living.”
A senior journalist of a leading magazine agrees it’s a controversial matter. “At present, there is no direct connection established between Rohingyas living in Jammu and any militant organisation. Media is the best tool for those parties who want to keep controversies rolling so that people of Jammu do not focus on actual issues.”
But the hate campaign seems to have worked in instilling fears in the minds of refugees. Hussain, a 36-year-old Rohingya working in a stationary shop, said the fear of deportation has risen. “I think we are not welcome in India. People in Jammu do not like us.”
This piece has been authored by Arjun Sharma, a Ludhiana-based freelance writer and member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.