SRINAGAR, India -- Clouds of fear have enveloped the Rohingya refugee camp in India as the authorities have detained nearly 200 refugees since March in the Jammu and Kashmir region. Human rights defenders are concerned over the possible deportation of Rohingya, especially at a time when Myanmar is under military control and has ongoing civil disobedience.
"We were asked by the local police to fill in the form for registration [at a stadium]," a Rohingya refugee in Jammu told Nikkei Asia on condition of anonymity about an incident he saw last month. "We were also told that, after COVID-19 tests, we will be released. [But] instead, people who were present [at] the stadium were taken to a detention center in the Hiranagar subjail in Kathua." According to him, there were five to seven pregnant women among the detainees.
As the government mulls the repatriation of the Rohingya Muslims from India, the fate of over 6,000 refugees in Jammu is in the balance. Local authorities in Jammu and Kashmir, in line with directions given by New Delhi, are busy working on identifying local Rohingya, who are seen as "illegal immigrants" and needed to be deported back to Myanmar.
The Supreme Court of India on Thursday refused to grant relief in a plea seeking the immediate release of detained Rohingya. But even before the court decision was announced, the Indian government's stance on Rohingya has been clear: If they were classed as refugees, the authorities would follow the apex court's decision, but if they were illegal immigrants, the authorities would move toward deportations.
According to local reports, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said in his government-side appeal, "[petitioners] wanted no Rohingya to be deported; we had said that we will follow the law." But he also clearly stated: "They are illegal immigrants. We are always in touch with Myanmar, and when they confirm that the individual is their citizen, then only deportation can take place."
But the Thursday court decision will likely give the government much more freedom to act.
"India's stance vis-a-vis the Rohingya refugees ... is a matter of greater shame," Nandini Sundar, a professor at Delhi University, told Nikkei, adding that the potential deportation "goes against India's claim to have welcomed people, especially refugees ... and also goes against international humanitarian law."
Behind the official lines, New Delhi has a geopolitical concern. If India hardens its stance against its military-controlled neighbor, it fears the junta might get closer to China to strengthen its legitimacy, which potentially would reduce India's regional influence to a large extent.
There is a domestic political factor, too: The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has a vast vote bank among the Hindu communities that make up the majority of the country's population. With state-level elections scheduled every year, the party "has repeatedly shown it has no concern for any principles beyond the establishment of Hindu supremacy and power for itself," Sundar said.
A month of unending suffering of the stateless Rohingya has left many children and women without any support in Jammu, and the government has detained many. "There are tens of families that have been separated. There are children whose parents have been detained and left alone," said Abdul Rohim, a Rohingya refugee who has been putting up in Jammu since 2014.
Beyond from the fear of getting detained, the likelihood of merely surviving is falling for the refugees in Jammu. "If it continues for a couple of weeks more, there are families that will die of starvation. We used to do menial jobs in the nearby areas, but due to the continuing threat of detention, we have not moved out of our transit campus for any work," Rohim lamented.
According to Rohim, there are over 6,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees living in Jammu, including 2,500 children. At present, 197 people have been detained, and the authorities are not allowing other refugees to meet any of the detainees.
The education of Rohingya children has taken a hit as well. "There used to be day learning centers for our children, but since mass detention, the centers have been closed," Rohim said.
The Rohingya are an ethnic minority group who have resided in Myanmar's southwestern province of Rakhine for centuries. The military conducted crackdowns on a local militancy there as well as on innocent civilians in and after August 2017, resulting in a large-scale exodus in the following months to neighboring Bangladesh as well as India.