Rohingya refugees are fleeing India or going underground amid fears that the government will arrest them for unauthorized entry into the country.
In the past month, security forces have intercepted scores of Rohingya across India and sent them to jail, triggering a panic among the country’s Muslim refugee community who fled violence in Myanmar and took refuge in India.
“Some hundreds of Rohingya were living in West Bengal for few years. Almost all of them have disappeared in the past month after some Rohingya were arrested in the state. Many have gone in hiding in other Indian states. Others have entered Bangladesh,” said Rohingya refugee Nizam Uddin, who crossed to Bangladesh with his mother, wife and three children last month after living in a village in eastern Indian state of West Bengal for three years.
“If my family got arrested, Indian authorities would have sent us to jail, before finally pushing us back to Myanmar. Myanmar is still very unsafe for the Rohingya. We do not want to return to that hell. I got terribly scared of being arrested. So, I chose to flee India,” he told VOA.
An official at the Indian home ministry desk that handles issues related to refugees declined to comment on the claim of a crackdown on Rohingya refugees.
Few options for stateless Rohingya
To escape discrimination and violence in Myanmar, minority Rohingya Muslims have for decades fled from the Buddhist-majority country to neighboring Bangladesh and other countries, including India. A year ago, it was estimated that 40,000 Rohingya refugees lived in India, scattered across different states.
Being stateless in their home country of Myanmar, the Rohingya are unable to travel to another country legally. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants. An estimated 300 to 500 Rohingya are currently being held in Indian jails on charges of illegal entry.
Jan Mohammad, a Rohingya refugee who until the first week of January lived in a village near the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, said his uncle and two other Rohingya were arrested while traveling by train in India last month.
“Indian police asked my uncle and his two relatives to produce Myanmar passport with Indian visa. Like other Rohingyas, they did not have passports from Myanmar, they said to the police. Police said, they were illegal immigrants, and they arrested them immediately. They are in jail now,” Mohammad told VOA from an undisclosed location in south India.
Hussain Ahmad, a Rohingya rights activist based on Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, said the Rohingya refugees are being unfairly harassed by the Indian authorities.
Ahmad, who also monitors the movement of Rohingya refugees in south Asia, cited a 1982 law in Myanmar that left most Rohingya effectively stateless, even though their families had lived in the country for generations. In 2017, the military in Myanmar responded to a series of attacks on police stations with a brutal campaign of killing and rape that drove close to 1 million people into neighboring countries and has been widely condemned as genocide.
Now, Ahmad said, “Indian police are asking for travel documents from these refugees who are on the run, scared of their lives. How will the stateless Rohingya refugees be able to produce Burmese passports or Indian visas?”
Anti-Rohingya sentiment surges
Anti-Rohingya sentiment has been growing in India since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power with an overwhelming election victory in 2014. In recent years, the BJP and other Hindu organizations have begun a campaign demanding the expulsion of all Rohingya refugees from India.
Many Rohingya believe the latest crackdown on the refugees in India is linked to a state election in West Bengal, which is expected within the next few months.
“They began harassing Rohingya refugees in India just before the national election in 2019. Now they have begun the crackdown on the Rohingya before the election in Bengal,” Hussain Ahmad said.
Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, agreed that the Rohingya refugees are being targeted largely for political reasons.
“India knows well that the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted communities in the world. Nearly a million are refugees in Bangladesh. A few that have arrived in India need to be protected and not persecuted again. This is a responsibility of the Indian authorities under the refugees convention as well,” she said in an interview.
“For political reasons we find that the Rohingya are being targeted largely because the Hindu nationalist government … tends to persecute all Muslims, including Rohingya refugees.”
State-level leaders of the BJP in West Bengal contacted by VOA declined to comment on the Human Rights Watch allegations.
Bangladeshi human rights campaigner Pinaki Bhattacharya noted that the Rohingya in Myanmar have been described by the United Nations as “the most persecuted minority in the world” and called for India to do more to help them.
“In 2019, India amended its Citizenship Act offering to grant citizenship to the ‘persecuted’ non-Muslim minorities from its neighboring countries. India shares its border with Myanmar. Yet India did not offer to shelter or grant citizenship to the minority Rohingya who fled Myanmar after facing a genocidal level of persecution there,” Bhattacharya said.
“India is witnessing an upsurge of right-wing Hindu force that aims to turn India a Hindu Rashtra or Hindu Nation. Rohingyas are being hounded in India indeed because they are Muslim.”