Rohingya refugees in India meet religious nationalists who want them gone — again.
By Ann Toews
November 14, 2017
By Ann Toews
From the relative safety of Bangladesh’s cramped coast, Rashid could finally believe that freedom was within reach. He thought often of the violence that had driven his family from Myanmar’s Rakhine State: the friends jailed and tortured by Buddhist nationalists; the women violated; the heavy-handed restrictions enforced against fellow Rohingya Muslims. But it was his memories of scenes from Indian TV shows that gave him hope — and an idea.
The enterprising 30-year-old bought bus tickets to the Indian border in the fall of 2015 and made his way to a village south of the capital of New Delhi with other refugees — strangers back home; now like extended family. The transition was a far cry from Bollywood glamour: makeshift tents turned to waterlogged rubble during monsoon season, and a local moneylender locked the cash-strapped newcomers into a cycle of indebtedness. But Rashid gradually learned Hindi, secured UN refugee identification cards for the 105-person settlement, and devised a camp-wide system of collecting and sorting recyclables — a steady, if meager, source of income.
I am listening to Rashid’s story when two men in pristine white vestments enter the Rohingya camp. Women and girls observing our exchange pull scarves over their hair and scramble into a shop, ducking behind plastic containers of Butter Joy and Pulse candies in the window. Only the headstrong Hombiya stays put, crouching on a stoop in her bright green hijab. The two guests, Muslim clerics on rounds to visit the area faithful, have driven nine kilometers from their mosque in Faridabad District’s Sector 10 to provide spiritual counsel after local Hindus attacked the camp during Eid al-Adha, an Islamic holiday that honors Ibrahim’s obedience to God.
Rashid’s community, still harboring the memory of Buddhist brutality in Myanmar, is the latest target of homegrown Hindu nationalists driven to protect India’s ancient “Hindu” culture from perceived incursions by outsiders — mainly Muslims. Since the previous month’s attack, the visiting clerics have encouraged the Rohingya men to maintain peace and avoid revenge, they tell me. It is best, they say, for the community to put the violent episode in its past. The refugees look on in respectful silence. They rely on these Islamic leaders — along with their fading memories of Islamic tradition the way it was practiced back home for generations — to sustain their faith in this Hindu-dominated region.
We discuss the new wave of Rohingya that has fled Myanmar, also known as Burma, since late August, when the Burmese military began a systematic campaign of murder, rape, and arson against the minority ethnic group. Mostly illiterate, the Rohingya here in Mujeri Village use mobile phones to stay informed. Rashid and his community sought refuge well before this latest exodus, and left Bangladesh for India nearly as soon as they’d arrived, unable to pursue a better life amid the scarcity of opportunity there. But the thousands now fleeing Myanmar have given them new cause for concern: Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently vowed to deport the 40,000 Rohingya already living in India. Activists quickly lodged an appeal on behalf of the Rohingya, and India’s top court will hear the case on November 21.
As the busy clerics confer well-wishes and depart, I strike up conversation with Hombiya. A naked baby crawls on the hard earth beside her, clasping straws extracted from aerosol cans that have been hammered flat to meet the scrap buyer’s specifications. She shyly kicks off her dusty blue flip-flops and fiddles with the gold stud piercing in her nose. Even after reaching the relative safety of India two years ago, Hombiya tells me, her community has suffered constant tension. Would they ever return home, or should they put down roots? Now, would they be among the deported? Even before the Hindu mob came, exclusion in the name of foreign religions she didn’t fully understand was becoming too much to bear.
A Troubled Eid
Hombiya’s friend Iniasa had been sitting at the edge of the camp in the late afternoon haze when she noticed a pair of unknown men untying the Rohingya’s two calves from the tree. She shouted an alert into the camp, and several men rushed over. Rashid tried frantically to express in Hindi that the calves were an Eid gift from a New Delhi-based Islamic NGO. On seeing the Hindu men’s strange insistence that the calves be freed, though, Rashid promised to return them unscathed to their previous owner. The Rohingya men led the animals into the camp, where a web of thin blankets would conceal them for the night.
Rashid hadn’t known the importance of emphasizing that the calves were buffalo, rather than sacred cows. In fact, he was tragically unaware at the time of the so-called “cow protection” attacks erupting erratically in and around Faridabad, not to mention much of India — a phenomenon that coincided with the 2014 rise to power of Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Then again, many residents who lived near the Rohingya’s crude mass of tarps knew nothing of the foreign scrap collectors who occupied them, or the ethnic cleansing campaign that had driven them to the quiet edge of Mujeri Village.
He didn’t know what lay ahead, but Rashid’s unease kept him from sleep. At around five o’clock in the morning, the hum of approaching motorbikes became audible, and then grew louder. A mob was approaching.
Rashid and five other men hurried to the spot where the calves had been tied the night before to face the strangers, but were outnumbered roughly three to one. Three women ran from the camp to assist their husbands, but the villagers ripped their clothes and threw them to the ground. Seeking to avoid a camp-wide brawl, the attackers hoisted the six men onto their motorbikes and sped off toward nearby Mirzapur Village. Jolted awake, the camp followed on foot. Stopping at a nearby patch of trees, several men from the village held the Rohingya while others whipped their backs and faces with switches. One biker sped off to retrieve a knife. The villagers were threatening to kill them.
The crowd had soon grown so large that the nervous attackers released the men, warning them not to call the police. Back at the camp, the typically unflappable Rashid wept as he considered his next steps. Hands shaking, he took the UN refugee card from his pocket and dialed the number on the back. The person on the other end advised him to call the police and take the injured to the hospital. Ignoring the attackers’ threats, Rashid complied.
Police patrolled the village the day after the attack, but their brief presence did little to address new challenges, Rashid tells me. Emboldened passersby now shout at the Rohingya to go home. “We don’t have anything to eat, and they’re saying we’re terrorists,” Rashid says, shaking his head. For the Rohingya, the harassment calls to mind memories of being derided as “Bengalis” — a label common in Myanmar that likens the ethnic group to foreign Muslim invaders. With a fretful Eid behind them and the Hindu festival of lights on the horizon, tension hangs heavy in the firecracker-clogged air.
Hatred at the Grassroots
On the drive from New Delhi to meet the Mujeri Rohingya, I make a point of noticing cows. They roam freely through trash heaps, behind Diwali trinket vendors and lurching throngs of auto-rickshaws moving nowhere in a hurry. Near the town of Ballabgarh, I spot a group of men through the hazy gridlock, thrashing an animal with sticks. Alarmed, I turn to my taxi driver. “Was that one a cow?” I ask. Randeep smiles. “Buffalo,” he says.
Even here in India’s “cow belt” — named not for the number of cows but for the Hindu population’s ardent belief in their sacrosanctness — I’m not alone in my ignorance. Rashid’s Hindu attackers had mistaken buffalo for sacred cows, after all. Cattle and meat misidentification is so common in similar attacks, in fact, that the violence strikes the casual observer as being less about cows — and Hindu devotion — than about certain disaffected Hindus’ longstanding wariness of their Muslim neighbors.
As Rashid’s community knows too well, anti-Muslim sentiment across parts of the Indian subcontinent can extend from the upper reaches of society to the grassroots. In Myanmar, an alarmingly large segment of the population holds contempt for Muslims, and especially the Rohingya. While Hindu nationalists in India use disrespect for cows as the basis for harassment, Burmese Buddhist nationalists have played up an attack by Muslim militants on police posts in August to justify the latest atrocities against Rohingya civilians. Even many influential Buddhist monks have promoted the narrative that the Rohingya are living illegally in a “Buddhist” state and must be expelled. But as in India, where Muslims have lived for centuries, Burma’s 1.1 million Rohingya have a long history in Rakhine.
Like the long-simmering nationalist frenzy the Rohingya experienced at the hands of Burmese attackers back home, nationalism based on religious identity has seeped slowly into the collective Hindu consciousness in India. Here, it is engineered and spread by a sophisticated network of ideologues. For the better part of the past century, Hindu nationalists have steadfastly cultivated organizations under the banner of the so-called Sangh Parivar to influence and recruit students, laborers, lower castes, and every conceivable social group. As the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen explains in his book The Argumentative Indian, “The Hindutva movement reaps considerable strategic benefit from the variety of styles and modes of operation that the diversity of organizations within the Parivar allows.”
At the Parivar’s core is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary group that first set out to reform Hindu society from below before independence, according to French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot, creating “local branches (shakhas) of the movement in towns and villages according to a standard pattern.” Jaffrelot explains that “young Hindu men gathered every morning and every evening on a playground for games with martial connotations and ideological training sessions.” The RSS is now involved in everything from running schools to coordinating disaster relief efforts.
Internationally, the best-known Parivar organization is the ruling BJP, which takes a more moderate approach to politics than the Parivar’s violent wings. But crucially, as Sen writes, the BJP can “draw on support — sometimes violent support — from other members of the Hindutva family who can stray from the BJP’s cultivated urbanity and provide a harsher force.” The BJP and its more militant associates “can differ on political means and tactics — varying from soft-spoken advocacy to hard-headed violence — but still agree on a grand Hindu vision of India.” The extent of the Parivar’s reach in India has severe consequences for Muslims like the Mujeri Rohingya, who must reckon with vigilantes keeping watch in their own villages.
The Search for Justice
I am headed next to the Ballabgarh Police Station to speak with officials about their investigation of the attack on Rashid’s settlement. Despite the Parivar’s influence on Hindu society, I hold out hope that the world’s largest democracy boasts a strong rule of law. I realize as I leave the Rohingya camp that the driver I’ve hired, a New Delhi-based taxi company owner, has been guarding his car for hours. Highly professional and skeptical of my itinerary, Randeep has been hesitant to talk to me — due in part, I realize, to the presence of my interpreter, a critic of the caste system. But now, finding ourselves momentarily alone, he explains that he doesn’t trust the Rohingya. He struggles to trust anyone who knowingly breaks the law by setting foot in India without legal documentation.
Randeep is proud of the business he’s built with his family over the years, but covets a government job. India’s reservation system essentially precludes this possibility, he explains. With so many good jobs constitutionally set aside for scheduled castes and tribes and other backward castes, little opportunity remains for a middle-class Indian like himself. Randeep is a Hindu of the Jat caste, he tells me, like many residents of Mujeri. I later learn that Jats in this very state, Haryana, staged large-scale protests last year demanding to be labeled as a backward caste, a designation that would secure affirmative action-like benefits for them. In Randeep’s mind, competition from India’s refugees doesn’t help his people’s cause.
The five-kilometer drive to the station is made longer by the increasingly jammed roads that seem a world apart from the Mujeri Rohingya’s outlying community. When I arrive, the station inspector, Hans Raj, is sitting in a spartan office with another officer and Vinod Mittal, a crime reporter from Zee News. Leaning back in his chair, Raj agrees to update me on the investigation that remains underway a month later. An assistant brings chai. The police arrested one man following the attack, he tells me, but ruled him a mere bystander after questioning. No other suspects from the 15-to-20-person mob had been apprehended. Raj later examined the hospital’s medical report, noting that no one had broken any bones. He reminds me that cattle slaughter is a serious crime in the state of Haryana — though unlawfulness does not condone vigilante violence, he adds.
Raj states in no uncertain terms that the Rohingya are dangerous, owing to the informal nature of their work and the consequent dependence on petty theft. They take empty bottles and other loose items to sell, he explains. They borrow money from shop owners and never repay. Mittal adds that he once saw Rohingya women pulling iron rods from a house. Whether out of ignorance or intent, neither can say. I ask whether these events might be hearsay. They’re documented, Raj claims, gesturing into the station. I nod. A sparkling shrine to the Hindu goddess Saraswati catches my eye on my way out — the sole embellishment on the station’s whitewashed walls.
Raj and Mittal’s allegations find echoes at the national level in India. The Indian government stated in September that Rohingya refugees in India have ties to terrorist organizations, yet a subsequent investigation by NDTV found scant evidence of Rohingya criminality, let alone terror links. Police in Rashid’s district of Faridabad reported that not a single case is registered against the Rohingya there. But it is the sensational allegations of terrorism — not NDTV’s investigation — that spread like wildfire among local residents.
Back in the village and seeking to find Rashid’s elusive assailants, I see the impact of sensationalized news firsthand. I meet Surat, a nearby convenience store owner, who has heard about the mob attack. He doesn’t know the aggressors, he tells me, but asks me to stay for tea. He pours milk into a scabrous black pot of steeping chai and studies me carefully. An incense flame in the mounted Hindu shrine flickers and fades as customers browse boxes of Rishu-brand stand candles and toothpaste.
Sometimes, rarely, the Rohingya up the road bring food to sell him, he says, at prices lower than the going rate. The extent of his interactions with the destitute squatter community is this occasional trade in dust-covered butter cookies and Lays potato chips. Surat has never heard of the country of Myanmar before my visit, but he has heard about a woman living in Ballabgarh with links to a terrorist group. Perhaps the Rohingya are terrorists too, he reasons. Who could be sure? He asks why I am inquiring after the Rohingya, when there are so many Indians in need.
A wrinkled old man, overhearing our conversation, pipes up from the front of the shop. He tells me with confidence that Pakistan supports the Rohingya, owing to the people’s shared faith. He knows the refugees to be terrorists, and finds my investigation naïve. “You already know,” he says dismissively in response to my probing questions. I thank my hosts for the chai and depart.
Before we can pull away, Surat hurries outside and raps on the window, glancing both ways. In a hushed voice, he tells us where to find the instigator of the attack. Thanking him for the information, we immediately set off for the other side of town, asking residents along the way for the home of a man named Habdu. On the designated street, where a black and white cow idles beneath a tree on the corner, a gaggle of children pinpoint Habdu’s house. The man inside doesn’t rise from the couch when my interpreter enters through the open front door. When he and his mother realize the reason for our visit, they claim that an older brother, who is out of town, planned the attack. The recumbent man, in an apparent show of innocence, says that he has cancer in his hand. Quickly realizing that they have potentially implicated the family, the two suddenly begin to deny any knowledge of the incident.
As the man who is almost certainly Habdu and his mother grow visibly nervous, we depart, hardly believing that our 20-minute search had yielded more than a weeks-long investigation by local police. Habdu’s role was the village’s worst-kept secret. I wondered who else was hiding in plain sight.
Faiths at the Mercy of Religion?
The next day, I visit retired professor Partha Ghosh in New Delhi to get his take on Rashid, Inspector Raj, and Habdu. Ghosh’s office is in the Institute of Social Sciences, a breezy building of tiered garden atriums that seem a world apart from the chaotic exterior. The institute is positioned directly across from the sprawling Jawaharlal Nehru University, which made headlines last year for its so-called “anti-India” student protests that ended in arrests and hunger strikes.
Ghosh, a lifelong student of South Asian politics, describes Modi’s neatly divided political strategy: selling a grand strategy of development while subtly perpetuating Hindutva. Modi may criticize the Hindu agitators publicly, but he never takes serious steps to stop them, explains Ghosh. The result is a permissive environment in many cow-belt villages, shored up by Hindu nationalists in power at all levels. The police, far from objectively enforcing the law, tend to reflect the political temperament of the society from which they come.
Nonetheless, Ghosh believes the peak of Hindu nationalism has arrived. He thinks India under Modi has witnessed both the death of decency and the loss of humor — two fixtures of traditional Indian society. As Indians find themselves at the peak of despair, a backlash at the polls is inevitable, he believes. Despite widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, he tells me, the majority of India’s voter base is a vast secular force between extremes. Sen seems to agree: “Despite the veritable flood of religious practices in India,” he writes, “there is also a resilient undercurrent of conviction across the country that religious beliefs, while personally significant, are socially unimportant and should be politically inconsequential. Ignoring the importance — and reach — of this underlying conviction has the effect of systematically overestimating the role of religion in Indian society.” I thank Ghosh and exit to the buzzing street.
India may yet recover from its Hindu nationalist phase, but Rashid’s community can scarcely wait until the 2019 general elections to discover its fate, whether at the hands of seething vigilantes or deportation officials. It certainly cannot return to either Myanmar or Bangladesh, where only fighting or squalor awaits. As targets of politicized religion wherever they go, the Rohingya of Mujeri now believe faith to be their only secure possession.
On the drive home, we stop for lunch. Randeep pulls into a roadside restaurant and waits at the front counter. “Join us!” I urge. “No, Ma’am,” he politely declines. My interpreter, a member of the priestly Brahmin caste, and I eat alone. Randeep’s firm adherence to Brahminical values — Brahmins and Jats don’t eat together, I learn — brings order to an otherwise chaotic world. It’s a world where Dalits and refugees are rising — or seem to be. Where refugees like Rashid are better known as concepts than neighbors. Where the seeming goodness of a “cow protection” mission conceals deep fears of cultures and castes reduced to irrelevance.
As I pay and leave the restaurant, I see a large clear plastic donation box next to the register, in which a brightly colored cow figurine is awash in rupee notes. Confident in my assessment of him, I half expect Randeep to leave his change, but instead I see that he’s saving it for the dirt-smeared girl standing outside with outstretched hands. I hadn’t even noticed her.
Ann Toews is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.