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Archive for April 2017

India is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries. Why then is the home ministry being particularly tough on Myanmar’s Rohingyas? Sonia Sarkar finds out

  • NOBODY’S PEOPLE: (Above) Raheema Khatoon with her children; the Delhi slum (below), home to Rohingyas refugees; (last) Mohammed Haroon in his shop. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

They don’t speak their mother tongue – Rohingya – anymore, but Hindi. The men have exchanged their longyis for trousers and the women their thains for the salwar-kameez. What is more, these traditional rice-eaters are now learning to enjoy their rotis.

“We have learnt many new things here because we want to be one of the locals,” says Fayaz Ahmed, a daily wager. Ahmed is one of the 220 Rohingyas who set up home in south Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar slum five years ago, after fleeing their homeland fearing persecution by the Myanmarese Army and radical Buddhists.

Since 1992, Rohingyas – Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar – have been routinely ostracised by Myanmarese forces. The attacks intensified in 2012, and even after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in 2015, not much changed. Fearing persecution, Rohingyas continue to migrate to India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

All very well, except that the Indian government has suddenly decided to wind back the hospitable neighbour act. And that notwithstanding the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants it swore by last September, the same that vowed commitment to “combating xenophobia, racism and discrimination” against refugees and migrants.

Apart from those living in Delhi, there is a sizeable Rohingya population – around 6,000 – in Jammu. According to an estimate, there are over 40,000 Rohingyas living across the country.

Rohingyas have always been regarded with a little suspicion. Intelligence agencies claim they are involved in drug trafficking in the Northeast and also raise funds for terror activities. Lashkar-e-Toiba chief Hafiz Saeed’s exhibition of empathy and offer to radicalise more people from the community hasn’t helped their case.

Lately, hate campaigns and demonstrations against the Jammu Rohingyas have intensified. The Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in fact, declared that they would be “identified and killed”. There was not a word from the government against such a diktat. In fact, a fortnight ago, the union home ministry said Rohingyas in India would be identified and deported, an exercise that will begin with Jammu and cover the rest of India eventually.

Taslima Khatoon is one of those facing the wrath of the locals in Jammu. She sounds distraught while speaking to The Telegraph over phone. “Unknown people come and threaten us, ask us to leave. I don’t know where to go,” she says.

Her sister, Raheema, who lives in Delhi, is in similar panic. Both sisters have their respective refugee cards issued to 14,000 Rohingyas in India by the UN refugee agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and stay visas issued by the home ministry’s Bureau of Immigration. But these won’t be of any help, it seems. “We don’t recognise the refugee cards issued by UNHCR,” says a senior home ministry official who does not want to be identified. “We will not issue or renew stay visas to the Rohingyas anymore.”

But why this sudden anti-Rohingya sentiment? There is a theory that they are mistaken for Bangladeshi Muslims – both speak similar sounding Bengali dialects. “In India, there is a great fear of mass Bangladeshi Muslim immigration and this appears to have become linked with Rohingya refugees in a problematic way,” says Kirsten McConnachie, who is a Rohingya specialist and an assistant professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Law.

Rohingyas understand this. “We do not speak in our language because locals think we are Bangladeshis. We don’t want to do anything that will make us look like them,” says Mohammed Haroon, a shopkeeper.

They are doing their best to integrate with their adoptive country. A group of boys in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh have started their own football team, Rohingya Shining Stars. Over 65 Rohingya children of Madanpur Khadar are going to a nearby private English medium school. “We want to be one of you. We want to be equal,” says Ameena Khatoon, whose children started going to school only after they came to India.

But their problems might yet remain; the status of refugees is governed by political discretion and not by any codified model of conduct. So you have acres of agricultural land earmarked for Tibetans in Himachal Pradesh’s Dharamshala; designated camps set up in Tamil Nadu for Sri Lankan refugees; and even Bhutanese and Nepalese immigrants live in India under friendship treaties with valid work permits. Not just that, for the past three decades, India has been welcoming Buddhist refugees from Myanmar. But suddenly there is no space for the Rohingyas.

Experts attribute this hardening of stance to the ruling BJP’s anti-Muslim sentiment. “It seems, the Indian government is not so concerned about the influx of refugees; it is more against the religion of these refugees,” says Harsh Mander, general secretary of the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies.

India, which is home to 4.5 lakh refugees from 12 different countries, doesn’t have any refugee law. It is not even signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, which was later amended to form the 1967 Refugee Protocol. According to the UNHCR, even so, India cannot send the Rohingyas back as the principle of non-refoulement is considered part of customary international law and binding on all states whether they have signed the Refugee Convention or not. Non-refoulement refers to the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to persecution.

This looks like an assurance for Shamsheeda Begum, who considers India as her home now. “Throw us into the sea or put us into jail but we will not go back to Myanmar,” she stresses.

She lives in the Delhi slum in a 7ft by 6ft makeshift wooden house – there are 45 of them – supported by bamboo frames and covered with tarpaulin sheets. These houses stand next to each other on a 9,900 square-feet plot provided by the NGO, Zakat Foundation of India, which also sponsors the education of 65 Rohingya children.

“Life is so much better here. Only after coming to India have we understood what it is to live freely. In Myanmar, we always feared for our lives,” says Shamsheeda, who claims images of mutilated bodies and burnt houses from her past Myanmar life still haunt her.

Haroon, too, is taken aback with India’s sudden stepmotherly turn. “I thought India is a peace-loving country. It gives space to all. Why is India being so harsh on us?” he asks.

Perhaps Haroon has not heard one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popular punchlines – “Mera desh badal raha hai (My country is changing).”

Enough said.


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The exiled former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, gets online with Sonia Sarkar to spell out why India is critical to his dream of returning as boss of the archipelago

  • Illustration: Suman Choudhury

He was known as the first rockstar President of the Maldives – Western educated, suave, crisply-turned out, espousing liberal values in an Islamic state, a visage that sometimes reminded some of a likeness to Barack Obama. Mohamed Nasheed caught attention easily. But not always where he wanted it most. He has the ears of the West thousands of miles away but has failed to cast a spell on his immediate neighbour, India. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron calls him “best friend”; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has so far ignored him. But Nasheed hasn’t given up; he wants Modi to listen to him.

“I would try to tell Prime Minister Modi that the people of the Maldives are suffering under an autocratic government run by President Abdulla Yameen. We would like him to understand the fears of the people of Maldives,” Nasheed, 49, chief of the Maldivian Democratic Party, tells The Telegraph from Colombo over Skype.

So far, his plea has gone unheard in Delhi. Modi seems to be moving closer to Nasheed’s rival, Yameen. Last year, Modi signed a defence pact with the Maldives when Yameen visited Delhi. Indian diplomats say the deal was a bid to stem a growing Chinese influence in the Maldives. A major contract for the construction of Male’s international airport, which was earlier given to Indian infrastructure company, GMR, got revoked and went to a Chinese company.

But Nasheed cautions India. “I don’t think pandering to Yameen would make him averse to signing more contracts with China,” he warns. “Yameen has given around nine islands to China and some of those islands are very crucial for India because of their geopolitical positioning.”

Nasheed is frank enough to admit that these contracts to China will be tough to revoke even if he comes to power. Earlier, India suspected Nasheed of being receptive to China when a Chinese embassy was opened in Male in 2011 during his presidentship. “If we come to power, it’s going to be very difficult to undo any sovereign contract that Yameen will engage in with any other country,” Nasheed says. “We don’t want to bargain between India and China. I don’t want to blackmail a country into a negotiation or an action.”

Nasheed was thrown out of power in a coup in 2012 by the former Vice-President, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. Hassan is known to be a crony of former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who Nasheed defeated in 2008. A year after the 2012 coup, Nasheed had taken refuge for 10 days at the Indian High Commission in Male fearing arrest. That was the only time that an Indian government (the UPA at that time) has responded to his call for help.

Nasheed has been trying to drag India’s attention to alleged cases of corruption, media repression and human rights violations by Yameen but to little avail. India’s diplomatic outlook appears clear: it will not engage with any individual, it would engage with the country’s official representative.

But Nasheed isn’t giving up. He routinely briefs officials of the Indian High Commission in London, where he has been living in political asylum since last year. His party colleagues have been meeting experts at Indian security think tanks in New Delhi too. They are making all possible efforts to pursue the Indian government to create pressure on Yameen to allow Nasheed to fight elections next year.

Nasheed fears being arrested the moment he lands in Male because he has been sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment on charges of terrorism in 2015. Of the 13 years, he has spent only a few months in jail. Also, he is barred from fighting the polls on grounds of criminal conviction.

So he has joined hands with all opposition parties, including his long-time foe, Gayoom, the leader of the Progressive Party of Maldives and half-brother of President Yameen, to come back to power. When Gayoom ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years, he had had Nasheed arrested more than 20 times for his demand for democratic elections in the country. But now Nasheed appears to have dissolved his difference with Gayoom.

Together, with two other parties, Nasheed and Gayoom have created the United Opposition, which enjoys a majority in the Maldivian Parliament. They plan to move legislation for “free and fair” elections in which Nasheed can also participate.

Many believe Nasheed’s alliance with Gayoom shows his desperation to come to power. But Nasheed, who signed the deal with the opposition parties in Colombo, begs to differ. “It’s not my desperation. People are desperate to find solutions to problems of the Maldives and the onus is on us,” he stresses.

But Nasheed has a problem: he isn’t known as someone who can take everyone on board. In the past, when he was in power, he was accused of alienating the judiciary, the police, even parliamentarians. Key members of his government also resigned in sheer frustration.

Nasheed admits to learning lessons from the past. “This time, we cannot consolidate power within our own party. We must be ready to share powers with our allies,” he asserts. During the two-and-a-half years he was in power, Nasheed’s notion of “liberalising” the outlook of the country didn’t go down well with his newfound allies; at the time, many saw him as a threat to “traditional Islamic values” in the Maldives.

Over the past five years, Islamic extremism has risen across the thousand-island nation 1,350 miles southwest of India with a population of 3,50,000. Some reports suggest the Maldives is the biggest per capita contributor to terror outfit ISIS. But if he comes back as president, Nasheed says he is determined to tackle extremism: “I must continue to show leadership in liberal acceptance.”

Nasheed’s concept of liberalism is largely borrowed from the West, where he grew up. He read at the UK’s Dauntsey’s School in posh Wiltshire, and later enrolled for maritime studies at Liverpool’s John Moores University. His connections with the UK are deep. He has met Queen Elizabeth II and stayed at the Windsor Castle. But his Western ties don’t stop at Britain’s royals. Amal Clooney, celebrity international lawyer and wife to George Clooney, carries his brief. Nasheed’s fight for democracy in Maldives also finds itself gloried in a documentary titled The Island President; it was made by Hollywood’s Jon Shenk, one of the directors on the iconic Star Wars space saga.

As president, Nasheed’s policies were largely influenced by the West. His economic policies were based on the International Monetary Fund model of capitalism. He was also hailed by the West when he conducted an underwater Cabinet in 2009 to highlight the threat of global warming to the low-lying Indian Ocean nation.

Despite receiving accolades from the West, his love for India hasn’t diminished. His fascination for Indian cinema is deep. “I have been a fan of all the stars of the 80s – Amitabh Bachchan, the Kapoors and Mithun. I seem to keep going back to Abhimaan, Silsila and Kabhie Kabhie over and over again,” he laughs, adding, “I can never forget Zeenat Aman and Poonam Dhillon.” His exposure to Bollywood happened during his various trips to India as a teenager. On his first visit as a teenager, he travelled across India by train for four months. Later, as a politician too, he travelled to New Delhi and Bangalore several times; his last trip to India was in 2015. “I like living in India,” he says.

A history enthusiast, Nasheed has authored three books on Maldivian history. A former journalist and an avid reader, Nasheed is currently reading Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India.

Nasheed is a fitness freak too. He wakes up early and his 40-minute run is regimented. He is extremely careful about his lunch and dinner timings. A family man, Nasheed loves spending time with his wife, Laila, and two daughters, Mira and Zaaya, who study in a boarding school in England.

But then his life in UK is only transitory. He aims to be back home. “Soon,” he insists. He compares his state of homelessness to what Salman Rushdie has mentioned in his book, Imaginary Homelands. “I am always imagining home and the condition itself is not easy. And I don’t want to remain like this.” For things to change faster for him, he has been trying to shore up support back home through social media, especially Twitter. He claims a large number of his 85.1K followers on Twitter are young men and women in their early 20s: “Successful politics in the 21st century is instant – on Twitter.”

That’s where he “met” Modi too. “Recently, Modi retweeted one of my tweets on democracy. I would consider that as our meeting,” he says.

But perhaps he’d like to take a break from that virtual meeting and make it real.


tetevitae

Son of a businessman, the 1967-born Nasheed is educated in his own country, as well as Sri Lanka and Britain

He is in his 20s when he comes to be known as an outspoken critic of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s regime

1991: Arrested for the first time for writing a magazine piece alleging that the government had rigged the 1989 general elections. Named Amnesty International prisoner of conscience thereafter

It is said that in the next 17 years, Anni – as he is popularly known – was arrested 20 times

2001: Tries to register the Maldivian Democratic Party but fails. Finally, he succeeds in 2005

2008: Elected president in the Maldives’ first free polls, thus ending the 30-year rule of Gayoom

His presidency is not entirely smooth. And in 2012, he resigns

In 2015, he is awarded a 13-year prison sentence on terrorism charges. Shortly after, he asks to be allowed to travel to the UK for medical treatment. The UK has been his home since.

 

April 16, 2017

Kashmiri indignation remains well-fed, generation to generation

I’VE BEEN looking at the renewed powderflash from Kashmir on the television screens, and I’ve been looking at old notes in my diary. Some of it is worth repeating because some things, sadly, never change.

The Bodo jawan, small and fair, stops the small car ahead of us. He leans his head inside and asks the elderly man, in pheran and skull cap, to step out. Taking slow and clumsy steps, the man walks towards the checkpost about 700 metres down the road. His car crawls behind him. We are on a dusty stretch near Padgampora in Pulwama, 35 kilometres south of Srinagar.

It’s our turn now. Curiously, the young soldier allows us through without a question.

“You are spared because you are an Indian,” quips my driver, Mehraj, a burly man in his late 50s. By “Indian” he meant non-Kashmiri.

Random checks, unprovoked summons and unwarranted detentions are common for local Kashmiris. “We are treated as outsiders in our own land” – is a common refrain.

Journalists on assignment from Delhi have it far easier than anyone Kashmiri. While we roam the curfewed streets of Srinagar freely, flaunting the central government’s Press Information Bureau tag, Kashmiri journalists, by contrast, must scout escape routes through Srinagar’s narrow bylanes to reach safety when there’s trouble.

One afternoon, during the 2010 unrest, I was on my way to downtown Srinagar, when I heard a Kashmiri journalist frantically call out. He had been thrashed by CRPF jawans who wouldn’t be convinced that he ran a news agency and actually published “pro-Indian” content.

It’s November 2016. I am back in the Valley. At Bandipora, I am passing by a landscape of burnt tyres, broken spokes and logs of wood. We are manoeuvring through the barricades and gun-toting soldiers. Two militants were killed in a nearby village the previous night.

Kashmir has been on high alert for several months now. A summer full of blooms has been busted by the killing of the young Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July. Months of unrest followed. Close to a hundred people died, thousands were injured or permanently disabled, Kashmir recorded its longest time under curfew.

It’s nearing the end of autumn now. In fact, a delayed autumn, Mehraj corrects me. The unusual calm in the fog-ridden air resounds with tales of a wounded summer. The tall chinar trees, bereft of the leaves, stand in a row. The skies are heavy with grey clouds turning darker. We hear thunder in the distance. In a while, thick drops of rain start falling on the windshield. I roll down the window to feel the rain-freshened air.

This sudden downpour is as unpredictable as the unrest in Kashmir, says Basit, a Sopore lawyer, as we munch on crispy lavassas (flat bread made of finely-milled wheat flour), bundhh (salted bun) and chochwour (bread with sesame coating) at his house.

Basit is telling me about the unlawful detention of stone-pelters and how their cases progress in court. As we get engrossed in our conversation, Basit’s little nephew, all of three, sits coyly next to him. He and his elder brother have been confined to home for months now; the schools are shut. His brother is now restless and is keen to go back to school but he isn’t. “Whenever we tell him, he would go to the kindergarten soon, he would say, ‘ Pehle India ko bhagaao, phir school jayenge (Let India leave Kashmir, then I will go to school),” his lawyer uncle says chirpily.

The child looks on with a glassy stare as Basit narrates more stories of his revolt at home. He even ignores his mother’s summons. The boy pulls a kangri (little pot with lighted charcoal) closer to himself for some warmth. I could see the glowing embers of the kangri. These embers, perhaps, resemble the rage of a young Kashmiri.

This rage remained subdued in the autumn and through the winter. But what’s the coming summer, already blistered, to bring? Kashmir is aflame again.

 

Telegraph, April 2, 2017

Link : https://www.telegraphindia.com/1170402/jsp/7days/story_143981.jsp



  • mamun ibne hussain: dont take it negatively but we are indian and our daughters should not follow the filthiest dirtiest horrible european and american womens the w
  • Susmita Saha: Memories truly have a special place in the treasure trove called life. And your memories shine like jewels in this piece.
  • saimi: That is a lovely one Sonia.. and I can relate to so many things that you mention ...