A batch of Rohingya refugees arriving at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, November 2, 2017 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE FAR-FLUNG BORDER REGIONS OF India’s Northeast are always a matter of concern for the country’s security planners. There is a civil war in Myanmar and its spill-over effects can be seen in the frontier region which is now witnessing a churn of a very different kind—Christian Rohingya from Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district have now begun to cross this undulating terrain, heading for India’s deep interiors as far inland as New Delhi.
The danger now is the entry of militants masquerading as members of the Rohingya Christian community. It may be mentioned that 120 terrorists belonging to Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) were arrested in the country between 2014 and 2019. This poses a difficult problem as India does not have the resources and infrastructure to ascertain the credentials of every immigrant or refugee entering the country from Bangladesh across different borders in remote places.
More than a hundred members of the community called “Rohingya Christians” are putting up in Delhi, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad after immigrating to India in small groups since 2012. They are mostly engaged in menial jobs to earn their livelihood.
A Delhi-based member of the community who identified himself as Ibrahim said that he crossed the Indian border with his family in 2012 within a few months of being compelled to flee from Myanmar. “We had to leave our homes in Maungdaw (Myanmar) and relocate to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar following a series of operations by the Myanmar military. Along with us, there were hundreds of families who had crossed the border. So our story has been the same as the Rohingya Muslims but also different since members of our Christian community had to face some problems at the refugee camps [in Bangladesh],” he said.
The Rohingya have been described as the “most persecuted minority” in the world by the United Nations (UN). The genesis of their exodus from Myanmar’s Rakhine State can be traced to the policies implemented by General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) after the coup in 1962. The dissolution of Rohingya social and political organisations was followed by Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) in 1977 with the objective of registering citizens and screening out foreigners ahead of a national census. By mid-1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh.
As a minority community living in a predominantly Buddhist country, the Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982. Over the next four decades, the Rohingya have fled successive waves of violence in Myanmar. Their largest exodus was in 2017 following the ‘clearance operations’ by the military after attacks on police outposts by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). Consequently, over seven lakh Rohingya were forced to flee and seek refuge in Bangladesh. According to an estimate, approximately one million Rohingya refugees have fled the violence in Myanmar with the majority living in Bangladesh and Malaysia.
Ibrahim explained that the process of conversion to Christianity in Myanmar began after the arrival of missionaries in their locality from Mizoram two decades ago. These missionaries held long sessions with them intermittently for two years. The proselytisers enlightened them on the Christian tenets, their spread across the world, and the history of the religion.
“There are more than 300 members of the community at a camp in Kutupalong in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar which is also home to thousands of Rohingya Muslims. And there are close to a hundred Christians still living in the region between Buthidaung and Maungdaw in Myanmar’s Rakhine State who were not evicted during the operations launched by the military,” he pointed out.
Another member of the community in Bengaluru, who did not wish to be named, claimed that the actual number of Christian converts at the refugee camps in Kutupalong is higher than the figure cited by Ibrahim. “It is not safe to be Christian in the refugee camps. There is a constant fear of the ARSA that has been gaining strength with more followers over the past few years,” he explained.
In India, the estimates given by members of the community about the actual number have varied between 250 and 300, with the biggest group staying in and around Vikaspuri in Delhi. An application sent by this correspondent to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act requesting information on the community has not elicited a precise response. A reply only said that the application has been “transferred” to the Bureau of Immigration under Section 6(3) of the RTI Act 2005 for providing the available information.
AFTER THEIR ARRIVAL in India, the refugees had organised silent demonstrations in Delhi demanding food, shelter, and protection. They have established the Rohingya Christian Assembly which keeps track of the community’s activities in the country. A portal launched in 2013 said there were about 1,500 Christians among a total of four million Rohingya in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other countries. “Most of us are converted from Islam since 2004 in Buthidaung township, Myanmar. We come (sic) to India in 2012. Our church is know (sic) as Rohingya Christian Assembly. It was established in 2013,” mentioned the portal.
A portal that defines its goal as “rescuing and serving persecuted Christians”, alleged that ARSA attacked Rohingya Christian refugees in January 2020 at the Kutupalong refugee camp. Subsequently, in another incident at the same camp, 400 ARSA militants destroyed a church and 25 Christian homes. A minor girl was allegedly kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to one of her captors. Incidentally, a letter addressed to the Bangladesh government, the UN, and some human rights organisations two years ago by the Rohingya Christian Refugee Committee in Delhi also referred to ARSA’s threats at the camp. It said that “many lives will be saved” if “attention” is given to the Rohingya Christians.
Apart from the threat faced by the community, the condition of the camps in Bangladesh, located mostly in and around Kutupalong and Nayapara in the coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, has also prompted large numbers of the Rohingya to escape and reach overseas destinations. Reports have surfaced at regular intervals about their hazardous journeys by sea to reach countries of Southeast Asia. Last December, about 150 refugees were stranded at sea off Thailand’s coast after their boat broke down. Late in 2021, for instance, there was a standoff involving a boat carrying Rohingya refugees and the Indonesian navy, which ended after 18 hours with a rescue of the refugees by the navy. The journey is arranged via multiple routes by a network of brokers active in most of the camps in Cox’s Bazar who charge exorbitant rates for transportation.
Recent developments indicate that the prospect of Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar appears bleak. In the first week of May, a group of 20 Rohingya refugees accompanied by Bangladesh government officials had visited two of the 15 villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State built for their repatriation. They were quoted by the media as saying they want full citizenship, equal rights, and access to their places of origin before hitting the return trail to their homes. The infrastructure had been built in Rakhine’s Maungdaw Township with grants from the governments of Japan, India, and China for the “repatriation and resettlement of refugees”. On an earlier occasion as well, Rohingya refugees had spurned the effort to repatriate them without guarantees of citizenship and security.
The experience of Rohingya Christians in India has been different from that of their Muslim counterparts. So far, no member of the community has been apprehended, nor are they thinking of returning to their homes in Myanmar
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In India, the Rohingya population is estimated at around 40,000 but a section of government officials is of the firm opinion that their actual number could be much higher since many from the community might have succeeded in crossing the border without being apprehended and settled down with menial jobs across several Indian cities. That their numbers could be more was indicated by a probe by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) last year which unearthed an extensive network for trafficking Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals to India through several porous stretches along the international border in the frontier zone of the Northeast and West Bengal. The investigation that lasted over a year unravelled a five-layered trafficking network that began with identifying the victims at the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. Six people were arrested in connection with the racket and remanded to judicial custody.
THE NIA PROBE came on the heels of an exercise launched by the government for the deportation of Rohingya refugees in the Jammu region to Myanmar. As many as 155 members of the community were sent to jail, which was described as a “holding centre”. Earlier, in 2018, the first batch of seven Rohingya Muslims was deported from Assam to Myanmar following a directive from the Centre to the states to identify them. Following the crackdown, many Rohingya Muslims had also hit the return trail to Bangladesh owing to their fear of being incarcerated and deported to Myanmar. Seen against the backdrop of these developments, the experience of Rohingya Christians in India has been starkly different from that of their Muslim counterparts. So far, no member of the community has been apprehended or sent to jail, nor are they thinking of returning to their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Given the conditions of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, the possibility of more members of the Rohingya Christian community crossing over to India cannot be ruled out. Certainly, staying in India would provide a greater degree of security to the community than at the refugee camps that have reportedly witnessed the proliferation of criminal gangs and the growing clout of the militant ARSA. That illegal immigration from Bangladesh is continuing has been proved repeatedly at regular intervals. Last March, three members of the Rohingya Muslim community were arrested while they were preparing to leave Tripura for Delhi. A police officer was quoted by the media as saying that they had arrived in the northeastern state after leaving Myanmar a month earlier.
The issue for India is the pending project of border fencing and increased surveillance that is yet to be completed. The last annual report of the home ministry mentions that an unfenced stretch of about 952 kilometres would be completed by March 2024 with a mix of physical and non-physical barriers. The ministry feels these measures will contribute to checking “anti-national activities” along the border. However, land acquisition is the core issue for the early completion of fencing that will touch all five border states over a long distance of 4,096 km.