The art of statelessness
10 February 2014
Fragments of the lives of the Rohingya refugees in Jammu.
A violent downpour muddies the waters of Kalyani talab, a small pond to which a government primary school and a towering minaret form a backdrop. It is the landmark you are directed to if you want to know the whereabouts of the Rohingyas in Jammu, the Muslim refugees from Burma who settled here on rented land in Qasim Nagar in Narwal, on the outskirts of the city, in 2008. Further down the road the water is streaming down the jute and nylon roofs of the shanty encampment – a tight cluster of huts made of wooden panels, most of them bearing the unlikely mark of Royal Bengal Commercial Plywood. Three provisory stairs, a boulder and two sacks of sand, descend to the camp. The torrent is flooding the narrow passages between the shacks. Its noise smothers the murmur arising from the improvised mosque and madrasa where a group of girls and boys, rocking rhythmically back and forth, are reciting the Quran, placed open on tiny bookracks. The deluge is showering the skinny chickens running around; women are washing clothes and pots at the sewage canals that branch out and trickle through the entire camp like swollen veins.
In one of the shacks an emaciated woman, probably much younger than she looks, is staring blankly through the open door and the rain curtain, with several pills (antidepressants) scattered on the floor in front of her. In another, a young woman, squatting, is holding her day-old child whose umbilical cord is still unsevered. In yet another, a woman is coughing from tuberculosis; a father holding his one-and-a-half-year-old son, whose testicles are drooping down, bigger than his head (hernia, as we later found out, is quite common among them). In a clearing at the end of the camp, several naked children are dancing, welcoming the cloudburst with their heads tilted back, their mouths wide open. The local government shut down their water supply, scarce as it was, in October last year. This is the only water they get –manna from heaven.
The Rohingyas, who had to flee Burma due to persecution, can be found scattered throughout the world. In India, besides in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, they are also clustered in the cities of Delhi and Hyderabad, most likely because these areas have significant Muslim populations. As a (Muslim) minority in India, they are facing discrimination and are under threat of being forcefully displaced or deported by right-wing nationalist forces. In the politically sensitive petri dish that is Jammu and Kashmir, that threat is even more imminent, and the bigger political issues here overshadow the fact that the Rohingyas are a group of asylum seekers made up of mostly women and children.
Inside Mohammad Yunus’s hut a group of Rohingya men has gathered. The rain is still very audible, knocking on the roof in a regular staccato rhythm. Yunus is the vice-president of their still unregistered Rohingya Committee, the men gathered around him are its members. When an opportunity arises they are also manual labourers – railway cleaners, garbage collectors, construction workers – while some of them have set up small shops in and outside the camp. “People don’t want to hire us, so we work at any jobs we can get. Sometimes they pay us, sometimes they don’t,” one of the men says. “We have no nationality, so we can’t demand anything. We don’t even exist.”
Two years back some NGO people came here and distributed 25 kilos of rice and ten litres of oil to 400 families, says Yunus in fluent Hindi. Another local NGO, the Sakhawat Centre, has built three primary schools and donated ten sewing machines. The women now make clothes for their own use but have no capital to produce a surplus. They can hardly make a living this way. As Yunus is talking a tiny girl with chickenpox scars on her face and a plastic rose pinned to her short hair teeters into the room, plays briefly with some colourful shreds of cloth that lie around one of the sewing machines and runs back to her mother in the kitchen. “She’s turned four recently, but still hasn’t been registered by the UNHCR, though we insisted,” says Yunus, getting up from his chair to make way for a newcomer. A very urban-looking man comes in wearing a pair of tight jeans and sunglasses tucked into the collar of his T-shirt – a Rohingya who worked for a year and a half as a UN interpreter, but now runs a grocery store nearby. Taking advantage of the change of atmosphere, some of the men start circulating supari (areca nut) packets. The gathering slowly turns into an impromptu committee meeting, the men’s voices soaring and clashing, prevailing over the rain. “Don’t mind. There’s always something to discuss,” the interpreter says, smiling apologetically.
Amidst the voices, Yunus takes out a monsoon-proof pink plastic ladies purse and pulls out a hardcover notebook. Three female college graduates in black robes and caps beam from the front cover, giving the thumbs up. One of them could be Indian; the other two are blonde. Just above their caps, Burma Refugees in Jammu, 2008 is scribbled in faded ink. I open it up and turn page after page of handwritten lists of names, registering all the Rohingya refugees in and around the city, along with their respective case numbers. I realise it is their customised, private book of exodus. Their most valued possession.
Yunus’s phone has kept ringing throughout the day, interrupting every conversation – the police, the UNHCR headquarters in Delhi, the Intelligence Bureau… Now somebody has informed him that a number of Rohingyas have been arrested and jailed in Calcutta, probably awaiting deportation. Is there something he can do? Is there somebody else to call? Exhausted, he turns to us – do you think you could call someone?
Political theorist Hannah Arendt, talking about the displaced Jews in the first half of the 20th century in her essay ‘We Refugees’, wrote: “We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feeling.” The memories of the Rohingya, purified and abstracted to the point of myth by spatial and temporal distance, have metamorphosed into unselective longing. Home has turned into metaphor, a daydream constantly haunting them as they try to hold onto any palpable identity they can invent or muster. In the meantime, they take refuge in the shade of a rootless tree, only to realise it is as futile as the daydream. “Once we were somebodies about whom people cared, we were loved by friends, and even known by landlords as paying our rent regularly. Once we could buy food and ride in the subway without being told we were undesirable,” writes Arendt. So, is there life after exile? Yes, but it’s more of a limbo.
There was a girl from here, they say, who was called to the UNHCR headquarters in Delhi for an interview about her refugee card on 17 Dec 2012. She was pregnant at the time, nearing delivery, but had to go as no future awaited either she or her child without the card. She gave birth on the train. The ticket examiner helped her get off at Ambala station, from where she was rushed to hospital. There she was given medicines and later sent off to Delhi in a car, but the UNHCR officials didn’t want to receive her. They told her to come back some other time. She then went back with her baby to the Old Delhi Railway Station, but couldn’t get tickets to Jammu – the railway management didn’t want to assume any responsibility. The girl and her child spent the next five days at the station; they both caught severe colds and were close to death when their community was informed. “When people of various nationalities, say Bangladeshis, Tibetans, Nepalese, end up in trouble in another land, they can approach their respective embassies or representatives for any kind of help. But where do we go, who do we see?”
The right to refugee status, they say, has been approved by the UN authorities in Geneva. To date the UNHCR haven’t provided any more than a hundred refugee cards across India. They have only issued a handful of cards to those with visual or speech impairments. But it’s all just a pretence, the men say, a show of sorts. Novelist Amitav Ghosh, in a 1994 essay on the UN peacekeeping role in Cambodia, calls the UN a “child of bureaucracy” that “replicates the international hierarchies that order the relations between rich and poor, weak and powerful nations,” and that, intentions aside, it doesn’t “reflect the realities of the world that sustains it.” Along the same lines, Arendt traces “the banality of evil” to a flawed and indiscriminate bureaucratic apparatus and a misguided consensus which interprets otherwise unacceptable behaviours or practices as normal or necessary: the way things are.
Back in the room, Yunus is showing us some pictures on his mobile phone – dozens of charred Rohingya bodies somewhere in Thailand, after a police encounter. A shocking sight rendered surreal by the format and the medium, almost inapprehensible, but starkly telling of a witch-hunt against these demonised, stateless others who, again in Arendt’s words, “unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings.” She wrote that she could “hardly imagine an attitude more dangerous, since we actually live in a world in which human beings as such have ceased to exist for a while; since society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed.” Where, in this case, lies the applicability of Tagorean universalism or anti-nationalism, when having a nationality is a category preliminary to any other, the only viable means of securing some kind of (human) rights? It is more likely that Tagore’s noble, if utopian, ideas might have been well-meaning attempts to avoid the inevitable binaries that a nation model generates. Similarly, Ghosh writes that “the UN represents the totality of the world’s recognized nation-states,” and that “the fundamental logic of its functioning is to recreate the image of its membership wherever it goes.” So what about the people who slip between the cracks of nations, the ones who don’t fit into the binary model that separates the stateless from the citizens? In this clean-cut and cruel equation, the stateless become reluctant nomads leading a fragmented existence; unmoored and adrift, they live in perpetual abeyance. “Where do we go?” one of the Rohingya men asks. “Should we march toward the sea and drown ourselves?”
An elegant and slender man with rapid eye movements and the affectations of a Bharatnatyam dancer says he was working for various NGOs in Burma when the police came for him. We met him on the road, near a small chai stall. Luckily he wasn’t at home when they came for him. Instead, the police ransacked his house and arrested all of his neighbours. “What could I do? I checked out of the country the very next day,” he says, shrugging his shoulders and laughing, hands up as if expecting to catch something falling from the sky. “And all this factory work, you know, it just isn’t me. But sometimes I have to do it. For money, you know. What to do? That’s life. I just put on my blindfold (he mimes the whole thing while pinching his nose as if to shun a bad smell) and say, I’m ready, bring it on. Bring it on!” It sounded as if he was shouting it to a DJ, overpowered by disco frenzy.
The next afternoon we returned to the settlement to attend a wedding – a girl was marrying a boy from the neighbouring camp. We were running late, missing the communal wedding lunch by an hour, because we had spent the morning in a nearby private clinic where one of the Rohingya girls was scheduled for a hernia pre-operation check-up. A girl of ten, adopted by Yunus’s family because her mother had, for untold reasons, stayed back in Burma. The whole camp had collectively drawn funds for her treatment, since government hospitals either won’t admit them at all, or urgent cases get scheduled too far in the future. It left the girl’s well-wishers with no other option.
Here in the camp the strong midday sun had dried up all the vestiges of the previous day’s copious rain, and siesta silence pervaded the atmosphere. Everybody had retreated to their huts, resting after heavy festive food and waiting for the oppressive heat to abate. In the middle of the clearing, where only yesterday the children had danced in the downpour, a faded wedding tent was erected, one of its wings flapping in the standing fans’ unvarying breeze. Now there was no one in it, except for Yunus’s eldest son who was stretched out across a single row of chairs lined up along the tent’s inner sides, dozing away. We sat down. Immediately, Yunus positioned one of the pink fans directly in front of us, achieving the Bollywood effect of flying hair. Several women brought a small table and laid it out with wedding dishes. A bottle of cooled water was placed on the side; somebody called for Pepsi.
All the while, the bride was in her hut right next to the tent, preparing for the afternoon ceremonies which would start in three hours. After our meal, her father invited us in for chai and snacks. It was incredibly hot and stuffy inside. The wooden panels and the tin roof provide little insulation against the relentless sun emanating hot currents of air into the cramped space. Another standing fan is switched on. In the adjoining room, the women are gathered around the bride, forming a circle. A soft pinkish light is permeating the whole space, colouring their faces and making them appear almost ethereal – the effect of the sun’s rays slanting through small cracks in the wooden panels and passing through somebody’s reddish dupatta hung on a nail. The women are helping the bride with dress and jewellery and dispensing some last minute advice.
Outside, under the tent, everybody is being served cooled fizzy drinks in transparent plastic cups. The bride’s father is pouring chai (made over an open fire just behind the tent) into small cups arranged on a tray. The little girls from the settlement are sparkling and sweating in glittery, frilled polyester and cheap jewellery. The braver ones are posing for the camera. Pretty soon, three newcomers arrive at the party. The three brothers, now reclining in their chairs and meditatively sipping fluorescent Mountain Dew, are the owners of this piece of land which they rent out to the Rohingyas for a settled monthly sum. Everybody seems at ease with one another. During the afternoon prayers, loud wailing begins to sound from the women’s room. When the prayers are over, the daughter will leave her family forever: held by the women, stumbling and staggering up the path toward the road in her high-heeled slip-on shoes, feeling excitement or simply downright panic.
The children have set out for the groom’s camp carrying the gifts for the couple on their heads and backs – plastic chairs, chests filled with bride’s paraphernalia in all shades of pink, plastic water containers, new winter blankets, pots and pans, and lastly, the two pink standing fans that were cooling the guests throughout the scorching day. They look like a neat row of ants milling up the hill and down the road to set up a new home somewhere in the distance.
When I think of the Rohingyas in Jammu, the first thing that comes to mind is the feeling of habitual sadness so prevalent among them, which only the children, to a certain degree, seemed to escape. The men, well into their 50s, sitting on the floor of Yunus’s hut on our first day there, and listening to him speak without feeling the impulse, or energy, to interrupt, embodied that sadness most eloquently. Something had been sapped out of them, but they didn’t seem gloomy or melancholic – simply depleted. Susan Sontag, in her book of essays On Photography, writes that “photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos.” On the other hand, that pathos rendered in black-and-white can make a photographer’s subjects seem more or less compliant objects of art rather than wronged individuals awaiting absolution, and can blunt the sense of urgency these photographs are trying to convey. Looking also at the space between them might strike a more pertinent chord.
~Photos by Rudra Rakshit and text by Lora Tomas.
~Rudra Rakshit is a Bangalore-based photographer who documents the working class and the migrant workforce, for which he was awarded the NFI fellowship in 2012. His work has appeared in many major Indian publications. Lora Tomas is a Bangalore-based Indologist, freelance writer, and translator from Croatia. She contributes to Croatian and Asian publications. She has co-edited and translated into Croatian a selection of contemporary Indian women’s writing Popodnevni pljuskovi (Afternoon Showers), 2011.