Imphal: The Indian government might be keen to send the Rohingya Muslims packing to Myanmar but its consistent failure in deporting 11 of them, who have been languishing in Manipur jails for years, shows it's easier said than done.
According to various aid agencies, about 40,000 Rohingya Muslims are living in India since fleeing their homeland of Myanmar in the wake of violence. This community has been living in the country's Rakhine state since 8th century but the government does not consider them citizens. They live in poverty and are denied most basic of human rights, like education and freedom to marry, to name two. Myanmar's latest "security operation", which the world leaders have called genocide and ethnic cleansing, is forcing them to seek asylum in other nations yet again.
Terming them illegal immigrants, a drain on the country's resources and a security threat, the Indian government has categorically said it seeks to deport all the Rohingyas. On the other hand, it has failed to deport 11 Rohingya refugees over the past five years after Myanmar refused to accept them as its citizens.
A prison official from Manipur, which shares a porous border with Myanmar, spoke to Firstpost on the condition of anonymity and said that the authorities concerned in the state have tried many a time to deport the 11 refugees. All of them were arrested on the charges of entering India without valid documents.
The official said deporting is a cumbersome process and requires the involvement of Union Home Ministry and the cooperation of the Myanmar government. With the latter consistently refusing repatriation, the refugees find themselves stuck in Indian jails.
The prison official said the authorities are more than willing to release the Rohingya prisoners but refrain from doing so out of caution. He said there are concerns that people might assault or even kill these immigrants.
Frantic efforts, worth nothing
Reportedly, five Rohingya Muslims who were lodged at Sajiwa Central Jail in Manipur's capital Imphal were repatriated in 2015. Fearing a similar fate — since living in Myanmar is risking death for this minority — nine Rohingya Muslims who are also lodged in the central jail filed a petition in the high court on 8 February, 2016.
About that time, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, New Delhi, wrote a letter to the joint secretary of Union home ministry, seeking access to Myanmar nationals lodged in Manipur's central jail. The letter also made a case for completing the process of determining their refugee status and releasing them.
However, during the hearing on 1 February this year, their advocate Meihoubam Rakesh learnt from the government counsel that the petitioners have filed an application to the Manipur home ministry's principal secretary, seeking their repatriation. A little more than two weeks later, their case was disposed off. The court directed the principal secretary to consult with the ministry of external affairs and take a call on deporting the refugees within six weeks.
Speaking with Firstpost, Rakesh expressed surprise at the inexplicable development and said he did all in his might.
The prison official said they are still awaiting instructions from the Union Home Ministry on what to do with the foreign nationals lodged in the central jail. He informed that response to their paperwork from Myanmar comes in the language and script used in the south-east Asian country and the authorities here have to take the help of the jailed refugees to make sense of it.
Prisoners of fate
Three Rohingya Muslims were arrested on 29 January, 2012, near Indo-Myanmar border from Manipur’s Churachandpur district on the charges of entering the country without valid documents. Four days later, six more Rohingya men were arrested in the district. On July 30, the chief judicial magistrate of Churachandpur convicted all nine of them and sentenced them to six months of simple imprisonment under Section 14 of The Foreigners Act, 1946. As they had been in jail all this while, they had already served their prison term by the time the verdict was announced.
More than five years have passed but they still remain behind bars. Similarly, two other Rohingya Muslims were convicted and sent to Sajiwa Central Jail in August 2013 and January 2014. While one is still an undertrial, the other's jail sentence finished three years ago. Altogether, 19 Myanmar nationals are lodged in the central jail in Imphal. A Bangladeshis is also behind bars despite all of them having finished their jail term long ago.
Firstpost tried contacting the jailed Rohingya Muslims, but the tedious process of seeking approval from multiple high-level agencies thwarted the attempt.
SM Jalal Sheikh, the president of All Manipur Muslim Organisations’ Co-ordinating Committee, said the crisis in Myanmar and Indian government's response to it are unfortunate. He said India accommodated the Tibetans during the Chinese invasion and settled them in Dharamsala but is now being a mute spectator as thousands of innocent people are being massacred in another neighbouring country.
Meanwhile, Manipur chief minister N Biren has issued a security alert, directing that police and district administrations beef up security along the border with Myanmar to check the influx of Rohingya Muslims.
The authors are Imphal-based freelance writers and members of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
Updated Date: Sep 19, 2017 06:42 AM