Having fled Myanmar more than 14 years ago to escape persecution, Salimullah now lives in a makeshift Rohingya settlement, where he owns and operates a small general store.
“Here, after becoming refugees, we found the right to work, the right to go anywhere we’d like,” he said.
“The (government in Myanmar) kept us in such a narrow and helpless state,” he tells CNN.
Now, he worries that his hard-won freedom is under threat.
On Tuesday, India’s supreme court will consider a case brought on behalf of Salimullah against the deportation of the more than 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India.
Changes in people’s attitude to Delhi’s Rohingya first began in August, when news emerged of guidance sent by India’s federal government, currently run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to the country’s 29 states, asking local officials to identify illegal immigrants for deportation — including, the guidance said, Rohingya Muslims who had fled Myanmar.
“As per available estimates there are around 40,000 Rohingya living illegally in the country,” India’s junior home minister Kiren Rijiju told Parliament on August 9. “The government has issued detailed instructions for deportation of illegal foreign nationals including Rohingyas.”
Rijiju characterized the move as a “continuous process.”
The words from one of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ministers set off a wave of fear and uncertainty across Rohingya settlements in India.
“We felt scared, we asked people about what we should do, who we should talk to,” Salimullah says. “Where else can we go?”
Salimullah left Myanmar in 2003, after, he says, his father was harassed and locked up by the police. He spent eight years in Bangladesh, working as an auto rickshaw driver. But life in Bangladesh was also restrictive, he adds. “You had to get permission just to leave the camps.”
He eventually left for India, crossing the border with his family in 2011. The Rohingya in India are scattered across India, from Kashmir in the north to Hyderabad in the South. Salimullah decided on Delhi.
Salimullah now lives in Kanchan Kunj, a Rohingya settlement in the city’s southeast, just off the banks of the Yamuna river.
Kanchan Kunj is one of four Rohingya settlements in the city, and the oldest. The 50-odd homes there are all temporary structures, made with wooden planks, held down with bricks and covered in tarp. The structures last somewhere between two to four years, Salimullah said, though the community itself has been there since 2012.
Flies swarm in front of Salimullah’s shop, a wooden structure that stands on a patch of land off the banks of the Yamuna river at Delhi’s city border. They buzz and loop around his body, but he doesn’t spend much time batting them away.
When the news about the risk of deportation broke in August, Salimullah suddenly started getting visitors at his shop. Local political party representatives, activists, reporters — people who wanted to find out more about him and his fellow Rohingya refugees after the minister’s remarks.
It was then, as the media and others descended on Kanchan Kunj, that Sailmullah learned that he could petition India’s top court to try and prevent deportation.
He was still apprehensive, though. “I thought we can’t go there (Myanmar) they will kill us. What can I do about this?” he says.
Eventually, he approached supreme court lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who agreed to take his case and filed a petition asking for protection of Rohingya refugees from deportation on September 1.
The legal action came against the backdrop of growing humanitarian crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and neighboring Bangladesh.
The recent outbreak of violence is believed to have begun when Rohingya militants attacked border posts killing 12 security officers on August 25, according to Myanmar’s state media. In response, the military intensified what it terms “clearance operations” against “terrorists.”
Myanmar’s military denies charges of ethnic cleansing.
So why does India want to deport the Rohingya back to Rakhine State?
In an affidavit submitted to the supreme court on September 18, the government said that there exists “authentic material indicating linkages of some of the unauthorized Rohingya immigrants with Pakistan based terror organizations” and “that many of the Rohingyas figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISI/ISIS and other extremist group.”
The government said that it would submit evidence of this to the supreme court in a “sealed cover.”
But Bhushan, the lawyer arguing the petition for the Rohingya in Delhi, says India cannot back out on its moral obligations to protect the vulnerable.
While India does not have specific legislation governing the status of refugees, the country has a history of accepting refugees in times of crisis.
At the time of Bangladesh’s founding in the early 1970s, for example, India played host to millions of refugees from across the border. So, regardless of a legal framework, “they have in practice abided by the refugee convention,” Bhushan says.
Furthermore, while India may not have signed the refugee convention, it is party to many other international conventions, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which include the principle of “non-refoulement,” which is the right guaranteed to refugees to be protected from violence in their home country, Bhushan argues.
“Clearly the Indian government is now going back on its long-stated policy towards refugees in the case of Rohingyas, and is playing domestic communal politics with them by trying to whip up communal sentiment, by labeling them as Muslims and potential terrorists,” he adds.
It is unclear whether India has developed specific plans to remove the Rohingya, which would require the direct involvement of the Myanmar government.
Myanmar does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens and does not issue them official documentation — rendering them effectively stateless.
As the debate rages on publicly, refugees like Salimullah continue to live in fear as they encounter more local hostility.
For the first time, his five-year-old community has decided to pool together money to pay three men to stand guard at night, he tells CNN.
“Now the issue has become political, and people here say things like ‘you people are terrorists,'” he says.
“If they’re going to deport us, then there should at least be an example of a terrorist attack, or evidence that the country’s in danger,” he adds. “We’ve been here for years, and if you go to the local police station, there’s not a single (criminal) report against us.”