NEW DELHI – Abdullah, a Rohingya refugee, is living under a renewed fear that he may lose his second home in India where he has been living in a shanty slum-dwelling for the last nearly 10 years after escaping religious persecution in his Myanmar hometown.
It is fear redux for Abdullah and other immigrants in India, particularly after growing calls to throw out “infiltrators” from the country that sees a huge influx of migrants laborers, particularly from neighboring Bangladesh.
“People public have threatened us. They say they will kill us, chase us, and throw us out,” Abdullah, 29, told EFE.
He was referring to some online video clips threatening Muslim migrants amid repeated calls from several ministers and leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that illegal immigrants would be sent to detention camps after a nationwide citizenship census.
However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said the government was yet to decide about the so-called National Registry of Citizens that requires people to produce documents of ancestry to be enlisted as Indian nationals.
The anti-immigrant rant has been gaining momentum in the country after India’s all-powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, a close confidant of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and de facto No. 2 in the government, famously called immigrants “termites” at a public rally last year.
More recently, BJP’s senior leader Kailash Vijayvargiya said he had expelled some construction workers at his house for their “strange eating habits” that indicated they were Bangladeshis.
He said he had seen the laborers consuming poha, a popular dish made from flattened rice – a staple breakfast in parts of east India and neighboring Bangladesh.
For many, the threats are a part of the BJP’s Hindu nationalistic rhetoric but for Abdullah and the rest of his almost 250 refugee neighbors, the “hateful” narrative can have life-threatening consequences.
“I feel more scared than how I used to feel in Burma (Myanmar). It was better here until 2017. But now, I have no words (to describe how scary it has grown),” said Abdullah.
Married with two children who were born in India, Abdullah, whose house in Myanmar was set ablaze, relocated to the country, guided by its inclusiveness and social justice portrayed in Bollywood movies.
In Delhi, his temporary home was destroyed in a fire in 2018 in what, he says, was torched to force them to leave.
India has over 18,000 Rohingya asylum seekers, registered under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who fled their country after years of violent persecution and a brutal military crackdown that UN says was a textbook example of genocide.
Abdullah said their fears have multiplied after the Indian parliament approved a controversial law that guarantees citizenship to religious minorities from India’s neighboring Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but excludes Muslims.
Though the new rule doesn’t affect the refugee status of the Rohingyas, Abdullah said videos on social media networks have scared them “especially after the citizenship law was passed.”
“We have our refugee cards (from UNHCR), we have no connection or meaning with CAA, yet we get threat calls,” he said.
Mohammad Haroon, a Rohingya refugee leader, echoed the fear. “At first, we were at a calm but since the citizenship act, we are no longer sure.”
Just across the road from their refugee camp, thousands of protesters have blocked a highway for the past nearly two months now.
The demonstrators, including activists and academicians, are demanding the government revoke the new citizenship law because it goes against principles of the country’s secular constitution since it gives passports and citizenship rights on a religious basis.
“We are a secular country, we don’t go by religion. It (the act) is an attack on the constitution,” Madhu Prasad, a former Delhi University professor, told EFE at the protest site. “Once they do this to our constitution, this will continue. It’s not going to stop (with that).”
Prasad said the act is a tool for the BJP to target Muslims, who make up for around 14 percent of the country’s 1.3 billion population.
Radhika Chopra, who teaches sociology at Delhi University, said the real target of the BJP was Indian Muslims and Modi’s Hindu nationalism was projecting an image of good versus bad immigrants.
The persecuted minorities from the neighboring countries versus “infiltrators” or the “termites,” she said.
Avinash Kumar, director of Amnesty International India, agreed. “They are targeting the Muslim community, not just those who came from outside, but also target those who have been living here for generations.”