For Mariyam, a mother deserted by her husband, it was not easy to build a ladder. The ladder, which she made herself hammering together pieces of waste furniture, is a lifeline whenever it rains and her tent gets flooded. In the tiny room made of bamboo sticks, plastic sheets and old bedsheets, she has managed to add another makeshift floor. The steep ladder is her bridge away from the outside world. On a worn-out mat, she plays with her pet cat.
“I may not get food every day, but I ensure my cat has. Allah is there to feed everyone,” chuckles Mariyam, a ragpicker. Among her possessions are a few utensils, a water container and clothes, some of them belonging to her daughter.
Like hundreds of other Rohingya, Mariyam has been living in the congested and poorly ventilated tents along the Yamuna at Madanpur Khadar in Delhi over the past one year.
Their previous tents, located on Uttar Pradesh government land, were destroyed in a mysterious fire on June 13, 2021.
Overnight, they were shifted by the Delhi government officials and the Delhi Police to a nearby piece of land owned by an NGO, the Zakat Foundation of India (ZFI).
The 50-odd tents that house close to 350 people are at the centre of a political storm between the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi.
There is no toilet in the entire camp. “We urinate on old clothes and then either wash or throw them away,” says Miza, a 20-year-old who studied in a private school nearby and can read and write English.
A mobile toilet is stationed a few hundred metres away, but Miza says that it is not possible for women, children and the elderly to go there frequently.
Pointing to a square shape in her tent, Mariyam says it is the spot where she bathes. Next to it is the kitchen where she stores the essentials.
Outside the tent lay a common mud stove where the inmates take turns cooking.
Fatima, 35, sat by the stove coating the tava (iron plate) with a layer of mud. “In Burma [Myanmar], we have special rotis made of rice. Since the rice powder is slurry, I am applying this coat so that it doesn’t stick and the rotis come out hot and crisp,” Fatima explains.
She says their food habit has changed after coming to India, but there are some culinary delicacies that they have managed to preserve.
Down the alley, cramped between the tents, Iman Hussein, 82, runs a vegetable shop that caters only to the residents of the camp. He gets the stock from a vegetable market nearby. This shop is also his home. He came to India in 2012 with his wife and three sons.
Hussein says his wife, who was mentally unstable, went missing when the full lockdown was imposed in Delhi in 2020.
He was selling leaves of arbi (taro plant), much in demand at the camp. “This is a Burma speciality,” he says.
After arriving in Delhi in 2012, around 1,200 Rohingya have been living in temporary shelters at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border.
From Myanmar, they first went to Bangladesh on boats and then entered India through the porous border, making their way to many parts of the country, including Jammu, Telengana and Rajasthan.
The Union Home Ministry has asked the Delhi government to designate the camps as detention centre. The AAP has retorted that such a designation is done by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), under the Home Ministry, and that they have no powers.
Syed Zafar Mahmood, president, ZFI, says the police forcibly settled the Rohingya on their private land. They have written multiple times to the authorities to clear the premises.
The Ministry did not respond to a query on how the land owned by a private organisation would be designated a detention centre.
The FRRO, on the other hand, has for the past year been searching for a secure place to hold all the 1,200 Rohingya at a detention centre under the constant vigil of the police.
Miza says 365 people lived in this camp which included 50 school-going children. After the fire incident of 2021, a police post was set up near the camp.
“I have been living in this area for the past 10 years. I studied in a school nearby. We never faced any discrimination. India is our home,” Miza, who has now enrolled herself in Class X, says.
She says she came here as a toddler and is used to the headcount by the police, but the frequency of the police visits have increased after 2017.
“The police are here every day, sometimes they come twice a day. The visits increased post lockdown (2020),” says Taslima, another resident.
She says her husband works as a plumber. “My two children were born in India. We learnt Hindi here. How can they send us back to the country that does not want us,” asks Taslima when told about the Indian government’s decision to deport them.
Miza intervenes, saying back home they were not even allowed to sit or talk in a group.
“In schools, Rohingya are made to sit in different classrooms than the Buddhist children. They deliberately failed us in exams. It is impossible to find a Rohingya who is a doctor or an engineer,” she says.
Miza’s eyes light up as she refers to the August 17 tweet by Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri that the Rohingya would be moved to flats.
“India has always welcomed those who have sought refuge in the country,” the Minister had tweeted, adding that “India respects the United Nations Refugee Convention 1951 and provides refuge to all, regardless of their race, religion, or creed”.
Her joy was short-lived though. The Home Ministry, facing backlash from several quarters, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), announced that the Rohingya would be deported soon.
“How can they send us back to a country that does not want us? We will be killed if we go there. Our relatives who live in Myanmar are living in horror,” Miza says.
As of now, the inmates depend on food assistance from the UN and some NGOs. The male members do odd jobs in the nearby Shaheen Bagh and Jamia Nagar areas.
The residents say that the authorities have never stopped them from working but a keen watch is kept on them. All of them have identity cards provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a prized possession.
“We cannot afford to lose these cards; our survival depends on them,” says Fatima, as she pulls out her card wrapped in layers of plastic sheets.
Till a couple of years ago, the UN was providing them with cash assistance too. “Now only the elderly get a stipend of ₹4,800. We get 20 kg rice and 3 kg each of pulses, salt, and oil from the UN but the frequency is erratic. The last we got the supplies was two months ago,” says Mariyam.
The residents of the area fume at the presence of the Rohingya. “We heard these people are being shifted to some flat in Bakkarwala. I will distribute sweets if this happens,” a resident says.
Zohra Khatoon, 70, who came in 2012 with her daughter and son-in-law, sat outside admiring her henna- painted hands. Barely able to speak Hindi, she conveyed through one of the residents that she plucked henna leaves from a tree nearby and painted her hands as “it looks beautiful”.