(Adrija is an intern at Mahanirban Calcutta research Group and can be reached at email@example.com)
“When will I go home?”* With a look of half uncertain hope and half despair, fourteen year old Safi Akhter just wanted me to answer this question. I had gone to meet her to document her personal narrative – the journey from her homeland Myanmar, where she was born, to the land where her parents currently live in, India. She has been living in India for a year now, although if given a chance, she would go home. (I interviewed her as a part of my ongoing research project on the Rohingyas, which aims to adopt a gendered lens on the Rohingya international crisis. Safi is the sole Rohingya girl in West Bengal at this moment, and thus, her narrative will add a first-hand dimension to my research undertaking.)
Safi belongs to the Rohingya community, a minority Muslim community who call the now Rakhine state of Myanmar their homeland. According to the Arakan Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO), “Muslim Arakanese or Rohingya are indigenous to Arakan. Having genealogical linkup with the people of Wesali or Vesali kingdom of Arakan, the Rohingya of today are a perfect example of its ancient inhabitants.” The golden age of the Muslim Arakanese culture came during the 15th century, under the Mrauk-U dynasty (1430-1784). The royal court patronized Arakanese literature, Muslim titles were adopted by the Mrauk-U kings, coins were minted in which was inscribed an Islamic declaration of faith, and also took inspiration from the dressing sense of the Persian rulers.
The Rakhines entered the Arakan kingdom around 10th century, although tensions between the Rakhines and Rohingyas emerged only after the British conquest of Arakan in 1825. Thousands of Bengalis, especially from Chittagong, migrated to Arakan to work in the British colonial plantations which boosted the imperial economy. The Rakhines bitterly resented this influx of “illegal Bengalis” taking away their jobs, and thus, in post-colonial Burma, the Rohingyas were discriminated against. Ethnically and culturally distinct than the Burmese, the latter viewed the Rohingyas as a remnant of their oppressive, exploitative, and colonial past. Therefore, the 1982 Burmese Citizenship Law recognized 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, excluding the Rohingyas, rendering them stateless. Against such a historical-cultural-political backdrop, Safi experiences reality.
Safi has grown up in a village which she calls Harifara, in Myanmar, with her maternal grandmother (nani), a maternal uncle, and his daughter Zayida. Her parents moved to India when she was 4-5 years old, and listening to her childhood experiences it seemed that she hardly has any memories with her parents. There was but one trip that she had made to India with her parents, of which she couldn’t recount any particulars. She remembers playing with Zayida in their home in Myanmar, and spoke of her cousin with a smile. “Why did you leave Myanmar?” I asked her. “Because my parents are in India.” Her countenance, almost within a fraction of a second, became grave and thoughtful. Continue reading ““Bari Jabo Kobe?” : Plight of a homeless young Rohingya”