Jammu: Over fifty days have passed since Mohammad Faysal last spoke to his ailing grandmother who lives in Bangladesh. He learnt about the death of his aunt in Saudi Arabia almost a week late, but couldn’t pass on a condolence message.
Faysal, 21, is a Rohingya refugee and lives with his family in Narwal area of Jammu city in a shanty, like hundreds of others from – as human rights agencies describe them – “the most persecuted minorities in the world”.
The Rohingya community is denied citizenship under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law and its members have been fleeing the nation in droves, especially following a military crackdown two years ago that came after attacks on security forces. Hundreds of thousands have run to other countries, mostly Bangladesh. Many of them are in India, while some have fled to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, etc. In Jammu alone, according to several estimates, around 2,000 families are living as refugees. However, the Centre told the Supreme Court in 2017 that the Rohingyas are a threat to national security, have links with jihadi groups and are likely to be used by the Islamic State for terror attacks. It also asked state governments to identify and deport them.
Since August 5, when Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its constitutionally provisioned special status and reorganised into two union territories, there is no mobile internet in most of the region.
For people like Faysal, internet had become a means to stay connected with his relatives and family members, who are either still in Myanmar or are living in different refugee camps in various countries. It was the virtual world which connected the Rohingyas across borders.
Faysal was a class 7 student when he and his family fled Myanmar amid the din of killings and violence in November 2012. After around a month, his and over a dozen other families arrived in Jammu and started living in a camp, paying monthly rent.
Faysal couldn’t continue his studies and started working at a local carwash unit with his father and elder brother. The second among seven siblings, he was fascinated by the cellphone and seeing people using the internet on it, he started saving money to get one.
“In the area we were living in Myanmar we didn’t have mobile phone connectivity. But SIM cards from Bangladesh used to work,” he says.
Faysal got a mobile only a year after arriving in Jammu but it was in 2017 that he got a smartphone and started accessing the web. “I saw people from my community using the internet, locating and calling their relatives, who are living in different countries,” he says.
While fleeing from Myanmar, Faysal’s brother had got the cellphone number of his uncle who stayed in a Bangladesh refugee camp. Using the internet, Faysal could now not only talk to him but also connect through videoconferencing.
“When I made a video call for the first time, I was overwhelmed to see my uncle, and grandparents,” he recollects. That day, everyone in his family communicated through video call and they “couldn’t control their emotions”.
Staying connected with the people of their community, which has been scattered in different parts of the world, is what gives hope to Faysal and people like him.
“It is the internet which helped us face miseries with a strong heart, because we feel we are together,” he says.
A year has passed since he started selling groceries from a makeshift shop in a small market put up by people from his community in the locality where they live.
With the internet and better earning, Faysal’s life was filled with some joy. But that changed on August 5.
The period of internet blockade reminds him of the not-so-good-old days: when they had no information about their relatives and family members, when news of someone’s death would reach after months and that too without the actual details.
Faysal’s aunt fled with her family to Saudi Arabia some years ago but she was not in good health.
“My mother and other family members would speak to her on video call. But after the internet blockade we didn’t know how she was. It was last week that a relative from Delhi called us, informing that she passed away several days ago,” Faysal says, trying to give a sense of what staying disconnected means for them.
“We would connect to our relatives whenever there would be a wedding. The exchange of photos and videos of relatives showed us a new world and a way to be happy,” he adds, showing a photograph of his grandmother, who lives in Bangladesh. But since the blackout, he doesn’t know about her situation.
There are innumerable joys the internet brought to these refugees.
Just some days before the lockdown, Faysal’s cousin in Malaysia gave birth to a child and she sent photographs to him. “I was excited and emotional at the same time,” he says. “I grew up with my cousin. Now she lives in a different country, where I can never go, perhaps. But seeing the pictures of her child gives me unimaginable happiness.”
Faysal says he had decided to name the baby and has even kept a list of names ready. But with no internet, he might be too late.