Shivani Dass’s new book serves as a pictorial reminder of Myanmar’s neglected Chin refugees in the Capital
The last time photographer Shivani Dass tried to approach the media to help spread awareness about the Chin community in Delhi, she was told, quite frankly, that their story held “no news value”. Though harsh, the dismissal held shades of unpalatable truth. The multiple, ever increasing problems the citizens of Delhi grapple with on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, leaves them with next to no time to spare for the city’s non-citizens.
And so, Dass crosses her fingers when I ask her how she hopes the reception of her new book will be. “I Often Think Of Those I Left Behind — The Chin Refugees of Delhi” (Authorsupfront), to be launched this Saturday, documents the lives of a community that is holding on to the edges of the city’s society. Beautiful and arresting, the book speaks through its pictures, each set concentrating on one family’s story, accompanied accompanied by a small paragraph that offers factual and experiential details. Dass uses natural light and minimum interference to capture each subject.
The project began with the idea of working with both Burma’s Chin and Rohingya refugees in the city, but when Dass found that the Rohingya people were uncomfortable with the idea, she decided not to force her way in, concentrating instead on the Chins, travelling almost daily to Vikaspuri’s Bodella area, where there is maximum Chin concentration. “I’m interested in doing conflict stories, and I wanted to tell people about the Chins. Very few people know about them, and they are facing almost absolute neglect today.”
Dass found the Chins to be both warm and welcoming. “They really wanted to tell their stories. They’d sit holding my hand and talk.” To begin with, Dass had approached one of the Delhi Chin organisations to find a translator to accompany her on her trips. “Our translator was very sweet, around 19 years old, and she used to be accompanied by her uncle, who is also the head of the community’s various organisations.” Being accompanied by people trusted by the Chins helped, and Dass became privy to the life and experiences of these nearly forgotten people.
Escaping to India via a porous border, every single Chin asylum seeker has a history of abuse, often sexual and physical, coupled with economic persecution and oppression. In Delhi, though away from their home regime, they still face a crushing amount of neglect and exploitation, often of the same nature but compounded by the fact the city’s unfamiliarity. Lacking any real status in the country, their refugee recognition from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) does bring them a little relief on paper, but not much otherwise. “Almost none of them speak Hindi, and very few of them manage a little English. They do have their UNHCR papers that entitle them to medical help and such, but the language barrier makes it difficult for them to negotiate their way around the system. Some of them wait for days in a line and never get any closer,” says Dass.
Settled in small, dingy houses with little air and poot hygiene, the Chin people find themselves shifting homes often, sometimes as many as over ten times. “There is a lot of resentment from local Indians, who call them Nepalis.” Already, the Nepali population in the country faces discrimination, and ignorance marks the Chins as easy targets. “They stick together. They are a very closely knit community. Sometimes, a few families take an entire floor and use different rooms while sharing a common kitchen.” Primarily a Christian community, the Chins have set up their own churches and find their support system within that.
The obvious language barrier, coupled with a crushing poverty, keeps the Chins from entering mainstream society. They work in the unorganised sector, most of them holding jobs in factories. “They do work like screwing caps on toothpastes, things which don’t require much conversation. But then, when they take their salaries, they can’t even argue if they are being exploited or paid less. They don’t even get to know.”
Every problem the Capital faces today reaches this community with magnified strength. There is a consistent amount of rape and sexual exploitation, a growing drug problem among youngsters and numerous health hazards. “But they often don’t approach the police or seek outside help, partly because their voices are hardly heard or their complaints acted upon, and also because of a lack of trust.”
Today, Dass hopes that her book will act as a reminder. “I’ve been working on this book for over a year. In that time, I have seen barely anyone come from the outside to help this community.” Mary Therese Kurkalang, Founder Director of Khublei, has worked with Dass on the book, and adds that while there is social work reaching the Chins on an individual level, there are no big NGOs working with them. “Any efforts are at a basic, grassroots level”, she adds.
Already barely on the fringes, the Chin people find their problems growing every day. “In the one year of working on the book, we have seen changes, not all of them good. The community has one doctor, the only non-Chin person living within the community, who works from a very basic, three-room set up. But it’s their lifeline, and one of the most important services he provides is during childbirth. But on our last visit, we found that he was in the process of getting his papers to America ready. So now, they will be left without this the basic medical support too, with nothing to replace it.”
A Brief Outline
The Chin people belong to Myanmar’s Chin State, one of the 7 ethnic states in the country, which The state shares its international border with India— Mizoram in the west and Manipur to the north. They The chin people are a religious minority in the 80 per cent Buddhist Myanmar.
In a military coup, General Ne Win, the head of the Burmese army, ascended to power on March 2, 1962. He ruled Myanmar for the next 26 years. The constitution was abolished and the country faced a time of harsh military rule. In August 1988, as a result of this, there was a nationwide democratic uprising. In 1989, after the general elections and the rise of the mMilitary junta, following the house arrest of rise of Aung San Suu Kyi, once again the Chin people faced persecution at the hands of the military regime.Over the years, to escape the brutality, Chins have frequently entered India through Mizoram, seeking asylum. Though the number is continually increasing, it is estimated that around 100,000 Chin people have fled to Mizoram so far. Approximately 8000 have travelled to Delhi, where the only UNHCR office is situated, to get recognition as refugees.
Additionally, UNHCR in Delhi does not have access to Mizoram. Hence, a large number of Chin people, approximately 8000, have travelled to Delhi, where the only UNHCR office is situated, to get recognition as refugees.The Chin refugees fall under UNHCR’s Urban Refugees Programme, under which they have Under the programme, the Chin people have access to assistance in areas of education, employment and training, health, psycho-social support and legal issues. A subsistence allowance for a period of three to six months is provided for senior citizens, unaccompanied minors and disabled or extremely vulnerable individuals.