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UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction


Imagined ‘Belongingness’ through Culture: Rohingya Journeys of Resilience and Survival in India

By Saqar ' M Al Zaabi, on 1 October 2020

Written by Minakshi Rajdev, PhD Candidate at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, and Research Assistant on IRDR’s British Academy funded project: “Rohingya Journeys of Violence and Resilience in Bangladesh and its Neighbours

 Arar vatansonaliArakan Ohsunomusalman arar vatansonaliarakan

(Our homeland is the golden Arakan Oh listen Muslims, our homeland is the golden Arakan)

The violent displacement of the Rohingya Muslims from the land of ‘Arakan’ (Rakhine State) in Myanmar engendered their exodus to the neighbouring countries of South Asia, and then to the other parts of the world, often without families. It is in these host environments that survival and resilience-building become a priority, shaped by the shared experiences of pain and violence suffered at the hands of state-sponsored mass persecution and genocide.

What can bolster the spirit of life and humanity amidst traumas of displacement is a sense of imagined ‘belongingness’ to the host country, emanating from shared histories and cultures.

The Rohingya sense of belongingness in India comes from a mix of cultural signifiers, like Urdu (a language of Islam in Myanmar), Sufi heritage, Qawwali and tarana (song) melodies. But also, significantly, Bollywood movies and Hindi songs. Moreover, the presence of a sizeable Muslim population in India, syncretic religious practices, and the democratic set up of the country, evoke a cultural association with India, which can scaffold coping mechanisms for one of the most persecuted minorities of the world.

Rohingya taranas offer opportunities for the refugees to reminisce about their native lands of betel leaves and paddy farms. Moreover, Sufi poetry, widely celebrated in India, has close affinities with the spiritual Rohingya taranas—consolidating the fragments of belongingness between the cultural landscapes of India and Rakhine State.

Abdul1 a 70-year-old refugee who croons spiritual taranas several times a day, shares that he finds solace in the Sufi shrine of Muinuddin Chisti (1143-1236 CE), situated in Ajmer, Rajasthan. When asked about his fondness for taranas, he informed:

Abdul: Yes we had a group in Burma with whom I used to sit and sing taranas in remembrance of Allah.

Interviewer: Do you miss them?

Abdul: Yes. We have similar people in Ajmer (at the shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti). I have been to the graves of several revered Sufi saints in India; I visited Ajmer Sharif Dargah, graves of Nizamuddin Aulia, Qutubuddin Bakhityar Kaki, and many other similar Sufi shrines situated in Delhi. [2]

When asked about taranas, his tearful eyes brightened with happiness, and he could not help spontaneously singing a few lines in his strong but melodious voice:

‘ore zaiverhota tutu mohononnai

Oh andergororhota re mohononnai

Ore asamaileazaralaishe tore naikulnivaallai

Zaiver re hota re tutu mohononnai

Oho hoborhota re mohononnai, asamaileazaralaishe…’ [3]

If I have come to the world, I have to leave it one day as well,

Oh god! I don’t know the way that comes to you,

Oh! sometime Azrael [an angel who takes lives] will come to take my life to you,

Oh god! I have come to the world and one day I will come to you,

Now I can’t wait, sometime Azrael will come to take me to you

The Rohingya enjoyment of Indian movies and Bollywood Hindi music carves a sense of esoteric conviviality that ‘India’ offers to them. Hindi singers like Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar, S D Burman, Lata Mangeshkar, are equally exalted by Rohingyas and Indians alike. Similarly, the younger generations that grew up watching Bollywood Hindi movies and idolizing Indian actors picked up a sense of humanity through Bollywood movies, creating an imagined endearment for a land they have never been to. Fayyad, a young Rohingya who ran a studio that screened Bollywood movies in Myanmar, said:

“I have seen in the films that military people help civilians. I have seen humanity through Hindi movies only… I have not seen such things happening in Burma. Military should protect us but instead of that they want to kill us all.” [4]

The young Rohingya generation brought up in turmoil and the under an atmosphere of fear and violence really relate to meanings of humanity and equality from Bollywood cinema. When asked about the reason to come to India as a refugee, Fayyad continued:

“I believed India would be a nice country. I have seen India through Bollywood Cinema, and it inspired my thoughts of coming to India. I knew all the religions are treated equally in this country.” [5]

Many Rohingyas visualise their stay in India as an opportunity to learn Hindi music, which is viewed by them as relatively modern compared to Rohingya music – some learn it with a hope to take the craft back to Rakhine when it is safe to return home. As language is intrinsic to the expression of a culture, Hindi music provides comfort to the refugees; its closeness to Urdu aids the process of coping. When Ali was asked about his preference for singing, he informed:

“Now I have decided to sing Hindi songs. I think Rohingya songs would not work here, and those who know Hindi would like to listen to Hindi songs, even our Maulanas like Hindi songs because they respect Urdu as the language of our faith and Hindi is much closer to it.” [6]

Rohingya attempts at cultural exploration and efforts to make India their home for the time being are reflected in the synchronisation of Rohingya taranas with Hindi Bollywood music—creating a piece of art that has the soul of Rakhine in the body of India. Efforts to remember more than journeys of violence, pain and displacement are audible in these poetic and musical creations, as they express longing for the native land, yet are sung in the language of the host country. For instance, Rohingya performer Jafar Kawish expressed longing for his Rakhine homeland in an Urdu-Hindi song with a composition inspired from old Hindi songs:

Ye jahaan dojakh hai goya, tu hai jannat ai vatan

Hosh udd jata hai mera, Muh ko ata hai jigar

Yaad jab aati hai teri mujh ko surat-i-vatan

 This world [host country] is like hell and you [homeland, Rakhine] are the heaven, oh my beloved country,

I feel shell shocked, and my heart comes to my mouth

Whenever I remember condition of my country [7]

 ‘Imagined belongingness’ became a challenge for many Rohingyas once they reached India, as they have had to grapple with exclusions of the state rather than an abstract idea of belongingness. But the religious commonalities with communities in India, people’s trust in their faith, rhythmic expression of survival in the form of Rohingya taranas and Urdu nazm (a genre of Urdu poetry), Sufi heritage, Bollywood cinema, and shared cultural values have emerged as tenets of resilience through which Rohingya continue to hope for a better future.


[1] All names have been changed to protect participants.

[2] Personal Interview, Abdul, Mewat, 10.12.2019

[3] Ibid.

[4] Personal Interview, Fayyad, Hyderabad, 08.08.2018

[5] Ibid.

[6] Personal Interview, Ali, Hyderabad, 08.08.2019

[7] Jafar Kawish, Urdu Rohingya Tarana: tuja haan me hai hamara raz-i-izzat  i vatan(You are our honour, oh my country),music is inspired from Hindi songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rj1sG3KTpWg (accessed on 13 September 2020)

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