Saddled with an onerous title, Pakistani Hindus living in a Delhi camp are viewed with suspicion, yet nothing has cowed them down as they patiently wait for their Indian citizenship.
Five years have passed since Hanuman Prasad, a Pakistani Hindu from Sindh, came to India on pilgrimage visa. Living in a camp for Pakistani Hindus in Delhi's Rohini area on a long term visa, Hanuman is part of a spiritual struggle for better lives, status, rights and dignity. This struggle begins in the home country and continues in a life disjointed from families back in Pakistan and a life cemented into temporary mud homes of "camps". Hanuman says, "Being and remaining a Hindu is my dharma. We have not cared for our lives. We have kept our dharma above our lives and comfort. We want opportunities to earn in dignity."
Hanuman, like many Hindus from Pakistan, who oscillate between filing applications for long term visa (LTV) and Indian citizenship and looking after families, is waiting for the day when he would be called a citizen of India. He adds, "I wish I am able to drop the title 'Pakistani refugee' from my name and my existence as a Hindu living in India. Wahan kafir, yahan Pakistani refugee." Hanuman is not alone living within a burgeoning emotion of "not being completely accepted".
In January this year, the Rajasthan High Court directed the state and central governments to issue long term visas within 45 days to Pakistani migrants whose visa applications were free of deficiencies. In December 2017, the Rajasthan High Court was informed that over 10,000 applications from Pakistani Hindu migrants seeking long term visa were still pending. The High Court, taking a serious note of the deficiencies and disposal of applications ordered removal of all deficiencies, flaws and shortcomings. Long term visa is a necessary document for Indian citizenship. It is the fulcrum of hope for Pakistani Hindus who want to live a life of dignity.
In 2015, on humanitarian grounds, the central government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had decided to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities who entered India on or before 31 December, 2014, from having to follow the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in their entry and stay in India. The move marked a good beginning in helping people coming from religious minorities who decide to seek refuge in India after facing alleged persecution, or fear of persecution in the home country.
Work towards streamlining the process of applications, addressing of hurdles and problems and disposal of documents is ongoing.
But, while Pakistani Hindu migrants stay on LTV, there are a number of issues and struggles pertaining to settling, filing of LTV application, filing of application of Indian citizenship, school admission, and healthcare, they face. Individuals, NGOs and groups helping Pakistani Hindu migrants are trying to sort these as per limitations, resources and time.
On 2 and 3 February, Hanuman joined several other Hindus from Pakistan living in India at Visthapit Hindu Sammelan, a conference held in Jaipur Rajasthan, to discuss what lies ahead in their safe but tiring and tough journey as Pakistani Hindus living on long term visa and to discuss problems relating to issues of citizenship, applications for long term visa, security, self employment, healthcare, logistics and dignity.
Jay Ahuja, president, Nimittekam, an organisation working towards easing out lives of Hindus from other countries living in India notes down points being raised at the conference. Prasant Hatalkar, General Secretary and the leader of the International Department of the Viswa Hindu Parisad (VHP), in Jaipur to attend the sessions at conference, sits next to him.
Here, Hanuman lets out some emotions. "The fear of living in a hostile environment hasn't defeated us. We came out of it - brave and bold. All for our dharma, without caring much for our lives. And for dharma, I will not let the wait for citizenship in India chip my patience for a better life."
Emotion runs high, as almost every Pakistani Hindu migrant at the conference relates with Hanuman's words. Another voice at the conference. "Why does a Hindu have to suffer so much in India? We do not want to go back. We have already undergone a lot. I urge the government of India to consider a person staying on LTV, as temporary citizen of India. The least government officials can do is to stop looking at us with an eye of doubt and suspicion. A true Hindu can never be anti-India." He leaves an echo.
Their stories and struggles, after all, are similar. Their reasons for not going back to Pakistan, similar. The way they are rebuilding lives in India, after leaving behind possessions and property in Pakistan, similar. Backgrounds and castes that give them their identity - Meghwal, Kohli, Bhil, Jatwaa, Sunhar, Bharbhuja, Kumawat, Kumhar, Rajput, Baniya, Brahman, and other castes in a larger Hindu family, diverse, but their response to "Vande Mataram", similar. Agony, similar.
Laxman Rajput another Pakistani Hindu migrant says, "We don't take dharma for granted. We don't take being in India for granted. We don't take laws of the land for granted. We are law abiding people. Keeping the faith was a struggle before we landed here. The burden of keeping a title attached to my Hindu identity sometimes seems bigger than that struggle."
Prasant Hatalkar points out that the agony and emotion should now take a backseat.
He says, "They are much better and bolder Hindus than most of us living in India. They are pained. And that leads to emotions. While I am sensitive to their pain, I understand there is a need for focus and concrete steps towards making their lives better. We are determined to do more and more. My first concern, you will be surprised, is a healthy environment and surroundings at the camps they live in. They have to understand the value of cleanliness at the camp. Camps that are cleaner have kids doing better in health and studies. We have to instill a strong belief in them for work, skills, vocation and values. Why depend on the government for everything?"
In 2016, the Narendra Modi government took a step towards easing rules and lives of people from minority community staying in India on LTV from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the union cabinet approved, as per the government release; facilities that today, visibly, in parts, are becoming the backbone for their survival with dignity.
These facilities included opening of bank accounts, permission for purchase of property for self occupation and suitable accommodation for carrying out self employment. Permission to take self employment, issuing of driving licence, PAN card and Aadhar number, free movement within the state and union territory of stay, transfer of LTV papers from one state to another was granted. Next - permission to apply for LTV from the place of residence when applicants have moved to the place without permission and powers to collectors in 16 districts of seven states -Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
Facilities included authorising an officer (not below the rank of Sub Divisional Magistrate) for administering the oath of allegiance to applicant, for registration as citizens of India. The registration fee for the citizenship of India was slashed, from heavy Rs 3,000-Rs15,000, to Rs 100.
In September 2017, Rajasthan court issued directions that applications submitted offline for granting long term visa or citizenship by Pakistani migrants belonging to minority communities shall be positively considered as far as possible within a period of 60 days.
The court asked the state government to file a report on the pending citizenship cases of Pakistani Hindu migrants. The Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) was asked to hold camps at appropriate places and to remove deficiencies in the forms in the presence of applicants. According to this report, out of the pending applications, 2,716 were already forwarded to the Union Home Ministry and 4,912 pending before the state government; 2,418 applications were pending at the FRRO level.
Pakistani Hindu migrants Swarajya met, say they will follow rules, and that they would appreciate smooth disposal of pending LTV applications according to the rules. "We respect the laws of the land. We want to earn the respect we deserve for being honest. But honesty should not make us suffer. No Hindu should be asked to go back because he was honest, respected rules, wanted to be a citizen of India, but has to go back to what he ran away from," says a Pakistani Hindu migrant in Jaipur.
The task is two-fold in the area of education. Making higher education accessible and creating an evaluation system for Pakistani Hindu migrants who come with degrees after being trained as doctors and engineers in Pakistan.
Hatalkar adds, "We have achieved 60 per cent of our target in sending children of Hindu migrants from Pakistan to government schools. More and more girls are going to school now." A question faces them. What after Class XII? "We are brainstorming on how to make higher education accessible to their kids. We are thinking of approaching HRD ministry to help us with suggestions and solutions to this problem."
It doesn't end there. According to Hatalkar, among Hindu migrants from Pakistan living in India, there are around 23 doctors and 70-80 engineers who cannot practise or work owing to rules, at least not until they get Indian citizenship. He says, "There are language problems. They also need a common evaluation system, which they can take, during the period they are living on LTV. Evaluation will help them know their place in the professional scenario and they can prepare themselves accordingly on how to use qualification and degree received in Pakistan. I know a Hindu doctor living in Pakistan who was asked to leave his wife and daughters behind. He did not leave them behind. Today, he is living on LTV and cannot work as a doctor in India. I won't tell you what he is doing to earn his living and to support his family. But, he is patient, honest and a law abiding Hindu living, waiting for Indian citizenship. These people, clearly, did not care about what they were leaving behind."
Bhagchand Bhil, a Pakistani Hindu migrant living in Jodhpur believes that there really is no room for social hierarchies in matters relating to health and education. "I do not want to talk about health from a tribal point of view, but some Pakistani Hindu migrants are more exposed to challenges relating to health care owing to their background. Because they are rebuilding lives, they cannot, yet, afford an operation for appendix, sonography, bigger medical interventions and procedures. Indian doctors I have met in Rajasthan are really helpful and consolidating resources to provide medical intervention free or at low costs. But it cannot go for ever. A great facility like Rajasthan's Bhamashah Yojana card provided under rules and documents, especially LTV, would be of great help to Pakistani Hindu migrants."
The recitation of mantras in the open space between huts is drawing to an end. Men, women and children living in the camp for Pakistani Hindus at Majnu ka Tila, New Delhi, have gathered in the open space between huts to conclude the customary prayers on the last day of mourning, as Gola Ram offers his last pranams to his father.
Dayal Das, the pradhan (head), as many call him at the camp, thanks the local priest for coming over and conducting the prayers. Meanwhile, the women sing the aarati. Dayal Das says, "Gola Ram's father departed some days ago. The old man went in peace. The family came here three years ago and Gola Ram, even during this sad moment, is content. His father's ashes have gone to the Ganga. What more would a Hindu from Pakistan wish for?"
In Delhi, Hanuman spends most of his day listening to and listing problems and suggestions from fellow Pakistani Hindus staying in the camp.
The exercise helps him communicate, seek or provide assistance to those fellow Pakistani Hindus who have little or no idea of formalities regarding applications for long term visas, those seeking related awareness and those who face problems related to family health and admissions to schools. It is a gruelling exercise, but essential and fruitful.
At the conference, Hanuman takes the opportunity to tell what's missing in the areas of logistics. He adds, "We need some more people from among my brothers in Delhi to help us with computer work and filling up of application forms for the long term visas. I spend a lot of time persuading people with computers in the locality to help us, but they charge money. Majority of people living in the Delhi camps do not have the resources to pay for filling up of online forms."
Women are at the core of the entire momentum of rebuilding lives at the camps. In women from Hindu migrant families Swarajya met, there is a strong resolve to change things, to give children better lives and men the support they need. The attention to selves as a strong member of the family and the unit of emotional strength is clearly visible - in corners meant for puja, in kitchens, in their dressing, in sringar, in hands running stitches on cloth for money and leisure, in words and actions.
Rani, an octogenarian, living in a Jaipur camp, knows it all. According to her, women from Hindu migrant families from Pakistan living in camps in Jaipur and other cities in Rajasthan are able to shape their families well in their new home because they feel free, safe and secure.
She says, "We can now think of stepping outside our homes. Many women have skills that need to be shaped more to turn into vocation and opportunities. We are driven by unity and a strong sense of community building. Hardships trouble us but don't break us."
Many Pakistani Hindu migrants from among the economically weaker sections, men and women, have skills, are productive, but formally untrained. Self employment is essential for their survival.
While some migrants have been able to kick start self employment with help from loans they are returning or have returned from their earnings and small savings, others are struggling to sustain or initiate work.
"It was emotionally rewarding to know that some Pakistani Hindus had returned the amount they had taken as loan to push their self employment initiative, much before the date due for payment. Inhe kripa nahin, sahaayataa chahiye," Hatalkar adds.
The migrants may lament on LTV delays that are adding to their struggles, they still give room to laughter. While sharing his experiences, Laxman Rajput, who earns his living by selling vegetables in Delhi, where he lives in one of the camps, says, "Initially, I put a placard on my cart. It said that I am a Pakistani Hindu living in India, please help me support my family, buy vegetables from me. I thought it would be of some help and locals would turn up to my cart. The placard did the opposite. I think it scared away people. I am waiting for Indian citizenship."
Minutes after sharing that she has a daughter who now goes to a school nearby, Chanda (name changed) steps out of the group of women from her camp in Jaipur. Coming out of her ghoonghat for a while, she whispers into my ears, "I was a little shy telling you that I have a daughter and five sons."
Between better times and celebrating festivals at the camp celebrate at a makeshift temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, near Hanuman's hut, where he has been living for five years, he is not too keen on recalling his days and life in Sindh. Not because he has moved on. Not because he is tired of recalling pain and the painful. He has little time for reliving the past set in fear.
While rebuilding his own life and family in the camp, he is helping other Pakistani Hindus in rebuilding their lives, sometimes, by helping them in filing applications for long term visa, for filing applications for Indian citizenship and keeping a watch on the camp in Rohini.
Nandlal, a Paksitani Hindu migrant, points out that there are hurdles at the local level that do not match up to government's good intentions.
He says, "In some cities, there is a lack of coordination in following notifications. Process related to long term visas should wind up in two months and for citizenship in two to three years. We are people with valid documents staying in India."
Govardhan Baloch came to India in 2004. He recently got Indian citizenship. He says, "Some people feel dejected when they are not able to get citizenship after following the process, rules and completing requirements. I feel uneasy when Pakistani Hindus think about being sent back or returning."
(Pictures by Sumati Mehrishi)