Pakistani Hindu refugees go through a struggle to become Indian citizens. Living with a larger Hindu family, they wait to be accepted.
The Bhagat ki Kothi railway station in Jodhpur. It’s time for a journey that will end where it began for many Hindus from Pakistan, who come to visit India on a pilgrimage visa. At the station’s waiting lounge, Kanji Ram and his wife, Neela, sit huddled on the floor. There are several bags bundled up behind them and hot tea placed on the side. The Thar Express will roll out past midnight from Bhagat ki Kothi railway station. There are nearly six more hours to go, and Neela is becoming a bit impatient. “I have my children waiting for me in Pakistan. That’s where home is for me,” she says.
Neela is much older than other women in the “jattha”, the group which is returning from a pilgrimage to Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, India. “I would wish to return for pilgrimage in my lifetime,” Neela adds, “but we are happy where we are”.
At a distance, outside the waiting lounge at this railway station in Jodhpur, a Hindu family from Umerkot, Sindh, in Pakistan, spends the last bunch of hours with relatives from Rajasthan. Manvar Lal, Gulab Lal, and Bhanvar Lal Lauti, three men in this group, cannot stop gazing at their pictures taken at Rajasthan studios. “We look like men from Rajwara, don’t we?” they ask.
One of the women in this group is sitting with a photograph of a young girl. It’s a studio portrait. Shot against plastic flowers and bright wall paper. “She is my daughter. I am sending her photograph to relatives in Pakistan. She may get a suitable groom from one of the Hindu families living there,” she says.
The women from Pakistan have bought loads of bindis from Haridwar. They pull out several packets of the essential accessory from their bags. “We will gift all of these to our relatives who could not visit Haridwar. It was a memorable pilgrimage. We even went to Ram Jhoola (in Rishikesh). It rained. The rains were heavy,” another woman in the group says excitedly.
Unlike these Hindus from Pakistan, who are ready to leave for Pakistan on the Thar Express, happily, many have left Rajasthan this year with a heavy heart and heavier feet and spirits.
Several miles from Bhagat ki Kothi, in Jodhpur, is a camp where Hindus from Pakistan live. Those who do not wish to return. “Wish” is not the appropriate word in their tough and agonising patterns of movement. Yet, lives go on for most of them, until they can, in India.
The groom is expected to arrive after sunset at a Jodhpur camp where Pakistani Hindus live. Argha Ram and Chera Ram, two elderly men from the Bhil family hosting the function, are looking at last-minute preparations. Jamna, the bride, is reeling under heat and shyness inside a room in one of the dwellings at the camp. Many relatives from Barmer, Rajasthan, have arrived for the ceremonies, after all. It is a reunion of sorts for cousins and clan divided by nationality. The men fix the tent against the dry afternoon wind. “This is best we can manage.”
Refugees talk about fellow refugees — those arriving, those returning, those returned and deported. Even during the crucial minutes before the wedding ceremonies begin.
“Chandu Ram back ho gaye (Chandu Ram has returned/has been sent back)”. These words, drier than the afternoon winds at this camp on the outskirts of Jodhpur, wrap volumes of pain and agony. Chandu Ram, one of the many Pakistani Hindu refugees who was living in Rajasthan, happens to be one of the many. Having left behind fear, rebuilding lives that are twined into sanskars and samaj, these Bhils accept uncertainty and the associated fear of rejection owing to “lack of proper documents” as part of their lives.
Bhagchand Bhil, one of the Hindu migrants living in Jodhpur, says, “many know of relatives who have been returned, fear being returned, or have chosen to return to Pakistan. It is not a good feeling. It is not.”
The jolt, bigger than ever, came in March this year. Many Hindus in Rajasthan, Indian and Pakistani, received the news that around 500 Hindus from Pakistan, who were deported from India back to Pakistan for “lack of proper documents”, have been allegedly converted to Islam in Sindh state.
Bhagchand adds, “What do we say about Hindus from Pakistan deported to Pakistan? The news was reported in the media. There was whimper, there was noise about it, that’s all. Who cares about us, especially the poor among us Pakistani Hindus? We are the worst sufferers among the lot. It is slightly easier for others, who have either got long term visa (LTV), or citizenship.” Bhagchand is currently helping fellow Pakistani Hindus with work related to application and documentation.
Most of these migrants’ desire to become “fully Indian” is triggered by the horrors and humiliations they face back home. Parents of young girls in Sindh live under constant scare of roving gangs that kidnap and forcibly marry. Hindu leaders have often raised concerns that their girls are preyed upon and pushed into converting to Islam.
Jevar, a resident of refugee camps in Delhi’s Asola, says Hindu girls in Sindh don’t study beyond the 10th or 12th because the families fear they won’t return home from school. “Our girls remain confined to the house because we don’t want them to be noticed,” he said.
As one of these refugees in New Delhi, ruing the choice of his ancestors, tells us, “Pakistan is for Muslims. The land of Hindus is India.”
So, they keep coming to India. Most come from Sindh, where the Hindu population in Pakistan is concentrated. The Indian visa rules relating to Pakistan allow group pilgrimages, so they usually arrive in batches of 25-30 families. They come on tourist visa to visit holy sites such as Vrindavan and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh, and Haridwar and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand. After the stipulated one or three months, some of them return but the rest remain, in the hope that they will never be asked to leave. Their new life is far from pleasant, the transition far from smooth. Most end up in slums, endlessly waiting for LTV and eventual Indian citizenship. But as conversations with this persecuted lot reveal, they do it for their children and future generations. “I wish that by the time my children become parents, the family will be fully Indian,” Darshan (like many refugees, he uses only the first name), who hails from Sindh’s Umerkot and misses his homeland sorely, told Swarajya. Darshan lives in Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar camp.
Some migrants living in the Adarsh Nagar camp say they are considered “neech (lowly)” in social status in Pakistan. “If we request for water, they make sure the utensil doesn’t touch us,” says Radha, another resident of Adarsh Nagar camp. Many Hindus in India are unaware of such routine discrimination meted out to their counterparts in Pakistan. This is why a 2016 report about a Hindu journalist in Pakistan who was barred from using the same glass and utensils as his Muslim colleagues in his office, left many shocked. “They tolerate us but certainly don’t like us. They treat us like nobodies. Our sons live in constant fear of being thrashed by local boys,” says Radha. Hindus, especially those from the lower castes, keep losing their agricultural and temple lands to goons who get protection from the police.
Hindus in today’s Pakistan are concentrated in Sindh. Hindus, both Balochs and Sindhis, have been returning to India in waves. The 1965 Indo-Pakistani war saw nearly 8,000 Hindus from Sindh’s Thar Parkar district enter India. They came then in 1971 and again in 1992 following the demolition of Babri Masjid. The minority community, increasingly insecure and vulnerable, worried especially for their daughters after riots broke out in India.
Most of them have made Rajasthan and Gujarat their home, where they have an estimated 400 settlements. They come via train, overstay, and apply for citizenship – that’s the pattern. Activists say there has been a systematic bias against these refugees by the Indian government during all these years. Their applications remain pending for years even as they stay on in pathetic conditions that constantly attack their dignity.
Some activists working towards making lives of the Hindu migrants from Pakistan easier, say that in most cases, refugees are not deported, but go on their own. After continuously facing disappointment due to delay in getting LTV or citizenship, the disillusioned lot returns to Pakistan. While it is heartening to know that more refugees are getting LTV every passing year, it’s equally heartbreaking that the number of those going back is also increasing. In the last three years, over 2,000 refugees have returned and most have converted to Islam. In Rajasthan alone, as per a government affidavit, a total of 968 Hindus displaced from Pakistan have returned between 2015 and 2017.
In September 2017, a Rajasthan court issued directions that applications submitted offline for granting LTV 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 inadequacies in the forms in the presence of applicants. “Camps were held, but they helped in explaining paper work related to LTV and citizenship and its completion,” a migrant living in Rajasthan said.
Amidst all of this, keeping the faith has been a struggle. A struggle some lose, like Chandu Ram earlier this year, like many others, who, allegedly, now bear a different name, different faith and different identity. They failed to find acceptance in the nation of their roots.
According to Hari Om Sahoo, an activist in Delhi, often the first thing such refugees do on their return is convert to Islam. “They do it in anger and frustration, mostly to send a message across to the Indian government and us Indians,” he said. Sahoo, who has been working with refugees in New Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar camp housing 100 Sindhi families (the camp was recently in news after its electricity and water supply was cut), gave an insight into why the refugees convert to Islam. “When they leave Pakistan with a decision to live in India, they do so after selling away their houses and possessions, often at a throwaway price. They face humiliation at every step. At the (Zero Point) railway station during customs clearance they are often robbed of their luggage and possessions by sneering officers. You can imagine how they feel when they find India unwelcoming, leaving them no option but to return. They convert.” Similar incidents have been narrated by Hindu migrants from Pakistan who are currently living in Rajasthan.
“They do everything to cling on to their dharma. But at some point, they break. Converting to Islam saves them from further mockery in their homeland,” Sahoo adds.
While it’s been well documented that there has been a remarkable inefficiency and delay in granting citizenship to Hindu refugees all these years, an increasing number of such refugees are becoming legitimate Indian citizens as things are beginning to change under the current Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP declared India as a “natural home for persecuted Hindus” in its manifesto. “We have a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries. India is the only place for them... we will have to accommodate them here,” Modi had said in a political rally. Walking the talk, the BJP government eased rules for citizenship and stay for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Parsis, and Buddhist minorities of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
In 2016, the Modi government took a step towards easing rules on the LTV. Additionally, availing of certain facilities and services was made easier. The facilities which thus became easily available to the refugees included opening of bank accounts, permission for purchase of property for self occupation, suitable accommodation for carrying out self employment, issuing of driving licence, PAN card and Aadhaar number, free movement within the state and union territory of stay, transfer of LTV papers from one state to another.
The refugees now get an initial LTV for a period of five years at a time. The registration fees for the Indian citizenship was slashed from Rs 3,000-Rs 15,000 to Rs 100. Sahoo explained why this is a major relief. “Earlier, the refugees would get LTV for a couple of months, that too after making several trips to government offices. The dates of their renewal would come up every few months, making them feel disillusioned. Their confidence would take a hit. They would be left with little time to build their lives. Now they have started getting it for a longer time”.
As per government figures, more refugees got Indian citizenship under the Modi government than they did in the five years of the United Progressive Alliance-2. A year after the BJP came to power, nearly 4,300 refugees got Indian citizenship, compared to 1,023 in the preceding five years. A large number of them also got LTV by this time – nearly 19,000 refugees in Madhya Pradesh, 11,000 in Rajasthan, and 4,000 in Gujarat, as per reports. Only those refugees who have lived in India on a seven-year LTV are eligible for the Indian citizenship.
However, despite the current government’s support, the refugees remain an impoverished and neglected lot. Swarajya’s visits to camps in Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar, Asola, and Majnu ka tila, two camps in Jodhpur, and Jaipur’s Mansarovar reveal depressing scenes. In some Delhi camps, it is a battle even for the basics. If it weren’t for some activists who have been continuously working to improve their condition, these refugees would have probably returned by now.
Jaipur-based surgeon and philanthropist Omrendra Ratnu, who works with Jaipur-based Jay Ahuja in Nimmittekam, an organisation that works towards helping Hindus from other countries living in India, believes that the Hindu leadership is taking feeble steps towards the cause. He says, “it all boils down to narcissistic, self-absorbed absolutely myopic Hindu leadership. The Pakistani Hindus are courageous people, who, for the sake of their dharma have crossed hundreds of kilometres and come here. People who claim to be Hindu leaders should be at the forefront to build assistance and secure the efforts that have been made by individuals like us. Thanks to the efforts of PM Modi, who has given all the necessary benefits, Home Minster Rajnath Singh ji is doing his work, Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Prashant Hatalkar ji, too.”
At the Jodhpur High Court premises, an officer who is not authorised to speak with the media on the issue of migrants in Jodhpur said that the process of LTV and citizenship takes place systematically, at all levels, keeping in mind security concerns specific to Jodhpur. One of the Hindu migrants in Jodhpur says, “In 2005, some of the Bhils living in Jodhpur got nationality, [but] those who were short even by two days, have not got Indian nationality. Their cases are still pending. No clearance yet. Poor families are suffering. People who can make this easier for us are making it more difficult by teasing officials. It all comes spiralling down to us. Hum na khaane ke, na baithne ke (we have no time or comfort to even sit or eat). We keep running to and fro for each other. How will we support our own families?”
Ratnu points at the lack of coordination between people who could make a difference in the lives of Hindus from Pakistan. He says, “Why is it an NGO’s responsibility to take care of Hindu refugees? We are doing everything possible to help them with the paper work. We are giving them free medical aid. There is no concerted effort. Sab idhar udhar pair maar rahe hain (they are hitting in all directions). Except Prashantji, no Hindu leader is working with a vision towards this cause. He is a senior man. He has limited time and energy.”
The Hindus from Pakistan don’t take dharma for granted, and being in India for granted. Laxman Rajput, a Pakistani Hindu migrant who lives in Delhi, had told Swarajya during an interaction at the Visthapit Hindu Sammelan in February: “We don’t take laws of the land for granted. We are law abiding people”. In an emotional speech, Laxman had narrated how keeping the title attached to his Hindu identity “sometimes becomes bigger than the struggle”, the struggle of “keeping the faith”.
At another camp in Jodhpur, as Jamna Bhil, one of the refugees living here, puts it, sanitation is one of the biggest problems they face. There are no toilets. Lack of proper sanitation is a challenge women and girls meet every morning before leaving for school and daily work. Marvi Devi, an elderly woman, points at a hillock deserted and distant. She says, “Wo dikh raha hai? Wahan par ladkiyan jaati hain. (Can you see that hillock? Women go there in the absence of toilets.) We don’t ask for much. The government can at least provide us toilets,” she says. As Marvi speaks, a girl living at the camp laughs it off as a small issue. She points mischievously at the bottles the girls are carrying with them for their morning visit to the hillock.
Lakha Ram, an elderly Pakistani Hindu staying at this camp, fixes the last layers of material on a hut. His work speaks of the rustic craftsmanship he has brought with himself from the neighbouring country. He says, “Nothing belongs to us. The hut doesn’t belong to us. This land doesn’t belong to us. We will sit where we are asked to sit. We earn our dal-roti and feed our families. That’s all I have been doing since 2014, when I arrived here. It has been four years.”
Migrants Swarajya met in Jodhpur, Mansarovar (Jaipur), and Delhi camps reiterate that they are law-abiding citizens and that they understand the process, rules, complications related to their stay and local factors, and are well aware of their “Pakistani” identity. “We have waited so many years for citizenship. For so many, getting even LTV and Aadhaar card is a challenge. So much depends on Aadhaar card, especially in a city like Jodhpur which has a defence establishment. We are ready to wait more, no matter how many challenges the delay brings.” Noticeably, their faith and patience in the government are intact, but their expectations and impatience towards Hindu organisations are soaring. “Jodhpur has roadblocks owing to its location. Then, Jodhpur requires work from genuine NGOs towards helping ease out lives of Hindu migrants. What is being done is certainly not enough. The poor among the Hindu migrants are suffering because of the apathy from some individuals,” a migrant said.
Prasant Hatalkar pointed out in his interaction with Swarajya, in Jaipur earlier this year, that the agony and emotion should now take a backseat. He said, “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 instil a strong belief in them for work, skills, vocation and values. Why depend on the government for everything?”
On education, Hatalkar had said, “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 the HRD ministry to help us with suggestions and solutions to this problem.”
In Mansarovar, Jaipur, Swarajya met with families of Hindus from Pakistan where women are rebuilding lives as responsibly as men. Some have turned embroidery, which was merely a hobby and leisure activity, back in Pakistan, into a means of earning money and making ends meet. “We get work from small units involved in the handicrafts business. It gives us some sense of responsibility towards our families, but the money from this work is not enough for the labour we put in and the time this work and activity takes. We pay high rents. How will we carry on this way and for how long?”
One of the women living in Jaipur’s Mansarovar, who did not wish to be named, said most women lose interest in the handicraft work because of low pay. “We’d rather prepare embroidered essentials for our children’s weddings and gifts for their future families,” said a woman displaying sheets embroidered by her at her home. A similar sentiment was expressed by Ganga Devi, who, during our interaction at a Delhi camp, ran cloth under a galloping needle of a sewing machine that came in through donation. “We are not afraid of putting in hard work. We are building lives from scratch once again. The process will take the work and sweat it is meant to,” she said.
One wonders what mettle the Pakistani Hindu women, who have been at the centre of the emotionally wrenching journeys of these families from the dark alleys of fear, hopelessness, and desperation, to the open commotion of survival in a new environment, and urban dystopia, are made of. Amidst this continuing quest for better lives for themselves and children, they pour attention on kitchen and craft. At two Delhi camps of Hindus from Pakistan, women largely seemed miles away from a beginning towards self sustainability. In Jodhpur and Jaipur, it is a mix of beginning awaited and beginning made. One of the reasons for the difference in this scenario, visibly, is the difference in their social identities, structures, and lifestyles – seemingly carried over from lives they led in Pakistan.
In Mansarovar, women who are now Indian citizens reflect unfathomable happiness. Draped in Rajasthani printed chiffon saris, they narrated how different it feels to have a prefix removed and prefix added to “Hindu”. Stepping outside home without fear is a “privilege” to many of these women. Community building comes next.
What is India? “Hamara desh hai (it is our nation),” Chetan Bhil, settled on a cot for his morning meal at a Jodhpur camp sums it up in three words. A chapati made of coarse grain and some ghee placed on the edge of his plate – his fuel for work and another day at the camp. “Aajao Didi, jeemlo (welcome, share the meal),” he says. Every refugee, if cooking, serving, or having a meal at these camps, makes it a point to offer you his or her meal. Such is their inner resilience and spirit. Many keep dharma before comfort. Many dream of celebrating Holi and Deepavali in India without wearing “the refugee tag”.
Pakistani Hindu refugees, from different castes – Meghwal, Kohli, Bhil, Jatwaa, Sunhar, Bharbhuja, Kumawat, Kumhar, Rajput, Baniya, Brahman, and others – living in India with a larger Hindu family, are waiting for the day when they’ll be able to drop an identity prefixed to their name. And add another. “Bharatiya”. Indian.