CAB ends the long and arduous emotional journey for some persecuted Hindus from Pakistan.
Many Hindu refugees, representing vibrant caste diversities, are waiting for their citizenship, to be able to travel to and live in their ancestral villages.
A sewing machine stands on a folding bed in Shanti Devi's compound at Delhi's Majnu Ka Teela camp for Hindu refugees as her proud weapon of empowerment. Shanti uses it to stitch some magic for her granddaughter today. She looks at the baby and the sewing machine with the joyous eyes of a winner.
Shanti had left her home in Sindh's Tando Allahyar ten years ago to cross over to her “motherland” India -- along with her husband and four children. Fear and anxieties threaded their lives until they landed in India. Her daughter, Aarti, was seven years old then.
It was Aarti's safety that made Shanti and her husband take the big leap of crossing over to India.
Shanti says, “I would worry myself sick about my daughter's safety. ‘Why has she gone to school?’, I would get restless thinking about it when she would go to school. I would worry about my sons too. I have been able to protect them from the stifling anxieties and fears regarding religious persecution that would keep striking me.”
In Majnu ka Teela, her husband has sold mobile phone covers for a living for ten years. They managed to hem their new lives with some savings, hoping that one day their two sets of parents would manage to leave their homes in Sindh to be with them in India.
In Pakistan, their old folks are pinned to a condition and the related endless wait, which is the availability of funds needed to uproot themselves from Sindh. “Jagah nahin bechne dete, to khaali haath kaise aayenge? (they don't let us sell our properties there, our parents cannot begin their journeys empty-handed).”
On 9 and 10 December, when other members of her large extended family of fellow Hindu refugees from Pakistan were breaking into cheers and tears of joy with the tabling and passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha, Shanti was quietly praying for her parents.
“It has been tough to stay parted from them. They cry their heart out over the phone. There is nothing we can do except cry.”
Shanti says that she wanted to live freely as a Hindu. She wanted her kids to experience the same sense of freedom as devout Hindus. “When I was a child, my father would travel to India. He would visit temples.
“I would be restless to be in India in my growing years. It was because of my own commitment to my future generations that today my granddaughter is being nurtured here safely. She will be educated.”
Shanti coaxed her husband to leave Pakistan. She says that she was unable to cope with the pressures of living and seeing her dear ones live as lesser human beings. She adds, “Hamara dharam, karam, tyohaar, khushiyaan, sab dabke rehte thhe (our faith, our deeds as Hindus, our festivals, our happiness, were all subdued and curbed.”
Living as persecuted Hindus, according to her, was ruining their happiness and making their will to be in India even stronger.
How did festivals suffer? She explains, “Jaise khul ke yahan manaate hain, dil se, matlab, jaise yahan manaate hain, Diwali, Holi, waise nahin manaa sakte thhe (the way the festivals are celebrated here, in bliss, openly, in celebration, as Diwali and Holi are celebrated here, they were not celebrated the same way there.”
Aarti intervenes to retell what her grandparents tell them over the phone calls. She says, “Kehte hain achcha hai tum chale gaye yahan se (they tell us that it is good that we all left Pakistan). My father, too, was never happy living in Pakistan.”
As per Aarti's account, her mother-in-law was born during the Partition and her husband's paternal grandparents walked over from India to Pakistan. So did his maternal grandparents. “Raaste mein paidaish hui thhe unki (my mother-in-law was born on the way, during Partition).”
Though she has spent the last ten years courageously and encouraging other families to rebuild their families bit by bit, she does feel that their lives would have been much better today had her husband's family never shifted to Pakistan - forsaking their property in India.
She realizes she is straying into an unalterable deep past, yet she clings to a different possibility. “I did not have control on their lives and destiny back then, but, it is my regret they left this beautiful country, we would have been doing so well today.”
In Pakistan, Aarti’s mother, Shanti, used to help her family grow kapas and gehoon (cotton and wheat).
Among the many magical things that exhibit her sewing skills is a baby bag, which her daughter Aarti uses for sunbathing the little one at their dwelling. A flap and a fold, and the baby is concealed, protected and sleeping.
Shanti wants her granddaughter to be independent, she tells me, before sitting down to wash a pile of utensils in her make-shift kitchen.
“Dheere dheere sab hoga, makan bhi pakka ho jaayega, (Slowly everything will work out, we will get a pukka house too,)” she sighs.
Last year, Jodhpur-based Bhagchand Bhil’s elder sister, Sapna Bhil, left her home in Sindh and came to India. Bhagchand was elated, but his “sense of responsibility” -- five years after his own arrival to India from Sindh -- became lighter by barely an ounce.
Sapna is just one of the many folks from his large family who has come here; the others are still living in Pakistan. Sapna speaks Marwari.
In Jodhpur, Bhagchand’s clan is 15,000-20,000 strong, as per his rough estimate of the number of Bhils who have come from Pakistan. They have come mostly from Mirpurkhas, Sangarh, and Umerkot districts and are now living in Rajasthan. He has a deep sense of responsibility toward all of them.
Today, he volunteers to help them in citizenship-related paper-work and in bettering their lot. In the Jodhpur camps, he can be seen maneuvering the ups and downs across the refugee camp dwellings, which are marked by the sacred patakas and dhwajas, to hear the problems of Hindu refugees.
His own exit from Pakistan was triggered by steep circumstances. He says, “It is hard to be living as a young Hindu activist in that country.”
He puts it in perspective. He says, “Bechaare Hindu ki kya himmat ki inke saamne aa kar apni behen betiyon ki raksha ki himmat kare (how can a poor Hindu dare to stand for the honour of their womenfolk and daughters?)."
He says that he was speaking against religious persecution in Sindh. “There was retaliation to my activism. Family was worried sick, my elders, including my sisters, pushed me to leave Pakistan. I was scared for my kids and their future and what they were learning at school,” he adds.
He reached Rajasthan in December 2014, arriving on the Thar Express, along with his wife and four children. He adds, “I had always associated my being Hindu with having the identity I deserved as a human being. In my mind, I was sure that identity would be best nurtured in India.”
During the initial days, he felt that being educated he should help the people of his Bhil community figure out the network of rishtedaaris (extended families) and paper-work.
“When I landed here, I realised that most Hindu refugees who were living in Rajasthan, belonged to the SC and ST and represented diverse caste identities that find their roots in Rajasthan,” he adds.
Most Hindu refugees representing the caste diversities of Rajasthan are uneducated, according to him. He says, “Those from the labour class among them were finding it difficult to understand the complexities of citizenship and visa-related paper-work and were not able to find appropriate assistance.”
Most of them, according to him, were still outside the framework of the citizenship process. “Worse, they were being misguided and their innocence was being misused. I was uneasy to witness that and decided to help these people. I took the problems of our people to the local administrators.”
Being a Bhil, he first found a common ground for the celebration of the devis worshiped by his community in his inner space.
He realised that Hindu caste diversities lived in stark contrasts in Pakistan and India. In Pakistan, it was about putting up resistance together, as a tool against persecution. “They are united. If they are troubled, they come out to protest on the roads because the work of the local bodies depends on them, they are a force,” he adds.
In India, he saw that celebrating caste diversities was about “flourishing” - despite the hardships of their endless problems and uprooted lives.
In Rajasthan, in their Marwar, it became about an open and direct expression of diversity in the celebration of the devis and deities they worshiped, including his own kuldevi, Malandevi.
He also noticed that fellow Hindu refugees had begun to renew and reclaim their emotional ground the moment they landed in Rajasthan. It was like water being soaked up swiftly on parched lands. This aspect helped him understand what homecoming really meant to him. He is now concerned about those who want to escape from persecution, but have odds against them.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), for Bhagchand, has brought a sense of closure.
And many Hindu refugees, representing vibrant caste diversities, are waiting for their citizenship, to be able to travel to and live in their ancestral villages. For them, hope is like a fluttering sacred pataka that marks their temporary dwellings.