Life is hard for these Pakistani Hindus, who have left behind familiar lives, their land, and their extended families, to start from scratch in India.
Unlike the illegal Rohingyas, who got easy passage to Jammu during the Congress rule, government support for the Hindu refugees is slow and tedious, though the Modi government is making the process somewhat easier for them.
Kunwar Ram sits huddled on a woven camp cot, his head resting on his knees, hugging his calves. He is all of five. His mother Radha, caresses his hair, her pregnant belly protruding. “He cannot see,” she mumbles in Hindi, not looking at me.
Kunwar suddenly looks up, his head moving constantly. His eyes are shut, the skin fused together. “We showed him to good doctors, his blindness is permanent,” says the girl from Humanitarian Aid International, the organisation that is facilitating my visit.
“He can be sent to blind school and taught to read and some skills. Do you want him to remain here with you, or do you want to send him to a blind school where he can be taken care of?” She asks Radha, the mother. Radha looks at her with her piercing light eyes and says haltingly, looking straight at us, “par accha to ho jayega na?”
I have no answers. The lingering hope in her voice feels brittle.
I am at a Pakistani Hindu refugee camp in Majnu Ka Teela, Delhi. Some hundred Hindu families, mostly from Sindh, Pakistan, live in makeshift huts at the camp. The lucky ones have huts made with brick walls, the less fortunate ones have huts fashioned from bamboo, plastered over using mud.
No house has an individual toilet. All 600 people at the camp use two common toilet blocks provided after intervention from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The blocks have only 10 cubicles in total. That’s 60 people per toilet. You can imagine what it must be like in the mornings, when everyone has to go out to work.
“Now you can walk into this toilet block,” says Sudhanshu Singh, “a few months ago, you couldn’t pass outside this toilet block without throwing up. We got this new toilet block installed after we petitioned to NHRC, before that, they had these filthy, overflowing holes.”
The Pakistani Hindus are in India legally, on a long term visa that could be converted to citizenship after seven years of stay in India. Some families at the Majnu Ka Teela camp have completed five years in India, while some have completed three. Thanks to unceasing activism by activists like Dr Hindu Singh Soda, now the refugees can at least open bank accounts and apply for Aadhaar cards. But their living conditions are bleak.
The camp has no paved roads. When it rains, the whole road turns into a slushy puddle. The roofs leak during the monsoons, heat up during the cruel Delhi summers and can barely keep out the wind during the cold winters.
Most men from the camp used to be farmers back in Pakistan. Here they are forced to work as day labourers on construction sites or sell mobile covers at traffic signals. Their homes are one-room dwellings stark in their simplicity. There is a garbage dump right in the middle of the camp, where plastic trash is piled up.
Most of the women at the camp have never gone to school because their parents have kept them home out of fear of them being abducted, forcibly converted and married off to Muslim men. Their fear is not without grounds, every month there are at least 20 cases of underage Hindu girls as young as 12 being abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in Sindh province alone in Pakistan.
The women are very skilled at hand embroidery though. They show me some of their work. It is exquisite and colourful. They are also learning sewing using a sewing machine, thanks to a skill development programme run by Humanitarian Aid International.
“If I send you fabric and yarn, will you embroider small objects like cushion covers and table napkins? They can be sold and fetch you steady, decent income,” I ask. They don’t seem very impressed. “It takes a lot of time,” mumbled an older woman. “We have to look after our children and cook,” pipes in her young sister-in-law Chandrama. I am disheartened by their reluctance.
“The thing is ma’am, they don’t trust you. They have seen too many people who come here, take pictures, make talk promises and never come back,” says Saurabh Yadav, the young project officer who is accompanying me with a wry smile. Saurabh is working closely with Sudhanshu Singh, the founder of Humanitarian Aid International, an NGO that is 100 per cent Indian, despite its name.
I don’t know what to say. Sudhanshu looks at me with empathy in his eyes. He has lots of plans for this camp, get Kunwar Ram admitted to a blind school, get Sundari, a 5-year-old child with cerebral palsy the best treatment possible and to start literacy classes and self-defence classes for the children in the camp.
But he needs resources and volunteers. For the big international NGOs that get crores in funds, Pakistani Hindus are not a glamorous cause, so they ignore them. Sudhanshu wants to do something for the people in this camp, but government support is slow and tedious, despite the good intentions at the ministry level.
Life is hard for these Pakistani Hindus. They have left behind old familiar lives, their land, in many cases, their extended families, to start from scratch in India. While 40,000 illegal Rohingyas got easy passage to Jammu during the Congress rule, got Aadhaar cards and homes with cement roofs, the Hindu refugees languish, waiting for the painfully long legal process to complete. The Narendra Modi government has made the process somewhat easier for them, but still, it is a lonely, slow, painful journey.
Bollywood celebrities flaunting their ‘shexy shexy sharees’ have the time to visit illegal Rohingya camps in Delhi, but visiting Hindu refugees from Pakistan doesn’t get you coverage in the ‘liberal’ media, so no star celeb has ever come here, not even a minor one.
As we walk through the camp, I am struck by the number of pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses I see stuck on the walls of each home. Some people have erected Shivlingas right outside their homes. “We came here to protect our Dharma, and only our Dharma,” says Ravi, the only inmate at the camp who speaks English. Ravi was a teacher in Pakistan.
His name is Ravi. He was a teacher in Sindh, Pakistan. He came to India as a refugee two years ago, and lives in the Majnu Ka Teela camp, selling odds and ends by the roadside. His life today is no picnic, but he says, he came to India to save his #Dharma. @humanaidint pic.twitter.com/O9Fli1MRRq— Shefali Vaidya ஷெஃபாலி வைத்யா शेफाली वैद्य (@ShefVaidya) August 1, 2019
“What subjects did you teach?” I ask him.
“I taught everything, math, English, Urdu and Hindi to the children,” Ravi says.
“Hindi? But aren’t children in Pakistan only taught in Urdu?” I ask.
“I was teaching Hindu children Hindi on my own so that they would find it easier to adjust here in India,” Ravi replies.
The younger children from the camp surround us, their eyes shining with curiosity. Some of them wear uniforms. They all go to school, boys as well as girls.
“How do you like it here in India?” I ask Naseeba, a slim, tall pretty lady. “Bahut acha, India me Dharm ki ajaadi hai, bacche school ja sakte hain,” she replies. (Here we have freedom to follow our Dharma. Our kids can go to school here’)
I ask many camp inmates, what do they like about India. They all have the same reply, “we feel free here to practise our Dharma.” I feel my eyes moistening. Suddenly, the squalor around me doesn’t matter, the tremulous hope in the eyes of the people around me is the only thing that matters.
As I take leave of the people, determined to start project embroidery with the women, my eyes are fixed on a riveting image — the Indian tricolour fluttering merrily in the wind, on the camp wall!