In an open letter to the Prime Minister of India, Faiza Mirza, a correspondent with Pakistani newspaper Dawn wrote: “Mr Singh, we all do appreciate your humanitarian policies and would urge you to expedite the citizenship process of Pakistani Hindus. However, I find it my duty to inform you that people who profess other religions in Pakistan are equally deprived of peace and should be given an opportunity to seek asylum in India.” The statement reveals the helplessness of minorities in Pakistan.
But the lot of Pakistani Hindus isn’t much better in India. Prem Bhil was denied hotel accommodation in Delhi because of his Pakistani passport. “I had to sleep in the park facing the Pakistani embassy for two nights in December,” he says.
Pakistani citizens are viewed with suspicion and are fair game for the police too. “They arbitrarily call us and the moment we pay them, we are free to leave,” reveals a refugee when you meet him at his camp in a field on the outskirts of Jodhpur. “The intelligence agencies too harass us in joint operations,” he adds.
“India doesn’t have a law to address the problem faced by Pakistani Hindu migrants,” says HS Sodha, head of the Pakistan Visthaphit Sangh, who is campaigning for refugee status for Pakistani Hindus. While it used to take five years to get Indian citizenship, it now takes seven years. Since a Pakistani passport expires in five years, many have no national identity in the intervening years. Clearly, a situation that calls for an immediate solution.
‘Crossing over was the only option’
Khimi Bai arrived in Jodhpur in 2012
With her ‘ghoonghat’ and flowing clothes, Khimi Bai (15) is like any other girl from the Thar desert that stretches across Rajasthan and Sindh. The only difference is that one side of the desert expanse has forced her to this side. On Sept 9, Khimi Bai crossed into India on the Thar express, a symbol of Indo-Pak bonhomie, on a pilgrimage visa with a group of 171 people led by her father, Chetan Ram.
Though she was lucky not to be another Rinkle Khanna — abducted, converted and married to a Muslim — it was clear that her moment of shame was imminent. With a meagre income and little influence, crossing into India was the only option. “Forget studies, even going to the fields was dangerous as they would kidnap and converted girls and forced them into marriage. In fear, we ventured outside only in big groups,” says Khimi Bai. “What they were doing with others was there for the world to see. Why wait? It was better to leave the country before they turned on us.”
The only hope for her and 2.5 million other Pakistani Hindus is India. Most trace their ancestral villages to Rajasthan and Gujarat, the states bordering Pakistan’s Sindh which has a significant Hindu population.
The escape to India was fraught with danger. “We left our homes months in advance in batches, telling curious Muslim neighbours that we were going to the nearby city or to the homes of relatives” Khimi Bai reveals.
Things were fine until a local politician’s bodyguards found out that a Hindu widow was planning to leave. Chetan Ram, who had assured them that he would return after his pilgrimage, hid the widow and her children in a temple, sneaking them into the railway station just minutes before the train departed. “It was tough as they were roaming about with their guns to stop her,” says Ram. Growing extremism in Pakistan resulting in religious persecution and daily humiliation has left minorities with no choice but to leave the country. “Our festivals are subdued and even cremating the dead is a challenge.” says Ram.
‘I am still waiting to become a citizen’
Prem Bhil arrived in Jodhpur in 2005
Bhil was 24 years old when, tired of taunts about his religion, he left for India with his family. Seven years later, he is still waiting to become a citizen. The Indian government grants citizenship only after a stay of seven years. He recounts how his prowess as a district level fast bowler in Sindh often attracted the wrath of fellow players unhappy with the captain who had reposed his faith in him. “They would often say: ‘Is kaafir ko tumne sar chadha rakha hai’,” Bhil recollects.
Ironically, he found that a democratic Pakistan brought more troubles for the Hindu community. “When Musharraf was ‘Sadar’ it was far better,” he says. But some things are the same on both sides of the border. Though he had paid Rs. 2,000 per passport to Pakistani custom officials an unpleasant surprise awaited him at the Attari border in Punjab. The custom official, sniffing his helplessness, pronounced his passport and visa fake and demanded Rs. 5000. Each time Bhil attempted to bargain with the official, the ‘fee’ amount was raised until it stood at Rs. 21,000. At this, his octogenarian grandfather begged for mercy only to be kicked to the ground. The old man began bleeding and slipped into a coma. At this, the custom official asked them to hand over “whatever they had”. “It was around 5:30 pm, two days before the ‘yaum-e-jamhuriyat’ (Republic Day). I will never forget the face of that official,” he says. Bhil’s grand father was declared dead at a Delhi hospital of severe shock.
Tougher times lay ahead. The little money he had was spent on taking his grandfather’s body to his ancestral village in Jodhpur. The owner of the ambulance service refused to transport the body unless he was paid the full R7,000 up front. Bhil had only Rs. 6500. Help arrived from unexpected quarters — the driver of the ambulance, incidentally a Muslim, pleaded with his employer and told him to deduct the amount from his own salary if Bhil didn’t pay.
“He even paid for the food during the journey from Delhi to Jodhpur. The good man didn’t take any money despite my repeated insistence,” he says.
‘Half my family is still Pakistani’
Marvi Bai arrived in Jodhpur in 1998
The exuberant Marvi Bai (18), used to top her class. Now she can’t and the reason couldn’t be more ironic. She has no identity papers and so cannot appear for the 8th standard board exams in Rajasthan, her new home. All she has is a copy of the visa she shared with her mother when they crossed into India 14 years ago. That doesn’t count.
“Till class 7th they didn’t insist but for the 8th board they insist on identity and address proof,” says Marvi, wondering how she could get that since she was originally from Pakistan.
While her parents and younger siblings who were born in India are now Indian citizens, Marvi, her older sister and younger brother are still Pakistanis. Apparently, when the family crossed the border in 1998 as pilgrims, the rules allowed children to be accounted for the visa to be embedded within their mother’s.
Marvi’s father Gaji, a scrap dealer, could not afford the high cost in 2005 — Rs. 200 for an adult and Rs.1,800 for a child — when the Indian government granted citizenship to 13,000 Hindus dispersed mainly in the border states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. As a result, he and his wife are Indian citizens as are the children who were born after they came to the country. Gaji’s beloved Dharmi, Marvi and Dileep, however, are still Pakistani nationals despite having lived in India for so long.
Ironically, as a result of their names, few believe Ghaji and his wife Azeema Fatima, are Hindu. “And if I tell people of my Pakistani origin, life becomes difficult for me,” says Gaji. “People think I am Pakistani Muslim.” In 2005, India granted citizenship to 13,000 Pakistanis. An earlier spike in numbers was in 1978 when 55,000 were granted Indian citizenship. The state, which has a large population of Hindus, was relatively peaceful but began witnessing an increase in extremism after 9/11 and the subsequent US campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Sadly, it would seem that Marvi, who is so eager to do her 8 standard exams, is a victim of history.
(This article was first published in HT.)