Pakistan’s Hindus are crossing over in ever larger numbers, refusing to go back even after their visas expire. They prefer the life of illegal migrants with intermittent employment, and say that it is better than the discrimination and violence they face in their home country.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ARPIT PARASHAR
In Saadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, Bishan Singh dies during the exchange of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim inmates of mental asylums between India and Pakistan after Partition in 1947. Singh demands to be allowed to return to his hometown, Toba Tek Singh.
The underlying theme of the story by Manto, perhaps Urdu’s greatest short story writer, is that every human being needs to live where he/she feels most secure; and that the Partition took away that right from millions of people in the subcontinent. Even Bishan Singh, a lunatic, feels that desire and wants just that.
It is this need for security that drove Ram Das and thousands like him out of Pakistan and into India. He’s now an illegal migrant. A resident of the Goth Alan Khan Kodrani area in Pakistan’s Sindh province, Ram Das overstayed his 35-day visa last year, along with his family, some relatives and other Hindu families from the region—147 people in all. He’s been living around Delhi ever since. “We don’t wish to go back anymore,” he says. “There’s no dignity, no rights and no livelihood for us there because we’re Hindus”.
Almost all the families repeat the statement at first, but further probing reveals tales of humiliation and trauma.
The horrors of Partition didn’t end with it in 1947. They continued for various reasons in both India and Pakistan, from sensitive religious issues to cultural differences, to a lost cricket or hockey match. But radicalisation and perceived hurt to national and religious pride stand out as the reasons for maximum damage to people on both sides.
After Bangladesh became independent in 1971, Hindus and Sikhs were prime targets of Pakistani brutality. Hundreds were killed, though no one has accurate records. Many temples too were destroyed. They had become hate figures for no fault of their own. Bangladesh was liberated with Indian help and, to add insult to injury, the Pakistani army suffered the humiliation of mass surrender in Dhaka to a small Indian expeditionary force that fought a brilliant lightning campaign lasting just 13 days. Over 90,000 soldiers laid down their arms as (then) East Pakistan’s military commander Lt Gen A A K Niazi bowed to the inevitable.
In West Pakistan reactions were swift. “Many temples became the property of Muslim landlords and we were not even allowed into the compounds,” recalls Kishen Chand, an elderly man who migrated to India more than 10 years ago. He says he witnessed the horrific targeting of Hindus in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, in 1971.
Pakistan government records suggest that at least 500 Hindus were killed in and around Karachi in 1971-72. And the illegal occupation of Hindu places of worship continues to this day.
In 2006, a temple in Wachhowali, Rang Mahal, Lahore, was razed to allow a builder to construct a commercial property. After Hindus of the locality protested, Rawalpindi-based lawyer Om Prakash Narayan moved the Lahore High Court demanding that construction be stopped.
Journalists and locals were subsequently forced out of the area or simply stopped from going in by goons hired by the builder, the Dawn daily reported. Later that year, Narayan withdrew the case. He was said to have been under pressure to do so.
Despite border tensions, migration, chiefly into India, has been a constant since Partition. Hindus and Muslims from East Pakistan—then Bangladesh— fled to India to escape the atrocities at home. Rough government estimates suggest that 10 lakh Hindus came in after Partition, another 10 lakh in the 1950s, around 50 lakh in the 1960s. Around 15 lakh of the 1 crore who came to India in 1970-1971 stayed on. Since then, poverty and sectarian strife at home has led to the migration of about 50 lakh Bangladeshi Muslims to India since 1971.
Sectarian violence erupted in India after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics led by right-wing groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal in 1992. There were riots in Mumbai and Ahmedabad in which scores, mostly Muslims, lost their lives as police watched from the sidelines. Serial bomb blasts ripped through Mumbai next year in reprisal, killing hundreds more.
Pakistan, too, reported similar tales. Hindu temples were looted and razed, women brutalised, priests beaten up, and the community was terrorised. Many were killed, and many others fled to India. Now temples survive mostly as small shrines within homes. There are just a few left functioning in public places, mostly where the Hindu population is large or local Muslim families or lawmakers protect them.
The past ten years have again seen a rise in the number of Hindus entering India illegally—in many cases on legal visas but overstaying—never to return. But most of them seem to have been forced into the decision to abandon their homes.
Ram Das’ parents and the families of seven other siblings are still living in Goth Alan Khan Kodrani. He’s a reluctant migrant. The seeds of his decision date back eight years, when pressure on Hindus began increasing, he says.
It started with the kidnap of a relative’s daughter by a Muslim boy. “That boy had been after that girl since she was 13-14. She used to ask him to not trouble her, but he would not budge. After she turned 16, she suddenly went missing one day. Everyone in the village knew but no action was taken,” he says.
Relatives and family members gathered and approached the police. At a small meeting in the village police asked the boy’s family to respond to the allegations. “They just said the girl had come away with the boy of her own will but never produced her there. The police themselves dismissed the idea of having a girl appear before village elders, terming it against Islamic law.”
That was the last time her parents ever talked about her. Since they were poor, approaching the courts was not an option, says Das.
Wealthier Hindus find it easier to approach the courts, but are equally unlikely to succeed in their pleas. In March this year, 19-year-old Rinkle Kumari approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan and told Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary that a man named Naveed Shah and four others had kidnapped her and was trying to keep her against her will.
She was abducted from village Mirpur Mathelo on February 24 at 5 a.m. and married off to Shah at 3 p.m the same day. Police refused to lodge an FIR and include the names of some reportedly “influential” people, Mian Aslam, Mian Rafique and their father Mian Mithu. Rinkle’s family approached the civil judge in Ghotki district. The court, despite their plea that Rinkle wanted to return to her family, sent her to police custody.
The case of Jaymala, daughter of Kishanlal Bhatar, a grocery shop owner in Mirpur Khas in Sind, was worse. After being kidnapped and forced to convert, she was married off to a much older man. On the day of the hearing in court, in the presence of gunmen from the man’s family, she told the judge she did not know Kishanlal or any of his family members. Bhatar migrated to Ahmedabad in 2009.
Similarly, Hakim Meher Chand’s younger daughter was kidnapped by a much older man and forced to convert. He only met her once and she cried without saying a word. “Mine was not the only case; there are many who have suffered similar fate,” he says. Meher Chand came to Delhi last year, never to go back again.
The Rinkle case made waves throughout Pakistan. Civil society activists organized protests and President Asif Ali Zardari issued a declaration that forced conversions were against the law. Mian Mithu was unbowed. He defiantly announced in front of many civil society activists that if Rinkle was taken out of his custody, he would burn Mirpur Mathelo to the ground.
Hindus were not allowed into the local courts during hearings; just four members of Rinkle’s family could attend. But thousands of Mian Mithu’s men shouted slogans outside the court and hundreds were present inside. Weapons were openly displayed in a clear message to the court and judges, who would not ask any of the armed “Allah-o-Akbar” chanting men out.
The Pakistani Supreme Court then opened a long-pending constitutional petition against forced conversions, filed in 2007 by the Pakistan Hindu Council. It contained the names of two cases, to which Rinkle’s case was added. She was allowed an in-camera hearing with Iftikhar Chaudhary on March 26, during which she spoke her heart out.
After the hearing, the Chief Justice announced that she did indeed want to go back ‘to her mother’ and opined that before recording a ‘free-will statement’, she should be provided a free atmosphere. But he ordered that she should be shifted to a shelter home in Karachi.
As soon as he made this announcement, Rinkle shouted in front of media that she wanted to go to her mother; she cried and screamed that she would prefer to sleep in the court instead of the shelter house. She also said that she doubted if she could get justice in a system where majority were Muslim and wanted to convert her, which is why they were helping each other and not her.
The case collapsed the next month, when at a press conference in Islamabad’s Press Club, Rinkle said she had converted to Islam and wanted to live as a good wife from now onward. Mian Mithu’s men were hovering around and a Bluetooth device was stuck in her ear; the statement was being dictated, according to the Pakistani press.
Asked by journalists why she had decided to embrace Islam, she had no answers and pronounced Islamic edicts wrongly, after which she was hustled out by Mithu’s son. The Pakistani media reported that even during custody at the Karachi shelter she was under the control of Mithu’s men.
Ram Das says his first cousin and his wife suffered a fate that left his family shaken to the core. A man in his 30s kidnapped his cousin Teori Lal’s wife, also in her 30s and mother of five, and forced her to convert and marry him. “We approached the police, local leaders and even complained to the clerics but to no avail. Eventually, all that happened was that my cousin was attacked one night and forced to flee the village with his children.”
Rape is common, too, he says. The pressures of such trauma have forced Hindus into a mini exile within their own country and some others to seek sanctuary in India. Out of fear, most women live in a state of house arrest, hardly ever venturing out.
There’s also the oppression they share with other poor people. There are, for instance, many reports of local landlords usurping Hindu lands, but allowing the erstwhile owners to keep working in return of a fair share of the yield.
Rich Hindus too are under immense stress. Industrialists, businessmen, doctors, engineers all pay protection money to local goons. In November last year three Hindu doctors were shot dead in Chak town of Sindh. While police hinted at a dispute over a girl, Hindus insisted that it was most likely because they refused extortion and instead sought legal help in the matter
“They are provided just basic shelter, food and are made to work like animals,” says Ram Das. Here at least there seems to be little discrimination. Many poor Muslim families too suffer the same fate as the Zamindari system is still prevalent and land reform still a fantasy.
Then there’s land grab. Landlords and local goons are the usual culprits. “They forge papers and bribe policemen to favor them or threaten Hindus into selling dirt cheap,” says Ram Das.” They don’t even spare cremation grounds in some villages.
In one village, says Kishen Chand, locals laid claim to the Hindu cremation ground. They said the land belonged to them 200 years ago, so it should be returned to them. As the case dragged on in court, police forced the villagers to reach a settlement for a promised amount and an assurance that an alternative arrangement would be made for the Hindus to cremate their dead. Neither point was honoured. Hindus now have to cremate their dead in faraway cremation grounds, he says.
One of the reasons for grabbing cremation grounds is that the Tablighi Jamaat, or the society for spreading the faith (of Islam), insist that Hindus bury their dead. Often, there are fights every time a person dies, and in some places like Matiari, local Hindus have been forced to bury the dead; that too in spaces away from Muslim graveyards. Some people have resisted burial by travelling far to the Sindh River, to cremate the bodies on sandbars. But each death begets violence, they say.
For the migrants another sore point is that they can’t celebrate their festivals in their own homes. On Holi and Diwali, especially, if they want to let off some crackers or play Holi in the open, they are beaten up or threatened.
Since they have no right to property and no documents to show except those that say they are Pakistani, they have to live in camps or makeshift tents provided by donors and local trusts. In Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh they work as farm labourers or in the trades in which they have some expertise
Last year, in September, the Pano Aqil area of Sind was the scene of riots after local Muslims accused Dr Hari Lal, a Hindu employee of a school run by a Hindu charity of molesting a Muslim girl. The accusations proved baseless after a police investigation. Two months later, on Diwali, gunmen paraded the streets warning that any “un-Islamic” customs or celebrations would be punished with killings.
The Constitution of Pakistan upholds Islam as the state religion and allows other religions to co-exist but the ground realities are different. Hindus are termed kafir and their love for their home country questioned at every level. The Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court Khwaja Muhammad Sharif is reported to have commented earlier this year that the Hindus were responsible for terrorism in Pakistan. Whenever there is tension in a region where Hindus are targeted, Pakistan’s Hindu community under the Pakistan Hindu Council organises rallies and gatherings, out of fear and insecurity, where everyone pledges allegiance to the state of Pakistan.
The Hindu community in Pakistan, reported to constitute around 12-15 percent after Partition, today makes up less than 2 per cent of the population. The government has also failed to enact legislation banning the forced conversion of Hindus to Islam and for protection of the minorities. Rapid radicalisation is now pushing Hindus into India in streams rather than the trickles that used to come in earlier.
India, on the other hand, despite being the country to which people in distress from all neighbouring countries migrate, has failed to come up with any solution to help illegal migrants find their way back home or lead a life of dignity as refugees. It has failed to learn from its experience in Assam, where large scale anti-Bangladeshi riots have taken place for decades now over illegal migration.
In a reply to question related to illegal migration and persecution of Hindus in Pakistan, Minister of State for External Affairs E Ahamed told the Rajya Sabha earlier this year, “The government (of India) has taken up the issue with the government of Pakistan. It has stated that it looked after all its citizens, particularly the minority community.”
Clearly, both India and Pakistan have failed to learn from their experiences and are living in denial.
A resident of the area said Hindus will not celebrate the festival this year either. “They did not celebrate Oli (Holi) this year; the leaders and well wishers of the area too advised them to stay low for a year or two,” he said.
The sudden spurt in violence, Ram Das says, affected his family, too. Hindu land was grabbed in his village and random attacks started increasing. Then, in 2004, he says, a man in his 40s started “eyeing” his wife Rukmi Devi, making overtures when she went out to work in the fields.
“They (men in his village) eye anyone who is good looking and want to use them to produce children for their families. The women live just as slaves after that,” he says angrily. “I would have killed (that man) or been killed if anyone had ever tried to kidnap my wife and put her through such an ordeal.”
Fearful of his temper, he says, his family advised him either to move out to a relative’s village or go to India to find safer living conditions. He decided to move to India with his wife and children and started saving money.
Ram Das is a Bagri, a community found in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in India, and Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan. They’re seen as descendants of the Jat and Gurjars, while some also sustained themselves in business. Historical accounts suggest that they migrated to Punjab after their king from Rajasthan lost a battle to the Sikhs 300 to 400 years ago, and converted to Sikhism and Islam over time. Later, they migrated to Sindh from Rajasthan as farmers, traders. Many converted to Islam.
The Bagri Hindus in and around Sind h are mostly small farmers and traders. They speak a dialect close to Rajasthani while many speak plain Urdu/Hindi.
Ram Das’ family, he claims, migrated to Sindh close to 300 years back as labourers and later bought some land and settled down at Goth Alan Khan Kodrani. Apart from working their own land, they also work for other farmers because their fields can’t sustain them all. Saving money in such circumstances was all the more difficult.
Yet they were determined. The first step was to enquire about the papers needed to reach India. With Islamabad five days’ journey from his village, some suggested he contact agents in Hyderabad. One agent said he could get visas for Ram Das’ family to move to India for 50,000 Pakistani rupees. Over the next two years the family saved every penny they could and arranged for every official document, including the passports.
After finally paying the agent, they waited for the visas to arrive. But the visas never came. For three years Ram Das travelled to Hyderabad every month to enquire about the visas but got one or the other excuse every time. “They were never going to arrive anyway I suppose; after reaching India I spoke to people about how I was duped and learnt that others had suffered just as I did.”
He decided to approach the Indian High Commission himself. But by 2009 New Delhi had tightened rules for visa applications in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Ram Das persisted and travelled to Islamabad at least five times till someone suggested that he should enroll with one of the Sikh jathas that travel to India during religious festivals and perform sewa (service). That, he was told by some Hindus, could help him find some place to stay in India.
He enrolled with a 500-member jatha last year, stayed at a gurdwara near Lahore and performed sewa along with his family members, and applied for visas as a member of the jatha. Ganga Ram, leader of the group that planned to stay back in India, says he, too, tried several times for visas to India in the last five years, but was refused each time. This time, with some help, they got visas for all the 147 people to visit Amritsar, Haridwar, Raipur, Indore and other cities.
On September 4, 2011, Ram Das along with his family crossed the Atari border into India.
Relatives and friends who had come with him had enquired about jobs to make sure they were not forced to return to Pakistan. After visiting the Golden Temple and spending four days at Amritsar, 114 members of this group reached Delhi on September 8 and took refuge at Dera Dhunni Das Ji at Majnu ka Tila right next to the Gurdwara Majnu Ka Tila. The current baba of the ashram, Rajkumar Pappuji says he is continuing a tradition established by his grandfather Dhunni Das Ji. He regularly visited Pakistan to give solace to his followers and helped those who arrived in India and did not wish to return.
Life in India has been better in some ways for migrants like Ram Das. They say they never want to return. “My children can go out safely and live freely,” says Ram Das. They have also been helped by the ashram and some non-government organisations (NGOs) with books, and volunteers have taught them and their children how to read and write in Hindi.
The most enthusiastic are the girls and women, who earlier hid behind veils and stayed in their rooms. Girls would not even face other men when they initially arrived and hid behind their parents. “Now they roam around and mingle freely with people.”
But they have faced government neglect. After their visas expired, fearing that they would be sent back, they applied for an extension with the help of the ashram and some local people, but to no avail. They wrote letters to the Prime Minister, the President and the National Human Rights Commission appealing for refugee status as their visas had expired. They are yet to receive a reply.
This attitude is nothing new. Few of those who have migrated to India since the 1990s have got citizenship or refugee status. Some died in the country without any support from the authorities. Most cases are stuck in the bureaucracy as one or the other document required is missing and their applications for citizenship rejected as a result. Since most of them carry only their Pakistani identity cards and violate their visas they are termed illegal migrants.
This is the core of the problem. The Indian Citizenship Act, 1956, says illegal migrants can’t be granted citizenship. The kin of anyone so registered also can’t become a citizen even if born in India and even if one parent is Indian.
Replying to a question raised by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of Parliament Avinash Rai Khanna in the Rajya Sabha last March, Minister of State for Home Mullapally Ramachandran said 300 Pakistanis had got Indian citizenship in 2011, but that hundreds of applications couldn’t be accepted for want of documents whereas many others were rejected.
Most of the people who get citizenship are rich and well connected; the poor are the ones who suffer. Last year, Pakistan Muslim League leader and member of the Sindh Assembly Ram Singh Sodho became an Indian citizen. He had allegedly been threatened in Pakistan and decided to move to India to live with his son who was an Indian citizen. Many industrialists and well-to-do Hindus whose lives have been threatened have also applied for Indian citizenship while still in Pakistan.
The poor, meanwhile, have suffered on this side of the border too. When they arrived in Delhi, the group of 114 was herded in a small enclosure of the ashram, which has hardly any space. It is situated along a large open drain that flows through north Delhi. The elderly and children were provided the rooms with asbestos ceilings while the women and men slept in open tents. Food at the ashram is cooked in the open along the drain. When they heard of it, police from the Timarpur station in Delhi arrived at the ashram. Families were herded together, their identities confirmed and entries made in a register. The information went to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO), which keeps records of illegal migrants in every state.
Two months later when winter set in, the ashram had to make alternate arrangements for the group. With the help of well wishers, a place was found in the adjoining district of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. They were to be taken to Dasna, home to one of the largest Central jails in UP. Once again, Timarpur police were informed and the names of all those being shifted struck out from the register; new entries would be made in UP, they were told.
After the arrangements in Dasna were completed, the group was taken there on a December evening. The arrangement lasted only a few hours. By nightfall UP police from Dasna arrived with orders that the group could not stay. The leaders were told that since Dasna had a sizeable Muslim population, the administration did not want to take any risk by allowing Pakistanis in the area.
“Dasna has not had a communal problem but with Hindus coming in from Pakistan there was a chance of communal disturbance and so we took the decision (to remove them from the area),” a police officer recalled.
So the group was herded back on that winter night to the ashram. By morning Timarpur police arrived again and ordered them out as they had already moved out and were no longer allowed back. “The policemen said take them anywhere in Delhi but not in the area under Timarpur station’s jurisdiction,” says group leader Ganga Ram.
With nowhere to go, the ashram owners and volunteers called for help from all quarters. An ex-police officer, Nahar Singh, agreed to help. He owned a house in the Bijwasan area on the outskirts of Delhi which he got evacuated and cleaned. The group was moved to Bijwasan where they were put up in 21 rooms of a building—an average of five people per room.
While various NGOs and trusts provided food supplies, it sometimes fell short of demand. Some of the men then found jobs around Bijwasan and in neighbouring Gurgaon district of Haryana. But the masons or mechanics or other professionals could not find work since it is mostly a rural area.
The migrants have faced similar problems in other states where they have tried to find work. Since they have no right to property and no documents to show except those that say they are Pakistani, they have to live in camps or makeshift tents provided by donors and local trusts. In Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh they work as farm labourers or in the trades in which they have some expertise. While they receive help from many quarters it is not enough. Medical care is expensive since government hospitals do not treat them.
Having found no work in Bijwasan, Ram Das shifted back to the ashram with his family and other relatives. Some have shifted to a camp in Jahangirpuri, while Ganga Ram and some others have found work in temples and the trusts that help them. Ram Das sells vegetables on a cart, some others of the group sell fruits. They manage to earn a living.
They still share the ashram the same way–children and elderly in the rooms with ceilings, women and men out in the tents. They continue to live in hope as the Delhi High Court has ordered an interim stay on their deportation.
Their problems continue to multiply. Schooling is an issue. In Pakistan, Hindus don’t usually send their children to school. They fear that their girls will be kidnapped and their sons forced to convert to Islam. The “secular” education system is in tatters so there’s only Islamic education in the local schools and madarsas.
Here, too, their children aren’t allowed to study in government schools since they are not Indian citizens . “We want our children to do well for themselves. The government can at least accept these kids as India’s children and help them,” says Ram Das.
His children have learnt to read and write, but they still read the same books every day to entertain themselves. Most are bored now. “Ab achha nahi lagta yeh (I do not enjoy reading these books anymore),” says Rani, Das’ six-year-old daughter.
For the moment, though, there’s nothing more.
Ram Das’ life may be no better than it was in Goth Alan Khan Kodrani, but he lives in hope that the Indian government will relent. That he should prefer this shadow world to the substance of home says something about his life in Pakistan.
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