Facing religious persecution across the border, the Hindu refugees from Pakistan are seeking asylum in India. Can they get a better life? [/h2]
By Prerna Lidhoo
Jamna Bagri, 45, was busy placing diyas on the balcony of her new house—a converted school in Bijwasan Village on the outskirts of Delhi. A sense of composure was visible on her forehead as she celebrated her first Diwali. Inspite of her tattered clothes—a mud-coloured salwar-kurta—she was happy. Her golden nose pin twinkled in the moonlight. The night reminded her of the time she had decided to leave her home in the Sindh region of Pakistan, her birthplace, six months ago.
She is one of 37 Pakistani Hindus who carried the tales of minority persecution with them to India this year. But along with her 20-day pilgrimage visa that expired in April 2014, her desire to return to Pakistan expired too. “We had no respect, and were discriminated against. We came to India with expectations of a better life, but here too, people haven’t treated us too well,” said Jamna.
Almost 1,20,000 Pakistani Hindus are now living in India. But since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it cannot recognize them as refugees officially.
Although in his speech on April 13, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Pakistani Hindu refugees would be treated like other Indian citizens, people like Jamna are still waiting for help from the government, as their repeated applications for asylum or refugee status have been disregarded.
Refugee kids, who, in the absence of proper documents, are being deprived of schooling
The colony where refugees live, which, they claim, is much like their conditions back home
“There is no help from the government. People of India should at least show us some sensitivity. We just left everything at home to come here. How long can we force ourselves on this country and where will we go if even this is taken away from us?” she asked.
According to Seemant Lok Sangathana, a Rajasthan-based organization fighting for the rights of Pakistani Hindu refugees, almost 1,20,000 Pakistani Hindus are now living in India and approximately 1,000 mig-rate to India annually in the hope of an Indian citizenship. But since India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it cannot recognize fleeing Pakistani Hindus as “refugees” officially. So the emigrants have to wait for seven years before applying for citizenship under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1955. Until 2005-06, about 13,000 Pakistani Hindu migrants staying in Rajasthan had been granted citizenship, but the number has decreased in the last three years to 915.
No citizenship means no legal documents for them. Without proper identification documents, Pakistani refugees cannot get proper jobs or reap benefits from state welfare sche-mes. This is what another asylum seeker in India, Roopchand, 18, has been facing for the past five months. Due to religious persecution in the Muslim-dominated country of his birth, he spent six years preparing to cross the border before he finally did. He now lives in the same place as Jamna.
Hindus are the single-largest minority in Pakistan and form about 2 percent of their total population. The Human Rights Com-mission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated that Pakistan saw a 22 percent rise in religious violence last year, with 687 people killed in more than 200 attacks. The HRCP also added that around 600 to 1,000 families fled to India in 2012-13.
“I had to give up my education after class VIII because of religious discrimination in schools. We were always made to sit in the last row and forced to begin every lesson with ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim’. They used to comment on our idols and even had separate cups for Hindus in the hotels. For official documents, they would only ask for the nikah-nama which we Hindus couldn’t produce,” says Roopchand.
I had to give up my education after class VIII because of religious discrimination in schools. We were always made to sit in the last row and forced to begin every lesson with ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim’.
(Above) Roopchand (seated left), who gave up his studies after class VIII because of religious discrimination
Nahar Singh, an activist, who is helping the refugees from Pakistan since 2011
He can recall numerous such encounters from his life back in Pakistan. His wounds have not yet healed but festivities have kept him busy. His whole house was festooned with Chinese lights when we visited him. This was the first time he celebrated Diwali in the true sense and he was very excited. He burnt dozens of crackers without being wary of derogatory remarks from others in the erstwhile neighborhood. “It feels like home here. We don’t have to pay a fine for burning crackers and celebrating our festival this year. If we lit our homes on Diwali in Pakistan, there was a constant threat of being looted. To avoid it, no one did,” he said.
He addresses his caretaker as dadu (grandfather). He is grateful to him that he could celebrate this year’s Diwali freely. All Pakistani Hindus in Delhi bank upon a retired police officer, Nahar Singh, who has been helping them for the last three years. By November 2011, around 145 Pakistani Hin-dus had set their feet at Majnu ka Tilla. Since then, he has been a part of their cause. He has adopted 918 refugees so that they are allowed to live in India without hassles.
“I am glad that they’re happy celebrating their own festival freely. I have been reminding the Indian government that citizenship has been their right since 1947. It has been denied to them time and again. Apart from that, I demand jobs and houses for them, like our past leaders who came from Pakistan, such as LK Advani and Dr Manmohan Singh, were given,” he says.
Contrary to his claim that Hindus are vulnerable in Pakistan, Pakistani officials have repeatedly said that the Hindu minority community is quite safe there. A committee appointed by former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari found no mass migration of Hindus from Pakistan’s Sindh province.
Pakistani Hindus have come a long way in establishing their identity here, but there is still a long way left to go. With this thought in mind perhaps, Jamna continues to light more diyas of hope.