Citizenship Amendment Act: Living in No Man’s Land

Even as the centre brought in the Citizenship (Amendment) Act to take in persecuted people from three countries, Pakistani Hindus in the state’s border districts have been left to fend for themselves 

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After life became unbearable in Mirpur Khas (Sindh province), Hemji decided it was time to leave the place where he and his ancestors were born. In 2015, he crossed over to India in the hope of finding a haven, where he and his family could have a secure and respectful life. A male nurse at a private clinic in Mirpur Khas, Hemji now lives in Anganva Basti in Jodhpur, along with 250 migrant Hindu families from Pakistan. Though living here may have saved Hemji from everyday abuse and harassment, it is a daily struggle. Without proper documents, finding meaningful employ­ment and proper education for his children has become an ordeal.

Hemji is not alone in this precarious situation. More than 50,000 Pakistani Hindus are living in Barmer, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, districts bordering Pakistan. They have been on long-term vis­as in the hope that one day they will get Indian citizenship and full rights to live in their new homeland like other Indians.

The arrival of persecuted Pakistani Hindus is not a new phenomenon. Hindu Singh Sodha, president of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, which has been working for the rehabilitation of refugees from Pakistan, told India Legal: “About 10,000 people came in 1965 and another 90,000 in 1971. After this, the Rajasthan border was fenced. Then another 45,000 entered through valid visas. If you take into account the rate of natural growth of 1.45 lakh people, this has today expanded to five lakh.”

Soda said granting citizenship was a different issue and successive governments had done so. However, the reality is that the process of granting citizenship is very slow, as under the earlier law, a person had to give proof of residency of 12 years and other supporting documents. One of the biggest hurdles in granting citizenship is the no-objection certificate by intelligence agencies. In December, a camp was organised in Barmer where hundreds of people applied for Indian nationality. But none got it because of objections raised by the intelligence agencies over the documents submitted by them. In Jodhpur, there are 19,000 Pakistani Hindu refugees living in shanty settlements. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which has reduced the residency term from 12 years to six may have brought a glimmer of hope. However, in the fight between the centre and the state over its implementation, these helpless people have been left high and dry. An emotional Hemji told India Legal: “I have been living in Anganva Basti in Jodhpur for more than five years and under CAA, I have one more year to go before I get Indian citizenship.” But Hemji is not sure whether his ordeal will end after a year. “There were people who have been living here for the last 10-20 years; even they haven’t got the papers.”

Hemji said that without papers, it is very difficult to get employment and education for children. The biggest problem is faced by children when they sit for the board examinations. He narrated the instance of a girl, who after passing Class X standard in Pakistan, came to Jodhpur and took admission in a private school. When she applied for the Class XII board examination, she was asked to furnish the eligibility certificate which she didn’t have.

On the centre-state confrontation and Rajasthan passing a resolution against CAA, Sodha said: “It is a law passed by Parliament and notified in the official gazette. Irrespective of which political party is in power, it has to be implemented.”

When reminded that collectors of Jodhpur, Barmer and Jaisalmer had said that they had received no notification, Sodha said after a bill is passed and becomes an act, laws and bylaws are framed for its implementation. “It lays down and defines the procedure and process through which it’s going to be implemented. I am sure all these issues will be sorted out and the notification will reach the district collectors.”

However, Sodha, who on his own helped 22,000 Pakistani Hindu migrants get Indian citizenship, said: “The issue of persecuted Hindus coming from Pakistan should be seen as a humanitarian issue. Apart from daily abuse and persecution, girls above 12 years are kidnapped and forcibly converted. And the tragedy is that many of them have not got Indian citizenship even after 20 years.”

However, Akhil Choudhary, a Rajasthan High Court lawyer and human rights activist, said: “Citizenship for Indians from Pakistan, including Hindus and non-Hindus, was granted according to the constitutional provisions and the Pass-port Act before CAA 2019 came into existence. The CAA is silent on refugees/immigrants who came after December 2014. The Rajasthan legislature has rightly passed a resolution to stop CAA as it discriminates on the basis of religion and arbitrarily chooses only three countries from where persecuted Indians can come to India. This violates the basic structure of the Constitution.”

He said that the CAA violates the guarantee of equality before the law and the right to a life with dignity under Article 21. While it is nobody’s case that a law granting citizenship to refugees must apply to every person in the world, there must be reasonable criteria for selecting a set of refugees to confer this benefit. “The CAA appears to lack such reasonable classification and seems discriminative,” he said.

Nadia Hashimi in her book, When the Moon is Low, which deals with the plight of refugees, writes: “Refugees didn’t just escape a place. They had to escape a thousand memories until they’d put enough time and distance between them and their misery to wake to a better day. Grudges don’t die—people do.”

When will over 50,000 Pakistani Hindus wake up to a better day?

Starting from scratch
Employed at a government hospital in Hyderabad, Sindh, Dr Ashok Maheshwari and his wife, Dr Nirmala Maheshwari, like any other doctor couple were leading a comfortable life. Hailing from the border district of Umarkot, both had graduated from the prestigious Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences in Jamshoro, known as the education city of Sindh. Ashok is an anaesthesiologist, while Nirmala, apart from a government job, had a flourishing sonography practice.
Nirmala told India Legal that being born and brought up in Pakistan, questions about her faith never came up during school and college. “I used to go to my friends’ houses on Eid and even attended many milads (celebrations to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad).”
But one day in June 2014, both decided to leave Pakistan forever. Leaving their parents behind, they and their three children arrived in Jaipur on a religious visa, never to go back. Nirmala’s sister lives in Jaipur.
On what made her take such a drastic decision so late in life (she was 40, while Ashok was 50), she said: “The fact is that there is no law in Pakistan. With the rise of the Taliban, the incidence of Hindu girls being kidnapped and forcefully converted to Islam saw a sudden surge. Thousands of girls have been kidnapped and not a single one has been traced and no one has been convicted. We could have faced any other hardship, but when it came to our daughters, we could not take it anymore.”
Incidentally, Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leader, had even written letters to Pakistan PM Imran Khan, the chief justice and the army chief to criminalise forced conversions and provide protection for the victims of this abhorrent practice.
But Nirmala said that this was the tragedy of Pakistan. “There is so much talk but no action.” She claimed that things became so bad that their Muslim friends and neighbours advised them to go to India. They said, “if something happens to our family, we won’t be able to help you,”
Nirmala said. “We were constantly living with the sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. We came to India for this reason, not for any financial consideration. Moneywise, we were better-off there. In fact, in India, we had to start from scratch.”
At present, both have long-term visas and are working as consultants in a private hospital after getting temporary registration from the Medical Council of India. Another problem they face is that their daughter, Mashal, who had secured 91 percent in the CBSE XII exams, could not appear for the All-India Pre-Medical Test as it has no provision for Pakistani nationals. Mashal appealed to the Government of India and with the intervention of then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, she got the admission in SMS Medical College, Jaipur. Nirmala said the new CAA can help resolve the problems of people like her. But it’s a long-drawn process. She visits her aged parents in Pakistan once a year. Her father is bed-ridden after a heart attack. As Pakistani author Mohsin Ha­mid’s novel Exit West says: “… but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
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