The wait for a new passport

Over the years,Pakistani Hindus have been crossing over to Rajasthan,fleeing alleged persecution in that country. Sweta Dutta and photographer Tashi Tobgyal visit their camps in Jodhpur,Jaisalmer and Barmer,where many of them still wait to become Indian citizens

Written by Sweta Dutta | Published:October 7, 2012 2:20 am

Ten kilometres from Jodhpur city,on a sultry afternoon under a flapping tent,a baby girl is born to Sadhu and Radha. People crowd around and peer into the tent to congratulate the couple. Someone in the crowd says,“The first Indian among us,she should be named Bharati.” The suggestion is met with nods of approval and cheers of “Bharati”.

Over the last one month,the makeshift tent has been home to around 250 Hindu migrants from Pakistan and has seen the birth of two baby girls. While the migrants in the camp think these babies are Indian citizens by virtue of their place of birth,they do not know that a 2003 amendment in the Citizenship Act took away that privilege. Now,like all the other migrants housed in that tent and many more across Rajasthan,the two babies too will have to go through a prolonged nationality crisis before they become Indian citizens.

Over the last few decades,Rajasthan,which shares its western boundary with Pakistan,has seen an increasing influx of Hindus from that country. Though the biggest migration took place during Partition in 1947,the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 also saw Hindus cross over to Rajasthan in hordes. The years after that were less turbulent but in recent years,the growing intolerance towards religious minorities in Pakistan is said to have increased the flow of refugees.

According to Seemant Lok Sangathan,an organisation that works for the resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced Pakistani Hindus,at least 20,000 Hindus from the neighbouring country have migrated to Rajasthan since the 1990s,of whom 13,000 were granted citizenship in 2004-5. According to estimates,at least 395 Pakistani Hindus have come on pilgrim visas over the last few months and refused to go back to Pakistan.

On September 9,255 Pakistani migrants took the Thar Express to Bhagat ki Kothi,a tiny station that’s 5 km from Jodhpur railway station. Of them,204 stayed back in Jodhpur. On September 23,another 48 migrants got off at the same station,refusing to go back to Pakistan. On September 30,another 10 migrants stayed back.

***

It all started when Chetan Ram Bheel,a 39-year-old from Sindh province in Pakistan,visited Haridwar on a pilgrim visa last year with five of his relatives. After what he saw of India,he thought he would come back,this time for good. He went back to his village in Pakistan,mobilised all his relatives spread across Sindh and beyond,and planned their move to Rajasthan. He wrote to religious institutions in Haridwar and Nagaur,got them to send invitations to him and his relatives. Once the invites arrived,Chetan Ram and his extended family applied for pilgrim visas separately. On September 7,171 of Chetan Ram’s relatives boarded the Thar Express at Mirpur Khas in Pakistan and till the train pulled out of the station,they pretended not to know each other. “If the authorities there had got to know that we were planning to flee the country,they would not have given us visas. We did not want to take a chance,” says Chetan Ram.

Thus happened one of the biggest flight of migrants in recent times.

Talking of the life he left behind,Chetan Ram says he had to drop out of school when he could no longer bear compulsory readings of the Quran and Urdu and Arabic. “Most Hindu children drop out of school by the fifth grade as it becomes unbearable by then. We are called kafir (infidel) and we are often lectured that if you accept Islam,‘jannat jaoge,jannat ghar ayegi (you will go to heaven)’”.

Chetan Ram’s nephew Dharmu Ram Bheel (the name on his passport reads ‘Zarmoo’) says,“I was the only Hindu in class and was treated as an outcaste. Hindus are mistreated. We have no property,we are made to work as bonded labourers and our women are not safe there. Hindu girls are forcefully picked up and end up becoming some landed man’s fifth or sixth wife. I have five children and I want them to have a better future. I do miss Yasir Budheo,one of my closest friends,but I am relieved to get away from there.”

Prem Chand,who came in 2005 from Sanghar district in Sindh province and is now a volunteer with Seemant Lok Sangathan,says,“After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992,a Hindu temple was bombed in Tando Allahyar in Sindh. The incidents of forcible conversions and plunder increased thereafter.”

He says that like most of the refugees,he has his origins in Rajasthan. “We were originally from Mihajlar village in Jaisalmer. Around the time of Partition,a severe drought in the region forced my ancestors to move out in search of food. They travelled 25 km westward and crossed the border and settled down in Sindh,a more fertile area. In those days,even after Partition,they could come back to their village whenever they wanted. But after the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971,the movement across the borders became restricted. It got worse in the 1990s,when fences along the border made cross-border movement impossible for us,” he says.

***

Gaji Ram,who was ‘Gazi’ in Pakistan,is stuck in a bizarre situation. He migrated to India with his wife and two children in 1999. Gaji Ram and his wife became Indian citizens in 2005,but since he couldn’t put together enough money to apply for his children’s citizenship,they remained Pakistanis on paper. Meanwhile,his wife,by then an Indian citizen,gave birth to two more children who became natural Indian citizens.

“We are a family of four Indians and two Pakistanis. I have no money to apply for the citizenship of my two children. They had to drop out of school as they have no legal documents of their birth and their names do not feature in our ration card. What is my fault? That I was born a Hindu in Pakistan? The Indian government must consider our plight and give us refugee status,” says Gaji Ram,who now works as a volunteer with Seemant Lok Sangathan. The Sangathan is made up entirely of people who were once migrants from Pakistan,some still awaiting their citizenship.

In 2004-5,around 13,000 migrants in Rajasthan got citizenship in India,all of them Hindus from Pakistan. The rules were different then. One was eligible for citizenship after five years of residency in the country,later this was increased to seven years. Even the application fee has increased and now ranges from Rs 5,000 to Rs 25,000.

“In the last six years,not even 100 people have been granted citizenship. Earlier,migrants came on tourist visas and those could be extended. But the pilgrim visas have tough rules and can’t be extended. But at least the government has initiated the process of letting those who come on pilgrim visas to apply for citizenship,” says Hindu Singh Sodha,who heads Seemant Lok Sangathan and was once a migrant himself.

In March 2009,the Rajasthan government had set up a committee to look into the issues of displaced Pakistani Hindus. The committee had the chief secretary,10 principal secretaries and Sodha as members. It has not held a single meeting yet.

But Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot says the state is “more than sympathetic towards the migrants”. “After the group arrived on September 9,I personally went to meet them (in Jodhpur). The state government understands that these migrants are victims of persecution. Once the paperwork is done,I will initiate talks with the Centre and do whatever it takes to provide them relief,” he told The Sunday Express.

India has signed neither the UN Convention on Refugees (1951) nor its 1967 Protocol and Indian law does not offer any special provisions for refugees,despite the large number of them seeking protection in the country. Under Indian law,refugees,immigrants and tourists are all placed in the same broad category of ‘foreigners’.

***

There are around 7,000 Pakistani Hindus scattered in districts across western Rajasthan who are waiting to trade their Pakistani passports for the deep blue Indian ones. Mostly from the Bheel,Raika or Devasi communities,they are spread across Barmer,Jaisalmer,Sri Ganganagar,Bikaner and Jodhpur. Jodhpur is the nodal point for all visa extensions. But many of these migrants slip out of Jodhpur to set up new settlements across western Rajasthan.

A few mud huts dot an open,arid field on Sam Road,about 15 km from Jaisalmer city. There is no name to the village,some call it the village near Kahala village,others call it ‘Sam Road village’. It’s a village of “85 passports”,as the migrants are referred to in these parts. The 85 migrants here are all Pakistani Hindus who streamed in over the last decade. Though their visas required them to stay in Jodhpur,they quietly slipped out to set up homes here. With vast stone reserves in the area,the migrants carry out illegal stone quarrying to earn a living.

Ravi Kumar Lalwani,a displaced Pakistani Hindu himself and now a volunteer with the Seemant Lok Sangathan in Jaisalmer,says,“There are several settlements around Jaisalmer where migrants from as early as 1965 have come and settled. Though many of them have got citizenship,they continue to live in very poor conditions. Some of these settlements,such as Amarsagar and Bheel Basti,are close to the city. Now the local administration has been threatening to remove them. School-going children and the men who go to the city to earn their living will suffer. They will face another round of displacement if the government does nothing.”

***

Gadra,a village on the Indo-Pak border that’s about 75 km from Barmer town,has a population of 10,000. It’s a well-settled village of Pakistani Hindu migrants,some who came during Partition and others who came in the years that followed.

Like in most other villages,the divides are stark—pucca houses for the upper castes and mud houses for the lower castes. What binds them is the organised handicrafts trade that Gadra is famous for. The lower castes stitch,weave and embroider handicrafts and the richer traders take them across Rajasthan and even export the finished goods.

The village,famous for its Gadra ke laddoos,borrows its name from Gadra town in Sindh province of Pakistan,around 5 km from the border. Chaman Bhutra says his grandfather is the man who first made the laddoos in Pakistan. Around Partition,his grandfather shifted closer to Gadra railway station,hoping that if anything went amiss,he could at least board a train and reach India. But after Partition,the railway station area became part of India and so did the famous Gadra ke laddoos.

While Bhutra’s sweet shop picked up sales in India,many others who came with him left behind their land and other belongings. Vivek Bharti,whose family shifted to Gadra at the time of Partition,still peers into Google maps to look for the family’s lost plots of land.

Having grown up on the border,Bharti,who now runs a stationery shop,also doubles as a guide for visitors who want to walk up to the border. “It is strange that we can stand right here and see Pakistan just a couple of kilometres away,” he says.

In big numbers

20,000 (approx) Hindus have migrated from Pakistan to Rajasthan since the 1990s,of whom 13,000 were granted citizenship in 2004-5

7,000 migrants scattered in districts across western Rajasthan—Barmer,Jaisalmer,Sriganganagar,Bikaner and Jodhpur—are still awaiting their citizenship

395 Pak Hindus have come on pilgrim visa in the last few months and refused to go back to Pakistan

361 applications for citizenship are being forwarded to the state government this week

The route to a passport

* Before visa expires,the migrant has to write to the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO),seeking permission for permanent residency

* FRRO verifies background and sends application to the state home department

* Six months after the state government’s approval,the applicant has to appear before FRRO and ask for extension of permanent residency

* FRRO writes to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)

* After two years,permission for permanent residence has to be extended every two years till the seventh year

* After seven years of arrival,the migrant is eligible to apply for citizenship. She has to fill out a citizenship form,take an oath of allegiance before the District Collector and apply for renunciation of earlier citizenship

* This has to be submitted to the FRRO,which then submits it to the state home department. The state forwards it to the MHA,which then grants permission for citizenship

* There is no stipulated time-frame within which applicants get citizenship,with some applicants waiting for years

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