India and Pakistan won their independence in 1947, but the year also left deep scars by leaving hundreds of thousands without a nation to call their own.
Millions of people migrated and fled their homes during the partition that lead to the formation of the two countries. Even after six decades of independence religious minorities, mostly Hindus, have been fleeing Pakistan and migrating to India, claiming harassment. Some left for better economic opportunities. Most of the families have stationed themselves in India's western state of Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan.
For Halmal Bheel, 54, who had migrated in 2000, settling down in India has been tough. “This is our land, and we are not refugees here," he said. "My father migrated to Pakistan, but our ancestral land and the remains of our old house are still here. So it really hurts when someone calls us refugees or Pakistanis.”
Hindu Singh Sodha, an activist working with Hindu immigrants from Pakistan, said “nobody is bothered about plight of these people. Both central and state government prefer to ignore their situation ... The only thing these people have been demanding is the grant of a refugee status. The government does not want to take the ownership, so as to avoid the provision of basic facilities like food and shelter to the immigrants.”
The Indian government has toughened the requirements to attain citizenship: migrants must now live in the country for seven years before being eligible to become a citizen, up from five years; and the application fee for citizenship has greatly increased.
And the places where these immigrants live often lack basic necessities like water, good food and electricity. “It is very hard to live in such conditions. We do not get cooking gas connections, electricity connections, and cannot even apply for a driving license. The basic human needs are also not provided to us,” said Gordhan Bheel. “All we want is either a refugee status or grant of Indian citizenship.”
Khushala Ram, 50, who came to India in 2009 on a pilgrim visa and has remained in the country, said: “I will never go back. I came with the hope that the Indian government will accept us with open hearts, but I do not know why they have been treating us as Pakistanis. We are Indians who have come back home.”
Sodha, the activist, said the refugees “have not illegally entered the country, as they own valid passport and visas. Most of those who have come to seek shelters are Bheel tribals with little representation in the government or bureaucracy. Not just poor come from Pakistan, but also some rich business-class people arrive having money and bureaucratic contacts [and] end up getting citizenship easily. It is all about money.”