Mumbai, India – Twenty-four years after he left his home in Pakistan, Siraj Khan, 34, was forcibly returned to Mansehra – in the country’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region – on March 10.
Khan was detained on December 5, 2017, by Indian authorities because he didn’t have proper immigration documents.
His childhood home had changed. The 2005 earthquake had wiped out the ageing structures, making room for new unrecognisable ones.
Khan’s father died after years of waiting to embrace his son after he vanished. His mother, meanwhile, suffered a psychological breakdown. But the family reunion, which should have been joyous, was incomplete. Khan was compelled to leave his wife and children behind in Mumbai, India.
“After spending three months in illegal detention at a Mumbai police station, the cops packed me off to Pakistan without a notice,” he told Al Jazeera.
“They made me board a train, and 16 hours later, when we reached Delhi, I was told I was being deported. In an instant, I went to pieces.”
With Khan’s deportation, his 39-year-old Indian wife Sajida was left alone in Mumbai to fend for her three children. Educated only until grade nine, she has taken to bracelet-making and earns $1.50 a day. Most of the money, she said, is spent on food.
Since bus fare is unaffordable, her children – Zara, 12, and twin sons Inayat and Ejaz, 7 – walk 3km to school every day.
“Even as our plea for my husband’s Indian citizenship and for a stay against his deportation is pending, he was bundled off to Pakistan. He has lived in India for 24 years, built a life here as a lawful citizen. Doesn’t that count for anything?” asked Sajida.
“And what about us?” she continued, seated on the only piece of furniture in her small home as her sons placed their tiny hands on her shoulders to comfort her.
“Abbu [father] has promised he’ll return soon,” Inayat insisted.
Khan, who worked as a waiter with a Mumbai-based caterer before his arrest, accidentally entered India when he was 10. Afraid of a beating from his father over a failed exam, he fled home and boarded the Samjhauta Express – unaware the train would bring him to India’s capital, New Delhi.
A family noticed him sobbing on the railway platform and took him home. After three months of trying to identify his kin, they gave him some money, and he went off on his own.
“He lived off Delhi streets thereafter, doing odd jobs for a living – sweeping, washing utensils. Around three years later, he was picked up as a runaway child and lodged in a children’s shelter in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
“He spent two years there till a wall of the shelter collapsed, and he was among 40 teenagers to flee. Thereafter, he came to Mumbai,” Sajida explained.
Doing low-paid work in Mumbai, Khan rented a room in the city’s eastern suburbs – where the family still lives. Through a neighbour, he met Sajida and married her in 2005.
With his monthly earnings of $161, the couple had a “difficult, but peaceful” life until 2009, when Khan tried to take his family to Pakistan for Eid al-Fitr.
After immigration authorities learned he was not an Indian citizen, Khan was charged under The Foreigners Act, 1946 for staying in India illegally.
“He was kept in police custody for two months. At the time, I was six months pregnant with my daughter. When I’d visit my husband at the police station, cops would tell me to let go of him or else I’d be jailed as well, and my child would be born behind bars,” said Sajida.
In 2014, Khan was convicted of illegally staying in India and imprisoned for six months pending deportation.
Sajida then filed a plea with Mumbai’s high court calling for a stay of his removal. The court accepted her appeal, noting Khan’s application seeking Indian citizenship was still before the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Despite the ruling, Khan was deported last month.
According to his supporters, he is legally entitled to remain in the country.
“As per The Citizenship Act, 1955, any foreigner who has married an Indian and lived in India for seven years can avail citizenship. We sent an application under this rule to the central government in 2014. But there has been no response despite follow-ups,” said activist Imran Khan, 36, who has been helping the family.
Sajida filed a new petition with the high court seeking her husband’s return. It stated in Khan’s absence his family in India will be “forced to starve”.
Indian authorities, however, said they’re only following the rules.
“Khan may deserve Indian citizenship on humanitarian grounds, but we’re only following the law,” said Bhagwat Bansod, senior Mumbai police inspector, who oversaw Khan’s return to Pakistan.
“His deportation was facilitated following orders from the central government.”
Khan, meanwhile, said he only wants to be with his family.
“Had I been an influential man, politicians would be at my home, finalising my Indian citizenship over a cup of tea. But I’m not that privileged. All I want is to live with my family – in India or Pakistan,” he said.