Pakistani Hindus promised a home in India demand citizen rights

Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

[Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

Delhi, India – Krishna heated oil in a cracked aluminium pan, added chopped onion and coriander leaves before sprinkling in turmeric and red chilli powder.

Her nine-year-old daughter, Radha, waited for her mother to add some more vegetables, but Krishna told her: “There isn’t anything else for lunch today.”

Bhavchand, her husband, barely earns Rs80 ($1) a day selling fruit at a stall.

Krishna is a 30-year-old Hindu, originally from Tando Allahyar, a city in Pakistan‘s Sindh province.

She currently lives in a slum in Majnu-ka-tilla, 15km from Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official presidential residence in New Delhi, where on May 30 Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister after being reelected.

“Will Modi do something for us now?” said Krishna.

Pakistani Hindus live in India on long-term visas, which get renewed every five years, and complain of being treated as second-class citizens having arrived in the country fleeing discrimination and economic persecution. 

According to a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), 36,000 Pakistani Hindus were granted these visas between 2011 and 2018, and there is no official data about the size of the population in total.

Avinash Rai Khanna, vice president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told Al Jazeera that “all of them are awaiting Indian citizenship,” adding that he has raised the issue of their welfare at parliament several times.

The Indian government has granted citizenship to some Pakistani Hindus, but its process is arbitrary, according to interviews carried out by Al Jazeera and other local reports.

Until they receive citizenship, Pakistani Hindus continue to their stay on long-term visas.

This pro-Hindu government hasn't looked into our needs.

by Sukhnand, Pakistani Hindu in India

They are mostly from underprivileged castes in the Hindu tradition – Bheels, Meghwars, Baghris and Kolhis – and worked as farmers, fruit sellers and clothes sellers in Sindh, the southern Pakistani province that is home to 95 percent of roughly 420,000 Hindus in the Muslim-majority country.  

A spate of alleged forced conversions to Islam pushed them to leave Pakistan.

Forced conversions, particularly of economically marginalised young Hindu women, is an alarming practice which seems to be continuing unabated,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.

Mohammad Faisal, Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson, explained that “whenever a complaint is brought to the government’s notice, it is thoroughly investigated and dealt with on its merit, in line with the law.”

Pakistani Hindus migrated en masse to India during Partition in 1947, and again after two Indo-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971.

Since then, the migration has not stopped.

With a few clothes and very little money, they flee to India either on pilgrimage or visitor visas.

“As Hindus, we wanted to safeguard our religion,” said Krishna, who arrived in 2013 to participate in Maha Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival, and never returned.

They still hold Pakistani passports but, in some cases, their passports have expired and they have not yet received Indian citizenship.

[Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
There are only two functional toilets for 525 people in the slum in Majnu-ka-tilla [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

Sukhnand, a 50-year-old who sells mobile phone accessories, also arrived in 2013 for Maha Kumbh Mela and moved to the same slum in Delhi.  

Modi was elected as India’s prime minister the next year, running for the Hindu-nationalist BJP. 

“This pro-Hindu government hasn’t looked into our needs,” he told Al Jazeera.

But his neighbour, 42-year-old Ram Chander, believes Modi can “save” Hindus. 

“Now, Modi should consider us one of his own,” he said.

Humanitarian concerns

Life in the slum, home to 525 Pakistani Hindus who are all awaiting citizenship, is miserable.

Huts made of bamboo and twigs are surrounded by rubbish. There are only two functional toilets and one bathroom for everyone and there is no electricity.

Two years ago, when there was an outbreak of dengue and Chikungunya virus here, a local NGO, the Centre for Social Development and Research Foundation, facilitated medical treatment in government hospitals. It also helped get 120 children from the slum into a state school.

Before the 2014 elections, the BJP announced a “Ghar Wapasi (Homecoming)” campaign, positioning India as a refuge for persecuted Hindus across the world.

In January this year, a bill was proposed seeking to amend the existing Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to persecuted minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

[Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
At least 36,000 Pakistani Hindus live in India on long-term visas as they await citizenship rights [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

Currently, the home affairs ministry and district collectors oversee the process of granting citizenship. 

Pakistani Hindus have been granted citizenship mostly by naturalisation, if the applicant has lived in India for the 12 months immediately preceding the date of application and for 11 out of the past 14 years.

“From 2005 until 2018, about 20,000 Pakistani Hindus living in northern states of Rajasthan and Gujarat were granted citizenship,” said Hindu Singh Sodha of Rajasthan-based NGO Seemant Lok Sangathan, which advocates for their welfare. “But there are many who returned to Pakistan after waiting and converted to Islam for survival.”

Expressing its concern, the BJP-led government in March issued an official report to Pakistan over the alleged abduction and conversion of two Hindu girls in Sindh, a move which was followed by a social media spat between senior ministers of the two countries.

The BJP views Pakistani Hindus as an “amorphous” population which serves their Hindu nationalist agenda, according to social scientist Shiv Visvanathan of Sonipat-based OP Jindal Global University.

“The BJP wants to be the messiah of Hindus by raising issues of conversion in Pakistan. But this arbitrary granting of citizenship reflects that they are not serious about building a consistent citizenship programme for them,” he told Al Jazeera. “There isn’t any humanitarian concern for their welfare either.”

Proving identities

Sukhnand, the mobile phone accessories seller who arrived in 2013, alleged that BJP leaders promised them citizenship while parading him and his friends at political rallies for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement campaign, aimed at building a temple in northern India.

But citizenship never came.

Khanna denied the charges and stressed: “Once the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is passed, there won’t be any delay in granting citizenship. They would have a dignified life in India, their home.”

For now, they feel unwelcome in India, neither official refugees nor citizens.

Sukhnand said locals suspect them as being “Pakistani spies”, so they have put a tricolour at the entrance of their slum.

The BJP should know we are devout Hindus.

by Ram Chander, Pakistani Hindu in India

But Sodha, the activist, said citizenship alone is not a cure for everything.

Referring to the 20,000 Pakistani Hindus who have been granted citizenship, he said: “Many of them live without basic amenities. They don’t have domicile certificates to avail of government benefits pertaining to medical and education facilities.

“Government officials often pose unwarranted questions such as who do they call up in Pakistan and how many times they call.”

Back at Sukhnand’s slum, residents assert their Hindu identity. 

A piece of saffron cloth, considered sacred for Hindus, is fixed onto an iron rod so it cannot be missed by any visitors.

Men greet outsiders with an enthusiastic 

“Jai Shree Ram (Hail, Lord Rama).”

“The BJP should know we are devout Hindus,” said Ram Chander.

Children born in recent years are mostly named after Hindu Gods and Goddesses – Ram, Lakshmi, Durg and Shiv.

A few children have learned patriotic Hindi poems hailing Bharat Mata, or Mother India.

At the end of the recitation, they chant in chorus – “Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Hail, Mother India),” cheering for their “motherland.”

“One day,” said Krishna, “Modi will be convinced. Our children love India like any other Indian.”

[Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Pakistani Hindus claim they are discriminated at home and subject to forced religious conversions while living in poverty [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera