Amritsar, India – Surbeer Singh was just three years old when his family fled Nangarhar province in Afghanistan to escape religious persecution and war in the 1980s. They have since lived in the northern city of Amritsar, waiting to be granted Indian citizenship.
Last December, India’s Hindu nationalist government amended the country’s citizenship law to expedite nationality for persecuted immigrants – except Muslims – from three neighbouring countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
But exactly a year since the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the country’s parliament, no immigrant has been granted citizenship under the CAA.
A Sikh refugee, Surbeer, 33, is among some 31,313 eligible refugees in India, most of them from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who have been waiting for years to get Indian citizenship.
He is worried about his status as his visa expired in July. “I am living on borrowed time on a borrowed land,” Surbeer said.
“They ask me to return to the place I fled [from]. How can I go back now? For me, India is my home,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the Afghan embassy asked him to return to Kabul to obtain his visa.
“We faced religious persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We face identity discrimination in India,” said Surbeer.
In Amritsar, a community of refugee families lives together in an area just five kilometres from the Golden Temple, one of the holiest shrines in the Sikh religion.
Surbeer, who works as a spare parts dealer, is one of the lucky few refugees to now own a house. “When we came to India, we struggled in a small rented room in Krishna Nagar of Amritsar. Over the years, I worked hard and eventually I bought a flat in Golden Avenue of Amritsar with help of my relatives. It is registered on my wife’s name as she is an Indian citizen.
“We are doing fine with God’s grace. We eat well, sleep well and work well. The only issue is of visa and identity,” said Surbeer, who lives with his family of five.
“In Amritsar, people at times call us Afghani and Pakistani. At times, the schools ask for legal documents, our kids are afraid of showing their Afghani and Pakistani passports. People don’t prefer marrying our sons. They don’t do business with us,” he said.
Hundreds of such families have settled in the border districts of the Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan as well as the capital, New Delhi.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the CAA aimed to help such refugees who have lived in India for years without any legal status.
But the controversial law, which sparked anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi, could not be availed by refugees as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) failed to draft guidelines to operationalise it.
Al Jazeera mailed a detailed questionnaire to a MHA spokesperson but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Hindu refugees return to Pakistan
Last month, more than 200 Hindu and Sikh refugees returned to Pakistan in financial hardship as the law was not in operation, drawing critics to question the government’s sincerity towards refugees.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and it does not have a national policy on refugees, even though it is home to more than 200,000 refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.
The refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh are granted long-term visas (LTV) initially for five years and then renewed every two years.
“LTV is no less than a house arrest. We are not allowed to leave the station without permission,” said Saran Singh.
As per their current visa norms, such migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan are allowed to engage only in private employment. Children of such visa holders mostly drop out after schools as they are not allowed to move out of the city to pursue higher education.
“However the problem arises when our kids have to pursue higher education. At times technical education is not available in Amritsar and our kids are not allowed to leave the station without permission under the LTT visa norms,” said Saran Singh.
“Even if I have to go beyond the Golden Gate of Amritsar (borders of Amritsar city) for a check-up in hospital, I have to seek prior permission which may take days,” the 53-year-old said, referring to the curbs on his movement. Saran Singh arrived from Peshawar in Pakistan in 1999 along with his family of seven.
Harbhajan Singh, 42, who lives in Amritsar, says that he was held by the police for questioning as his brother visited the Golden Temple from Delhi without prior permission from police. Harbhajan and his brother, Harbans Singh, both fled Peshawar in 2012 but eventually were granted visas for Amritsar and Delhi respectively.
Shiv Kumar, a Hindu, left Pakistan’s Peshawar in 2005 along with his family seeking refuge in India.
“For different family members, the visa renewal date is different. It is such a complicated process that it takes the complete engagement of at least one family member who is given the responsibility of paperwork for all of us,” the 29-year-old told Al Jazeera. He is the sole earner in his family of six, including his elderly parents.
Protests against CAA
Many refugees have lived in India all of their lives but still have not been granted citizenship.
Surbeer from Afghanistan says his brother Arwinder Singh, who was born in India in 1994, is still not an Indian citizen.
“He wanted to study further, but the visa restricts him from leaving Amritsar. He dropped out of his education after class 12.”
But for many Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, getting Indian citizenship is impossible, as the new law bars Muslims from seeking citizenship.
Shabnam Khan (name changed) was married in 1996 to an Indian Muslim man in Fazilka village of the border state of Punjab.
“I am now a mother of two sons. I was hopeful that I will be accepted as an Indian, but 24 years have passed, I am still a Pakistani.” Khan is still living in India on a LTV. Now 40, she still faces the same issues as others while renewing her visa. “The COVID-19 lockdown made it even more difficult. In a year we have to visit Delhi at least twice or thrice for documentation. Every time they raise some objections which are only cleared if we agree to pay a bribe.”
The CAA was opposed by Muslims and liberal Indians, who said that by making faith a basis for citizenship, the law ran against the spirit of India’s secular constitution.
Many Muslims feared that the CAA, coupled with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which aims to identify undocumented immigrants, could be used to disenfranchise them.
Xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric pushed by leaders of the governing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has not eased their fears. Home Minister Amit Shah, considered Modi’s right-hand man, described Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” and “infiltrators” and a threat to national security.
The BJP has also threatened to throw out Rohingya refugees seeking shelter in India.
Two BJP spokesmen Al Jazeera spoke to declined to comment on why the CAA has not been implemented so far, but Shaheen Kausar, a social activist closely associated with anti-CAA protests said the intention of the government was dishonest from the beginning.
“All these are tactics to divert the attention from the issues which might harm their interests. Such laws are brought so that they can take away voices of resistance and dissent. If the government cared so much for the refugees why isn’t the law implemented so far?” Kausar asked.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, a politician with the Shiromani Akali Dal party in Punjab, said he supported the government when it brought in the new citizenship law. “It was supposed to provide relief to those who were waiting for years.
“I fail to understand what was the government’s purpose when they brought this law? Only the community can judge if the law was communal or a political stunt but those who were hopeful of help, they have been let down.”