Fifteen year old Radha crossed the India-Pakistan border on the Thar Express in March, hoping for a new life. Since then, she's lost a child — her third — because of poor medical care and nutrition. She has no home, no income and, starting Monday morning, no country.
Part of a group of 480 Hindu refugees from Pakistan's troubled Sindh province, Radha arrived on a tourist visa obtained by saying she wished to attend the Maha Kumbh. She's now staying in a ramshackle building in Bijwasan, on the fringes of Delhi.
Nahar Singh, superintendent of Central Excise and Customs at Delhi airport, and two years short of retirement, has emerged as something of a god for hundreds of Sindhi refugees who've been crossing the border in recent years. In November, 2011, Singh says, he first came across a group of 145 Sindhi refugees who were then living in a makeshift camp in North Delhi. He had his two-storey building, then rented out for Rs 70,000 a month, vacated to make room for them.
Singh says he has approached the Foreign Regional Registration Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Delhi High Court to get the refugees Indian nationality — but all in vain.
After staying put in Singh’s property for around six months, adults slowly joined the sea of immigrants to flock to New Delhi every day. However, they also passed on Singh's contacts to fellow Hindus in Pakistan who were desperate to relocate. The group of 480 who arrived on the Thar Express in March made their way to New Delhi, and made their home in his building. More, Singh says, are certain to follow, because attacks on religious minorities are continuing unabated.
Until the the time the refugees settle in, Singh says, he'll take care of their meals — and, if need be, expenses. Hindu groups have pitched in, but resources are clearly scarce.
For the families in Singh’s shelter, there is no going back to Pakistan. “I will prefer dying here in Hindustan than living in Pakistan,” says 38 year old Seeta Ram, who is here with 17 members of his extended family. “For us, there is no dignified life in Pakistan. We live at the mercy of Muslims. We cannot openly celebrate our festivals. We cannot cheer for the Indian cricket team". In case of a clash between two communities, Ram says, he doesn’t expect fair trail. “Their police, their courts,” he says.
Ram's daughter Karma Bai says her husband has been cursing her ever since they arrived in India. “While he is here with me, his own family is in Pakistan. Please see if you can do anything to get them here,” says the woman, pointing to kids in a family album.
Sindh's Hindus are largely landless Dalit labourers, hard hit by both religious persecution as well as their low social status and economic deprivation.
For the generation before Seeta Ram, things were not this bad in Pakistan. “When were young, there were no such issues like forcible conversion of Hindu girls to Islam or rape or assaults on Hindu families. If life was not good, it was not bad either. But it all changed after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India. To take revenge, Muslims in Pakistan demolished temples. We were traumatised,” says the grandmother in one of these families.
In recent years, there have been a string of attacks on Hindus — most famously, the alleged forcible conversion and kidnapping of Rinkle Kumari, which sparked global outrage.
Many among the refugees use angry language, attacking what they see as a Hindu country for denying them citizenship. “I am a Hindu", says 35-year-old Vasant Das. This is Hindustan. How can I be living here illegally? The government of the biggest democracy in the world cannot take care of 480 people? And anyways, we never asked for partition. Muslims demanded it. So, ideally, Indian Muslims should shift to Pakistan".
For the government, though, the issues are more complex. Refugees from persecution in India's near-neighbourhood — like Sikhs from Afghanistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, or even some Ahmadis from Pakistan — don't have a right to citizenship, because India fears a tidal wave of claimants. Even though India has often been lauded for its treatment of refugees, it doesn't have a law that allows them to claim entitlements and documentation.
Delhi authorities have told FirstPost they will ensure the refugees receive visa extensions — but can't hold out the hope of documents guaranteeing them long term stay. "There are thousands of cases like these", a senior Home Ministry official says. "Frankly, we know they'll buy identity documents, and begin a life as Indians. But the law is the law, and its for politicians to change, not us".
Nahar Singh believes they will meet the fate of the previous 146 immigrants. “Government of India neither gave them nationality, nor did it ask them to leave for Pakistan. They are citizens of nowhere,” he says.
Video by Arlene Chang
Bonus video from Vimeo:
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2013 11:47 AM