Why India doesn't want the Sindhis fleeing Pakistan

The government argues that citizenship for one group will mean citizenship hundreds of thousands of others—and, moreover, provide a loophole for economic migrants.

Praveen Swami April 11, 2013 11:40:04 IST
Why India doesn't want the Sindhis fleeing Pakistan

Islam Bibi, she was called, and before that she was Ram Kori, the daughter of Mewa Ram and Mansa Devi, a couple living in a village in Pakistan’s Bannu district. She was kidnapped by, or eloped with, depending on who you choose to believe, teenage Noor Ali Shah. Bannu’s deputy commissioner judged she was a minor, “kidnapped without the consent of her lawful guardian”.  Noor Ali was sent to jail. Ram Kori, or Ismail Bibi, whatever name she might have preferred, was married to a Hindu man—and was later, some accounts have it, poisoned by her family.

Led by Mir Ali Khan, better known as the Faqir of Ipi, tens of thousands of militia revolted against the judgment—sparking off almost a decade of fighting, involving combat aircraft strafing tribal villages.

It was 1936 — and some things haven’t changed.

Why India doesnt want the Sindhis fleeing Pakistan

Two Pakistani Hindu refugees in Delhi.

Fearing a backlash from the resurgent Islamist movement, Pakistan’s government has chosen to do nothing in the face of relentless attacks on religious minorities—among them, the country’s Hindu minority. Earlier this week, Firstpost reported the case of 480 Sindhi Hindu refugees, who had taken shelter in a Delhi neighbourhood—their visa status, and future, uncertain.

Kidnappings of women and forced conversion; extortion and social exclusion: all are persuading ever-more refugees to leave their homeland for run-down buildings and cloth shacks held up with bamboo poles.

This exodus isn't new—and has roots in history. The communal tensions that underpin the exodus date back to the late nineteenth century, when religious revivalist movements,  There were riots in the 1920s.  Then, in 1938, the Manzilgah Masjid issue exploded—sparked off by Muslim demands to turn over a medieval mosque to worshippers.  Local Hindus resisted the demand, arguing it would interfere with their rights to use a temple. The issue escalated in violence which affected over a 100 villages, and claimed the lives of between 27 and 37 Hindus.

Politics, like in so much communal violence, lay behind the riots. Historian Hamida Khuhro, among others, has shown how the tensions were leveraged by the Muslim League and the neo-fundamentalist Jami’at-e-Ullema-e-Sindh to destabilise the government of Allahbux Sumroo—the then-chief minister, who ruled the province with united Hindu-Muslim support.

In a bleak assessment of the period between 1920 and 1940, BR Ambedkar described the Sukkur riots as part of “twenty years of civil war between the Hindus and the Muslims in India, interrupted by brief intervals of armed peace”.

Even though Sindh saw no rioting that rivalled the scale of the violence in Punjab or Bengal, there was deep bitterness.  In 1949, the historian Rita Kothari records, 21 Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadre staged an attempt to bomb government offices — a plot in which one biographer has claimed, although without much evidence, that former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani was involved. From before independence, however, most better-off Sindhis had begun moving their assets and families to India—leaving behind the poorest and most vulnerable.

In 1951, Prime Ministers Liaqat Ali Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru signed a pact, intended to ensure equal rights to minorities on both sides of the border, and end population displacement.  It didn't work.  Precisely how Hindus left Pakistan in coming decades, it is hard to say.  Pakistan’s Hindu population in 1947 was around 22 percent—though that figure can be misleading, because Bangladesh was home to most of it. Pakistan’s census, though, now estimates its Hindu population at just 1.6 percent— suggesting some level of sustained migration.

Part of the reason for that, more likely than not, has been the deeply chauvinist culture that gathered pace after General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s rise.  In a thoughtful 2009 article, Issam Ahmad pointed to the vilification of religious minorities in Pakistani school textbooks.  A social studies textbook, for example, asks children “make speeches on jihad”. “Muslims are good”, Ahmad records a colleague saying his son had told him “Hindus are evil”.  Pakistani scholar Pervez Hoodbhoy calls such books “the blueprint for a religious fascist state”.

Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani  human rights campaigner who has worked to protect Sindhi Hindus from attack by religious chauvinists, says things got worse for them after General Pervez Musharraf came to power.

Last year, the growing crisis was illustrated by the case of Rinkle Kumari—a Sindh resident kidnapped, allegedly converted to Islam and forcibly married.  The matter had a deeply controversial journey through the courts, with armed men threatening her. “I think she saw how things were stacked,”says Sushant Sareen, an expert at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses, “And decided to just live with her lot, rather than expose her family to more harm."

“Minorities are not considered equal citizens in Pakistan," HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf said last year.

From the point of view of India’s government, though, the issue is larger than the 480 Sindhi refugees in Delhi.

In recent months, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Rohingya have arrived in India, displaced by the murderous anti-Muslim violence in Myanmareach with a story just as heart-wrenching as the Sindhis.

There are perhaps 25,000 Afghan refugees in Delhi alone, mainly Hindu and Sikhs, but also Muslims who sided with President Muhammad Najibullah against the Islamist mujahideen.

There are, over 100,000 ethnic-Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka; perhaps three times as many Tibetans; 1.5 million, or more, mainly-Hindu refugees from East Pakistan.  The government argues that citizenship for one group will mean citizenship for all—and, moreover, provide a loophole for economic migrants.

The argument sounds good—but doesn't make a whole load of sense: hundreds of thousands have, in any case, become de-facto citizens.

India has long refused to sign on to the 1951 international convention on refugees, saying that they place an unfair burden on the hosts—a not unfair argument, given the country isn't able the legitimate needs of its own citizens.

The United Nation’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, lists 19,093 refugees and 3,652 asylum-seekers on its rolls in India, the overwhelming majority from Afghanistan and Myanmar. The bulk hope to head west—when the UNHCR can find a government willing to take them.

The government is bound by the 1946 Citizenship Act, which makes no distinction between foreigners who arrive for tourism, for business or in fear of their lives.  In 2004, the government also introduced harsher punishments for visa-violators, which mean the Sindhi refugees in Delhi could serve long prison terms.

India has, however, set up special systems to deal with refugees from time to time.  Tibetans who arrived in India before 1959, for example, are entitled to extensive benefits, including identification documents that allow them to travel abroad—in effect, passports.

Those who came until 2003 can get special long-term visas. There is a very different system in place for the Sri Lankan Tamils, though.  Though refugees get identification, but their freedom of movement is restricted—creating hardship in finding work, and allowing exploitation by unscrupulous employers.

For Sindhi refugees, or those from Myanmar, there are no proper rules at all.  In the past, these categories of refugees have simply had to bribe local authorities to obtain identification—and melted into the population.

In 2012, it was reported that over 13,000 Sindhi refugees in Rajasthan had obtained Indian citizenship—though a large part of that, its likely, came after they married Indian nationals from the same castes and tribes on this side of the border. Hundreds of Sindhis who have arrived since 2011 have taken the same route.

It is time for India to move towards some sort of sensible, norm-based system of refugees—if nothing else, an identification system guaranteeing refugees the basic rights of residence, and access to public services. It needs to get state governments, like that in Delhi, to provide emergency aid to refugees until they find their feet.

The current system forces refuge-seekers to lie and obtain false documents, a hideous start to a new life—an inhuman system that sits ill with India’s centuries-old heritage of providing safe haven to persecuted minorities.

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