By Yoginder Sikand
Forming less than 2 per cent of Pakistan’s population, the country’s roughly three million Hindus are concentrated mostly in the southern Sindh province. Among them are some prosperous Bania merchants and powerful Rajput landlords, but the majority of Pakistan’s Hindus are Dalits, mainly impoverished landless labourers.
Following the Partition in 1947, inter-communal relations in Sindh have generally been peaceful, and the province has never since witnessed any major anti-Hindu violence. The Hindus and Muslims of Sindh share a common culture that is heavily influenced by popular Sufi traditions. However, from 1965 onwards a steady stream of Hindu migrants to India, which still continues till today, is leading to a considerable decline of Hindus in
Pakistan. If this trend continues, warns Hindu Singh Sodha, convenor of the Jodhpur-based Pak Visthapit Sangh (‘Association of Pakistani Refugees’) (PVS), himself a migrant from Sindh, in a few decades Pakistan’s already miniscule Hindu population may soon be virtually extinct.
To highlight this issue, as well as the various problems of the refugees coming to India, the PVS is planning to hold a series of public hearings in Rajasthan and Gujarat and a national convention in Delhi this December.
Like many other post-1965 refugees from Sindh, Sodha’s family is from the district of Thar Parkar in southern Sindh, and migrated to India in the aftermath of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. Thar Parkar is located on the border with India, adjoining Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is part of the Thar desert. Till recently, it was the only district in Pakistan with a Hindu majority. Till 1971, Sodha explains, around 70% of the population was Hindu, mainly Dalits but with a fairly sizeable population of Rajputs and other ‘upper’ castes as well, but now, due to the unabated migration of Hindus from there to India, the Hindu population has been reduced to less than 30%.
“The problem of these refugees is, of course, a legacy of the Partition, which I consider to be a terrible and tragic blunder’, says Sodha. However, he adds, ‘I must state there had never been any communal violence in Thar Parkar. Even in 1947, when Punjab, Bengal and other parts of the Indian subcontinent were drowned in blood, our district remained free of communal rioting’. Even now, he says, Hindus and Muslims continue to live in reasonable harmony in Thar Parkar. The dominant communities in the region, Rajput Hindus and various land-owning Muslim castes, enjoy close social as well as political relations. Thar Parkar is still relatively isolated from urban influences because of the desert, and so traditional social relations and institutions that have sustained a shared culture remain strong. ‘If Hindus are migrating from there’, Sodha argues, ‘it is not because of local communal conflict, because till date no communal riots have taken place in the region. So, if you speak to any of the Hindus who have migrated to India from Thar Parkar, they will unanimously tell you that there has been no anti-Hindu violence in the area and that there is no communal tension or trouble there’.
Sodha explains the continued migration of Pakistani Hindus to India as a result of the growing insecurity among the Hindus, as well as other religious minorities, in Pakistan as a whole, especially with the rise of right-wing Islamist groups in the country. Likewise, he says, the discriminatory laws and policies adopted by the Pakistani state, starting with the ‘Islamising’ regime of Zia ul-Haq, have made life for religious minorities in Pakistan particularly difficult. ‘Communal riots in India’, he adds, ‘in which Muslims generally suffer greater loss of life and property, give right-wing Islamist groups in Pakistan more legitimacy, and this has been increasing over the years. Each time there is a dip in India-Pakistan relations, the insecurity of Hindus in Pakistan gets further heightened’. After the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the ensuing violence against Muslims in India, he explains, there were attacks on Hindu temples in Sindh and southern Punjab and even some killings of Hindus, which led to heightened Hindu insecurity and a fresh spurt of migrations to India. Incidents such as forcible abductions of Hindu girls and their conversion to Islam and the kidnapping of Hindu businessmen add to this sense of fear. Further, the acute poverty of many Hindus in Sindh, most of whom are Dalits, mainly Meghwals, Kolis and Bhils, and work as landless labourers, drives many to consider migrating to India in the hope of a better life.
The first major wave of Hindu migration from Pakistan to India after 1950 occurred, Sodha says, in the wake of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, after which, in 1971, after another war between the two countries, some 80,000 Hindus, mainly Sodha Rajputs and Meghwals but other castes as well, crossed over into India. Since then, Sodha says, this migration has been continuing, although on a reduced scale. Earlier, this was relatively easy as many people would simply slip across the border, which was not fenced. Now that India has erected a fence along the entire border, those who want to migrate have to do so legally, by travelling all the way to Wagah, in Punjab, and cross into India on Pakistani passports with Indian visas. This has made it much more difficult and costly for them, Sodha says, but yet many people take that option. Once they come to
India they generally travel to Rajasthan or Gujarat, and then seek long-term visas or extensions in the hope of eventually getting the right to settle in India permanently. According to Sodha, this is not easy, as, due to security reasons, the Indian embassy authorities in Islamabad, because of security reasons, are not very willing to give visas to Pakistanis, Hindus and Muslims, to visit border districts in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which is where the relatives of most Pakistan Hindus who want to migrate to India live and whom they want to join.
Today, Sodha says, relatively few Sodha Rajputs, the dominant land-owning community in Thar Parkar, are migrating to India. The migration that is happening today is mainly among the Dalits, particularly the Bhils, not so much from Thar Parkar, where inter-communal relations are fairly cordial, but, rather, from Upper Sindh and southern Punjab, where they work as bonded labourers. Since 1992, in the wake of heightened tensions due to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, more than 17000 Hindus, mostly from this region, have migrated to India.
Sodha and his colleagues in the PVS have been playing a major role in highlighting the problems of these refugees, who, as Sodha claims, have been ignored by politicians because they are not a vote-bank for political parties. The pre-1972 refugees, he says, have all been provided with Indian citizenship, but the rehabilitation package that they have received is inadequate. Each family was supposed to be allotted either 25 bighas of land in canal-irrigated areas or between 50 and 75 bighas of barren land in the desert, but in reality refugee families received only part of the land allotted to them because of corruption on the part of local bureaucrats. The rest of the land that they were meant to get either was declared part of the Desert National Park or was occupied by the local people.
The situation of the post-1971 refugees, more than 17000 in all and mostly impoverished Dalits, is particularly pathetic, Sodha says. Till this year, they were denied Indian citizenship and even basic rights. They were not even considered officially as refugees but simply as oustees from Pakistan. Since it was difficult for these people to get visas to enter India to visit their relatives in the border districts in Rajasthan and Gujarat, which is where they wanted to settle, they received visas to visit places like Delhi, Hissar and Haridwar. But, naturally, instead of going there most of them travelled to Gujarat or western Rajasthan, although, this was technically illegal. Once they got there they had to conceal their identities and earn a living as low-paid or bonded labourers in the fields of feudal lords or rich peasants and workers in stone quarries. As Sodha says, ‘Their economic conditions have not improved despite migration. They continue to be exploited by security personals and local Indians since they have no rights to claim’.
Since its establishment in 1999, the PVS has been staging demonstrations, conducting public meetings, and holding discussions with bureaucrats, government officials and political leaders to highlight the plight of the refugees. For the PVS this was a lonely struggle as almost no other groups had evinced interest in the issue. This year, the PVS scored a major success when the Government of India provided Indian citizenship to some 13000 of these refugees. The remaining 4000-odd people who have not got this status, Sodha explains, include those who have not fulfilled the condition of having stayed in India for at least five years. Sodha pleads for changing this rule. ‘Instead of making things easier for these hapless people by reducing this period’, he says, ‘the government has increased the period to seven years of continuous residence in India for foreign nationals who wish to apply for Indian citizenship, making it even more difficult for the refugees from Pakistan. Also, several children of the refugees have not got citizenship because the fee applicable in their case is simply too exorbitant for them since most of them are very poor Dalits’.
In addition to the issue of those migrants who have not as yet got citizenship rights is the problem of the continuing migration of Hindus from Pakistan, as well as the large number of those refugees who could not apply for citizenship because they have been staying for less than the minimum required period in India. The best solution to this problem, Sodha suggests, is permanent delegation to the District Magistrates of the power to grant citizenship. As of now, this power, delegated by the Government of India to the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, is only temporary. It was given for one year, in 2004, and then renewed again this year and is valid only till February 2006. Further, the fees for application for Indian citizenship for different categories of refugees has been raised this year, which has made it very difficult for many of the Pakistani refugees in Rajasthan to apply. ‘As all this suggests’, Sodha says, ‘we really do not have a proper national policy for refugees. This could be addressed by setting up state and national commissions for refugees and displaced persons to handle issues related not only to refugees from Pakistan but refugees from elsewhere also’.
Although many of the post-1971 refugees have got Indian citizenship, many problems remain, Sodha relates. Unlike the pre-1971 refugees, most of these people have only got Indian citizen status but no rehabilitation package although they are, for the most part, very poor. ‘Maybe it is because they number is relatively small and so are not seen by political parties as a powerful vote-bank. It could also be because most of them are Dalits’, Sodha surmises. Many of them still have not got ration cards and Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards and do not have their names on the voters’ lists, and so cannot benefit from any government-funded schemes. Although most of them belong to various Dalit or Tribal families, they have not been able to get Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe status certificates.
‘We have been trying to pressurise the government to address these issues’, Sodha says. At the initiative of the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, the Rajasthan Government has set up a permanent cell, headed by the Principal Secretary (Home), of which the PVS Sangh is also a member, which has recommended to the Government of India that the delegation of powers to District Magistrates in Rajasthan and Gujarat to grant Indian citizenship be extended till 2007, that the raised fee structure be reduced and that the refugee families who have now got Indian citizenship be included in the next BPL survey. The PVS has also appealed to the Government of India that the power given to District Magistrates in Rajasthan and Gujarat to grant foreign nationals Indian citizenship be extended to Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, where there are several post-1971 Pakistani refugee families.
In order to broaden his work to include other issues and communities, Sodha is now in the process of launching the Seemant Lok Sangathan (‘Border Peoples’ Organisation), which would work not only among the refugees from Pakistan in Rajasthan but with other communities living along the border with Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims, as well. ‘It would take up issues such as cross-border peace initiatives, citizenship rights and rehabilitation of refugees, as well as matters such as economic development and inter-communal harmony’, Sodha says. ‘We have even got support for this from local Muslim communities in western Rajasthan’, he says, adding, that ‘In this regard, we have taken up some issues that are of particular concern for them, most importantly the question of Muslim women from Pakistan who have married Indian Muslim men living in the border districts of Rajasthan’. Such women are faced with the problem of getting Indian citizenship. The PVS recently sent a memorandum to the Government of India demanding that they, too, be given Indian citizen status. ‘Unlike in India’, Sodha says, ‘it is relatively easy for an Indian woman married to a Pakistani man, Hindu or Muslim, to get Pakistani citizenship. We feel there is a need for suitable changes in the policies of the Government of India in this regard to alleviate the problems of mixed Indian-Pakistani couples. As a result of our efforts in this regard, some of Pakistani Muslim women married to Indian Muslim men in western Rajasthan have received Indian citizenship’.
Another related issue that Sodha and his colleagues are raising is that of granting permission to Pakistani nationals to visit their relatives in the border districts of Rajasthan. Presently, they can do this they can do only with great difficulty. ‘This is an issue that concerns both Hindus and Muslims in Rajasthan, many of whom have relatives living in Pakistan’, Sodha says. ‘If I.K. Gujral is allowed to visit his ancestral village in Punjab or if Advani is allowed to go to Karachi to his former home or if Musharraf can come to see his childhood mansion in Delhi, why should a Pakistani be denied permission to visit his relatives who live in the border districts of India?’, he asks. He claims that this restriction is in contrast to the policy of the Pakistani government, which has placed no similar bar on Indians who wish to visit their relatives living in districts in Pakistan that border India.
Sodha plans to also take up the question of post-1972 Hindu refugees from Pakistan in Gujarat, who, he says, number several thousands. ‘Despite the fact that they are Hindus, the BJP government of Narendra Modi in Gujarat, which claims to be a defender of what it calls ‘Hindu interests’, has done nothing for them, unlike in Rajasthan’, he says. Only around a hundred of these people in Gujarat have got Indian citizenship so far, he says. In contrast to Rajasthan, he notes, there is no major group or organisation who is working among these people.
At a broader level, Sodha suggests the need for several changes in government policies on the issue of refugees. In this regard, his organization is planning to organise a national-level conference of representatives of various refugee groups in the country as well as human rights activists and government officials. ‘We would like to network with other groups and movements working for refugee rights, minority rights, conflict resolution and inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue in different parts of South Asia, since our issues and problems are so deeply inter-connected’, he says. On the specific issue of refugees from Pakistan who are continuing to come to Rajasthan, and, to a lesser extent, Gujarat, better relations between India and Pakistan, he says, are essential to generate confidence and security among the Pakistani Hindus so that they can live in their country without being forced to consider migrating. ‘Good relations between the two countries will also give the Indian Muslims the same sort of security and confidence’, he adds. He cites the proposed opening of a railway line connecting Sindh and Rajasthan as a major step forward. ‘We can think of other such initiatives, such as cultural and trade contacts’ he says enthusiastically, ‘especially because people living on either side of the border, in Sindh and Rajasthan, share a common cultural and historical tradition’.
(Cobrapost News Features)