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The nowhere people

The nowhere people

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: September 24, 2009
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story?sId=63470&secid=21

Introduction: Hindus in the border districts of Pakistan are trapped between militant Wahhbism and suspicious Indian security officials

Along the Rajasthan border districts of Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Barmer, a replay of the tragedy that visited the subcontinent over 60 years ago is in progress as migrants from Pakistan escape persecution. This time, the Partition-type exodus has a different history.

These districts saw reverse migration as poor low caste Hindus moved to Pakistan after Partition because of better employment opportunities on the other side where the desert was literally greener due to a river network. Today, these same migrants have become refugees, fleeing intimidation to change their religion, to a country which views them with hostility and suspicion.

The irony is not lost on Ranaram Bhil, 28, who fled from his village on the Punjab-Sindh border with his two children to escape the threat facing the Hindus there: convert to Islam or suffer the consequences. It's a Taliban-like decree issued by the extremist Wahhabi clergy.

It took him a year to get a visa to cross to India but without his wife Samda who was abducted by a group associated with the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and forced to convert to Islam. All Ranaram has is a clipping of a local Urdu newspaper which carried a story on how Samda had converted to Islam and praises the Wahhabi preachers.

Thousands of Pakistani Hindus have fled to India in the past few years following religious persecution. The exodus parallels the spreading influence of the Tabligh Jamaat, the missionary wing of the Deoband school, which is the South Asian version of Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia which calls for an exclusive form of Islam.

Says Bopariram, another refugee: "With the rise of Jamaat ideology in Pakistan, there has been intense pressure on poor Hindus to convert. Discrimination against us is rampant." Hindus constitute around 1 per cent of Pakistan's population.

Amuji Bhil, 55, landed in Jodhpur last month along with his family of seven. A farm labourer and resident of a village near Rahim Yar Khan, Amuji had been traumatised ever since he saw two Bhil girls from a nearby village being forcibly taken away by Islamic radicals.

He got a short-term visa for his family from the Indian High Commission, a near impossible task, and finally took the Thar Express to land in the Kaliberi area on Jodhpur's outskirts, a makeshift colony where persecuted Hindu migrants from Pakistan-mainly Bhils-have congregated since they first started coming post-1971.

The irony is that having fled persecution in Pakistan, they face an equally hostile reception at the hands of Indian authorities who view them with suspicion and treat them like Pakistanis. That has made them unwanted refugees in their own ancestral land. Unlike the Mohajirs who went to Pakistan because of religious beliefs, these Hindus went to earn a livelihood.

Says Hindu Singh Sodha, president of the Seemant Lok Sanghathan, representing Pakistani Hindus who migrated to India: "The Indian security agencies behave with marked cruelty in many cases disregarding the fact that most of them are second or third generation Indians."

Arjunram, 62, and Gumanaram, 39, came from a village in Bawalpur in Pakistan early this year along with 36 relatives, fleeing the pressure of the Tablighi preachers to convert. Arjunram's daughter had earlier moved to India and settled in the Bikaner district. On his arrival in Jodhpur, Arjunram went to visit his daughter, violating the law which prohibits such migrants from leaving their assigned district till they get permanent citizenship.

The police arrested him along with his son two months ago and they are still in jail. Says Gumanaram's wife Laxmi: "We freed ourselves from one trap only to walk into another. Why can't we visit our relatives and ancestral villages when we belong to this country?" Similarly, Miraba Rathore, 42, a Rajput widow, was jailed for 25 days for leaving Rajkot district to visit her relatives in Kutch. Says Miraba: "We never imagined that we would be persecuted in this manner in India."

Kabiraram, 60, and wife Rani, are the latest to join the stream of migrants to Jodhpur. The couple, who landed last fortnight, is distraught as despite several attempts, they were not given visas for their six children. The Indian High Commission is extremely discouraging in issuing visas to even these persecuted Hindus as part of its Pakistan policy.

Trapped between the Wahhabis and Indian security agencies who treat anyone from Pakistan as potential terrorists, they are nowhere people. In Pakistan, they are reviled as idol worshippers even though many have Muslim names and wear salwar-kameez to avoid being singled out.

The state Government is permitted to extend the stay for six months after which the powers to grant permanent residence or citizenship rest with the Union Home Ministry. That is only granted after a continuous stay of seven years in India.

There are nearly 3.5 lakh Pakistani Hindu migrants now in India, mostly living in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Says Sodha: "There should a clear-cut rehabilitation policy for these refugees which is lacking right now." The Gujarat administration doesn't have a structure to look into their problems and there is also corruption in getting permanent citizenships with collectors having the power to grant citizenship.

Rajasthan has formed a local committee to look into the refugee problem but the fact that most are extremely poor and uneducated means that their fate remains uncertain. Sixty-two-years after the Partition, the tragedy continues.Karim Bhil, 24, recalls the constant pestering by Tablighi preachers who would come to their village and say: "If you convert to Islam and stop worshipping these stone idols you will go to paradise." Says Karim: "With each passing day, it was becoming more and more difficult to live with a Hindu identity in Pakistan, even with Muslim names."

Adds Laxman Meghwal, who has recently migrated with his family of six to Jodhpur: "The Wahhabis, for the past two years, are not allowing Hindus to celebrate the famous festival of Ramdevpir near Hyderabad that was being observed since hundreds of years."
That also points to the other leg of the trauma triangle. Apart from persecution in Pakistan and harassment in India, a third feature of this heart-rending story is about broken families. Almost all the migrants have large number of relatives back in Pakistan who want to move to India but can only come on a one-month visa and then apply to the state Government for extensions, stating religious persecution.

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