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Goodbye To The Hindu Ghettos

Goodbye To The Hindu Ghettos

Publication: Tehelka
Date: October 17, 2009
URL: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main43.asp?filename=Ne171009goodbye_to.asp

Religious persecution and constant fear for their lives are making Pakistani Hindus leave their homes for an uncertain life as refugees in Rajasthan. NISHA SUSAN reports. Images by SHAILENDRA PANDEY

THE REFUGEES DON'T call them the Taliban but they say the tablighis used to visit their homes every month. "They give you false promises of wealth, of their daughters in marriage. They tell us that we will go to hell if we don't convert," says Ajmal Ram, a 23-yearold Pakistani refugee, one of the 1,000- odd who arrive in India every year.

Every month a couple of Hindu families (of the 2.44 lakh Hindus in Pakistan) leave the land where they and their parents had been born, to seek refuge, in India. Each one talks of feeling watched, being pushed further into their homes. They celebrate their festivals as quietly as possible or not at all. They pray behind closed doors and many have considered giving their children Muslim first names, except that even that might attract violence. Riding in public transportation is a fraught event because someone might decide that Hindus should sit with them.

Every refugee has a story of forced conversion they witnessed. Women and young children have disappeared only to reappear as 'converts'. The parents attempting to get their children back are thwarted by a society that sees them as non-Muslims first. "We stopped sending our children to school. If they were spotted doing well we would lose them to the Tablighis," is a constant refrain.

They have lived with public contempt for being 'bhoot-worshippers'. (There is some irony in this because the refugees are almost entirely Bhils and Meghwals whose deity is Baba Ramdev, the 14th century saint. Baba Ramdev or Ramshah Pir is venerated by Muslims on both sides of the border.) They have lived for decades wearing their faith as invisibly as possible. But now it seems like they cannot be invisible enough.

The persecution deepened the poverty the families have suffered over generations. Work as agricultural labour was plentiful in their fertile villages but the Bhils rarely had an assured future. The Meghwals, most of whom have family trades such as shoe-making, told themselves that success would make them noticed and hence vulnerable.

The refugees usually spend years trying to get a short-term Indian visa, trekking from their distant villages (usually in Rahim Yar Khan district in Pakistan's Punjab province) to Islamabad. Each family has stories of living in the Krishna temple in Islamabad, of pleading to the Indian High Commission staff (Aren't you Hindus too?) When they finally board the Thar Express that takes them from Pakistan to Rajasthan, they carry little more than their clothes.

The Indian relatives they have never seen (but have been corresponding with) have already told them it will take them years of hardships to become a citizen. Until then the Indian government will give them nothing but will insist that they stay put in one town - usually Bikaner or Jodhpur. But nothing stems the growing exodus. Each family talks of the dozens more in Pakistan struggling to escape.

"Our fathers may have lived as slaves in Pakistan but we can't," said Rawat Ram, a 23-year-old who was a promising college student but is now a tailor in Jodhpur. Others chafe at the current restrictions on their lives. Even decade-old settlements have no water or electricity The government is open to granting them citizenship and concurrent benefits if they wait out the decade required. The refugees have no intention of returning to Pakistan. Meanwhile staying alive, is still a challenge.

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