Persecuted in Pak, overlooked in Bharat: “Pak Hindu refugees are not vote banks, hence overlooked!”

According to the 1941 Census of British India, Hindus formed 14 percent of the population of West Pakistan and 28 percent of the population of East Pakistan. Thus, the region of Pakistan (which post Independence also included modern Bangladesh) had the second largest Hindu population in the world at that point of time. Following the Partition in 1947, over 4 million Hindus and Sikhs migrated to Bharat and the number of Hindus in West Pakistan dropped to 1.3 percent by the 1951 census. Since then, the number of Hindus in Pakistan has hovered around the same mark.

Over the years, an increasing sense of insecurity has resulted in an exodus of Hindus from Pakistan to Bharat, who enter the country through Western Rajasthan and Gujarat, on a pilgrim visa. Currently, these Pakistani Hindu migrants are concentrated in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi. Most migrants, from the Sindh province in Pakistan, have experienced multiple oppressions and discriminations.

The reasons for the geographical displacement include religious persecution,  proselytization and forced conversion to Islam, abduction and forced conversion to Islam and marriage of Hindu girls, and blatant discrimination and prejudice against Hindus which meant that their commercial establishments were attacked and children experienced stigma and discrimination in schools because of their religious identity. The oppression and discrimination has been particularly intensified after the Indo Pak War (1971) and the Ayodhya issue (1992).

Sudhanshu Singh, Chief Executive Officer of the New-Delhi based Humanitarian Aid International (HAI), which works to rehabilitate Pakistani Hindu migrants in Delhi, gives us insights into this complex and perplexing issue, in which the Pakistani Hindu migrants, like  Trishanku, are  suspended between two worlds, one which is hostile to them, and the other, which is at best, indifferent to their felt needs and concerns.

The earlier two interviews with Sudhanshu, which talk about the aid world and challenges facing homegrown NGOs with a Bharatiya ethos, can be accessed here and here.

Q.) How did HAI begin its work with Pakistani Hindu migrants?

HAI began working  with Pakistani Hindu migrants in 2018. I read and heard about their plight  in media, both print and electronic. My professional expertise and experience in international  humanitarian aid assistance made it natural for me to reach out to them.

There two migrant camps in Delhi at Majnu ka tilla (MKT) and Signature bridge with 230 families or 1100 people living in the two camps. The issue highlighted in the media was that there was no electricity in the camps. However, when my team and I visited, we discovered that lack of electricity was just one of the problems! They lived in deplorable conditions.

The situation  at the Signature camp, 2 km from MKT, was far worse. People lived  in inhuman conditions. Their houses had no roofs and were instead covered with Tarpaulin, and absence of basic amenities such as clean drinking water and toilets. To make matters worse, the Signature camp was located in the middle of a forest, that made people feel vulnerable to wildlife attacks. Besides, children didn’t go to school because they have to walk a few kilometres through the forest to the nearest school.

Q.) What are some of the reasons for geographical displacement?  

Across the world, over 82.4 million people are displaced, including 26.4 million refugees, out of which 4.1 million are seeking asylum. No one  makes a choice to be displaced. It a last resort and done for two reasons: to save lives and save the dignity of  women. People prefer to live in their places of origin. It takes centuries for a society to evolve.  The place where a person lives  confers a sense of belongingness and rootedness.

So, leaving one’s sense of familiarity and comfort and going out to an  unknown place is never an option. Our society is also our fall back mechanism. If I am faced with a  problem, it’s my extended family, my neighbours and the community  who will help me. That’s the safety net and comfort zone all of us have. Hence no one chooses to be displaced unless we feel we are not going to survive any longer.

Q.) Please give us some insights into the pattern of migration of Pakistani Hindus into Bharat.

Migration or displacement  of Pakistani Hindus into Bharat has a distinct  pattern. It has been happening since 1947 and has accelerated since the Ayodhya incident. Over the years, religious persecution has significantly increased in Pakistan and every year, at least 5000 Hindus from Pakistan flee to Bharat. The migrants come to Bharat  in search  of security and citizenship  in response to the pervasive religious persecution and multiple oppressions they face in Pakistan.

They  take a legal route to Bharat by  availing  a pilgrim visa to, say, Haridwar. Interestingly, they come with the purpose of not going back. However, sometimes they feel compelled to go back because as in rural Bharat, there are  large Hindu joint families in the Sindh province of   Pakistan. All  of them don’t get visa at the same time and often, only   four to five  members of a family get visa. They come here  and hope  that the rest will soon  join them.  Sometimes they don’t. So, families who have arrived here, decide to go back.  Its painful stories of  separated families across the two countries. For example, at the Signature bridge camp, a Pakistani Hindu  child lives with his  elderly grandparents as his parents are still in Pakistan.

Q.) What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant? Can you explain this with reference to the UN Convention relating to the status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol?  

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (commonly known as the Refugee Convention) is the main international treaty concerning refugee protection. It was adopted in July 1951 and was initially drafted to meet the needs of European refugees in the aftermath of World War II. It applied only to people who had been displaced as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951. It was supplemented by the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol), which removed the temporal and geographical limitations of the Refugee Convention, making it applicable to refugees all over the world. Countries that have ratified the Protocol agree to apply the provisions of the Convention as well. There are currently countries who are signatories  of either or both of the Convention and the Protocol.

Currently, Bharat is not a signatory to both these international treaties. Therefore, one is officially not a refugee in Bharat. This is why, all those governments which haven’t signed the convention refer to refugees as migrants. Hence, Pakistani Hindu migrants are not entitled to the rights and privileges had the country signed the UN treaty. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that refugees live in perfect situation in the countries that are signatories of the convention.

In India, refugees are treated on a  case to  case basis according to the origin country. For example, government asks UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) to work with Sri Lankan and Afghan refugees here, who don’t want to settle here, but either want to go back to their country or want third country settlement.

Prior to the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the Pakistani Hindu refugees, together with Sikh, Christian and Buddhists refugees from Pakistan were managed through the Government Gazette on Long-Term Visa (LTV) dated 15 December 2014. This gazette created the provision to provide five years LTV to such refugees with extension of two years afterwards until a person qualifies for citizenship. They were also allowed to seek employment of purely private nature, obtain Aadhar card, PAN card, open bank account and purchase a small dwelling unit. Children of these refugees were also permitted to get admission to schools, colleges, universities, technical/professional institutions etc.

Q.) In your work with Pakistani Hindu migrants, what are some of the major challenges you face?

They need comprehensive long term development support; not  just doles and handouts!  Sadly, what we see is development tourists who go to them and distribute ration, food and clothes, and think their duty is done!

But in our human lives we don’t need such event based assistance that makes  a person eternally dependent; a parasite that I don’t want to be!  I want to help myself and I need your help to help me become self-sufficient. Episodic charity doesn’t help in that. They need better living conditions, improved amenities in the camp, education for children,  better healthcare and  skill building.  The migrants were  an agrarian community back in Pakistan; they can’t practice agriculture here. So,  they need a new set of skills and legal assistance. And no one was providing them this support.

Q.) What are the roadblocks that hamper long term, rights based rehabilitation perspectives from being implemented? 

Hindu Dharma as a religion, and we the practitioners, also have to blame ourselves for not having an institutional thinking of development, where the charity is similar to the institutionalised charity of some other religions. Khalsa Aid has become global in no time.  We lack an institutionalised charity pattern. Most people, across regions, do charity, out of humanity and compassion  and to accrue good karma. However, our [Hindu dharma] charity is episodic; event based.

In Islam, charity is institutionalised  through the Zakat (Islamic obligatory charity) and the Zakat money  is used for funding. Islamic funding is in trillions of dollars and is used through a system and several Islamic charitable organisations have spring up  The Zakat money helps in providing humanitarian assistance to members of their community, and if they desire, to members of other religions too.  Likewise, church funding is also institutionalised and therefore there are several Christian funded organisations—all of whom have assured funding through their congregations.

In our religion, everyone wants to be in the limelight; its individualised charity rather than charity being channeled through a professional humanitarian aid organisation. We need a  long term, yearly plan – not a day to day plan – for the rehabilitation of Pakistani Hindu migrants. We, at HAI,  work in the midst of perpetual uncertainty. What next? Primary, secondary and tertiary education of the migrant children. In the absence of institutionalised thinking and funding, how do we do that?

Q.) What are the challenges you face in requesting corporate donors  to contribute to this cause?

That’s a good question! The moment you talk about Hindu refugees, people start  getting wary. They ask us, “Is it communal?” Ironically, communalism was the reason for the  displacement of Pakistani Hindus! That’s the kind of negative stereotypes and the biased grand narratives around Hindus.

That’s why  HAI doesn’t have any corporate grants to address the development needs of Pakistani Hindu migrants. Sometimes, we are asked to drop the name “Hindus” while developing a proposal! I wonder why? Their religion was the reason why they were forced to become refugees! If we highlight that the religion was the reason for their persecution, it will become an advocacy issue and put pressure on their perpetrators! However, Pakistani Hindu migrants are not vote banks! So, politicians across party lines, pay them least attention.

Q.) Do you see the politicisation of aid?

Yes, certainly. There’s no one remedy for that! Sometimes it also has advantages, at least in crowd funding. It is a fact that we are increasingly becoming more polarised, not only in Bharat but across the world. The mindset is: Either you are with me or you are my enemy! Individual contribution  for the cause of Pakistani Hindu refugees is increasingly common. However, it is not enough for  long term support. For this, we need  institutional support for a  project that spans two to three years.  In  many ways, we experience the advantages and disadvantages of this peculiar situation. 

Q.) What are the implications of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019, on the lives of Pakistani Hindu migrants in Bharat?

The CAA has not  yet been  enacted. A law has yet to be made. However, even citizenship doesn’t change anything for them. Because  thousands of Pakistani Hindu migrants in Rajasthan and Gujarat have got citizenship. But their social economic condition is as good or as bad as the other refugees. Because no institution based development support was provided to them.

For instance, Pakistani Hindu girls never attended schools in Pakistan because of  fear of abduction, forced conversions and forced marriages. Even the few who did attend, studied in Urdu medium schools. When they got enrolled in schools in Delhi, they were admitted according to age and not their scholastic level. Most of them were unable to comprehend what was being taught. This year, HAI plans to universalise education in both the migrant camps. To address  scholastic disparities, HAI runs five remedial coaching centres. We have arranged for three E-rickshaws for their transport from the camps to schools. We are now lobbying for the bright children to be  accommodated in private schools.

This way they would be enabled to become better citizens of Bharat whenever they get citizenship. Until then, we can continue to provide hand holding support. They don’t need doles; they need development support.


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About the Author

Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera.