By Divya A, TNN
It is not quite the Partition and the Great Migration. But the steady trickle of Hindus crossing into India from Pakistan, and pleading for permission to stay here, underlines how little has changed in 61 years. The immediate provocation was the alleged persecution of Hindus at the hands of the Taliban. But social alienation too has taken its toll. More than 6,000 Pakistani Hindus migrated to India in recent months. They live on the edge – many sans valid documents, an official identity and hope – in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Lashkar Das, who left Pakistan’s Punjab province to settle in Haryana’s Rohtak district in 2005, claims he was constantly under pressure to convert to Islam. “Some families budged under pressure, but those who didn’t, became targets. We had no option but to come here.”
Shankar Lal, now in Fatehabad, Haryana, knows all about becoming a target. He claims he fled Punjab and perennial harassment in 2000. “Local residents used to call us Hindus kafirs. No one allowed us to even sit with them. Our children were discriminated in schools and forced to read namaz,” he says. When his grandfather, Dharuram from Rohtak, visited Lal some years ago, he suggested they move to India. He did.
Today, he can proudly produce a valid Indian ration card and admit to being a registered voter. “Despite scarce resources, we managed to make do as daily-wagers and send our children to schools here.” Eventually, he married a girl from Karnal. Ever since, life has settled in a peaceful groove.
He isn’t the only one. The year Lal crossed over, six Hindu families left Pakistan for Fatehabad and Rohtak in Haryana. Since then, 56 members from these families have become bonafide residents with valid documents.
Nearer the Pakistan border, Rajasthan too has a population of Hindu migrants. More than 50 families have made Jodhpur their home. They claim they were discriminated against, not least the trouble with getting a loan to start a business. They say they often had no option but to borrow from moneylenders, but their terms were so harsh, the creditor could abandon all hope of ever being free of debt. Prem, who once owned two “fancy stores” in Sindh, now lives in Jodhpur with his family of nine. He’s a scrap collector and admits “we work as daily wage-earners” but hopes “life will be a bit better in India”.
But, once here, India may not always be quite the promised land they imagined. Lakshman, a 40-year-old labourer left Punjab eight years ago to protect the women in his family, after his cousin was kidnapped, never to return. But he admits to facing suspicion here too. “There, we were considered Mujahirs and here, people think we are Pakistanis. The only respite is we aren’t living in constant fear about our life.”
Fear is the constant refrain in the migrants’ stories. In October, four Peshawar families claimed Muslim radicals terrorized them into leaving home. Crossing through Wagah, they arrived in Delhi to register with the Home Ministry’s Pakistani refugee cell. They sought Indian citizenship, received a year’s visa and are settled in a village near Amritsar.
But these are the legal and identifiable ones. Police say most Pakistani refugees lack valid documents. “Off and on, Hindus from Pakistan have been trickling to India through our porous borders. Some stay here even after their visas expire. But we haven’t initiated any legal action as they don’t pose a security threat,” says an officer with the Amritsar border range. “Between 2003-04, when each Indian state had the power to decide on such cases, close to 13,000 people got citizenship. But the revised immigration fee, between Rs 3,000 to Rs 20,000, is beyond the reach of many, forcing them to live in hiding.”
Such families are helped by organizations such as the All India Hindu Shiv Sena, whose president, Surinder Kumar Billa, admits “collecting funds for them and arranging Hindi and Punjabi language classes for the Urdu-speaking children so they can join school soon.”
Chetan Das of Seemant Lok Sangathan, which helps with
rehabilitation work, puts the Hindu refugee story in context – the poor, he says, can afford to migrate to India as they have no stake in society, but the better off simply pay ‘protection money’ to the Pakistani authorities.
(With reports from Deepender Deswal in Karnal and Ajay Parmar in Jodhpur)