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Pakistan’s Hindu refugees queue to become Indians

Tina Edwin | Updated on November 23, 2019 Published on November 15, 2019

No permanent address: Only a few houses are pucca or have toilets or electricity supply at the refugee camp in Delhi’s Majnu ka Tilla area   -  IMAGES: TINA EDWIN

Crossing the border from Pakistan, thousands of Hindu refugees hope to soon reach a destination called Indian citizenship. Along the way, they endure several years of hardship at transit camps

It’s a little after 2 pm. This is when most women in the Bhatti Mines Sanjay Colony settlement, on the fringes of the Delhi-Haryana border, like to put their weary feet up after they are done with the various morning chores and lunch. But there is no rest for Sahiba and Rabeli: Water starts to trickle out of their PVC hose pipes in the afternoons, and they have fill to up as many drums as possible before the supply stops — usually in 10 or 15 minutes.

But Sahiba and Rabeli seldom complain. They are just happy to be in India.

The sisters are among the many Pakistani Hindus who have decided to make India their home. The two, with their husbands and children, crossed over to India from Karachi in 2013. Some of their relatives had arrived in the National Capital Region a few years earlier. “Life was tough for women and girls in Pakistan. Grown-up girls and young women would get picked up, sexually assaulted or be forced to convert to Islam, and we could do nothing about it. We lived in fear and therefore decided to move to India,” Sahiba says.

They are in India on a long-term visa and hope to become Indian citizens when they become eligible to apply for citizenship after completing seven years in the country. Back in Pakistan, the two were working in apparel factories in Karachi, while their husbands were labourers. They have no jobs here, so they put to use some of their skills with the needle to embroider and crochet, making mattresses, quilts and other items for sale.

Making a fresh start

With the issue of refugees at the centre of a global — and domestic — debate, the time has come to turn the lens on refugees living in the capital without adequate support. There is no official data on the number of Pakistani Hindu refugees in India. Most are residing in Delhi, or in cities in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana. Home minister Amit Shah said at a recent meeting that Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees would “not be forced to leave India by the Centre”. The Citizenship Amendment Bill would ensure that they got Indian citizenship, he said.

In a kiln: Most of the refugee homes have asbestos roofing, making the rooms unbearably hot in summer

 

The refugees are waiting. They point out that their living conditions are abysmal, and that they have no steady income, but citizenship, they stress, will give them an identity.

Many young men in the settlement, who are now in their late teens or early 20s, work odd jobs, vending items such as mobile covers, fruits and vegetables, noodles and momos on pushcarts. Some drive hired auto-rickshaws and cabs. Few have finished school or have any work-related skills.

Rabeli’s son, Ajay, sells fruits on a pushcart. His brother recently signed up as a delivery boy with an e-commerce grocery company. Until a few months back, they were working with a contractor, fixing household electricity meters. But wages were erratic.

“I have no certificates and so cannot get any job,” adds Umesh, another 19-year-old resident, who studied till Standard 7 in Pakistan. He came to India about six years ago with his parents and siblings. His father was a vegetable vendor in Hyderabad (Pakistan) and now works as a labourer, digging trenches for contractors employed by various utility providers. A sizeable number of men in the colony work as labourers, earning ₹500 a day.

The young women lead fairly busy lives, and many earn money using the skills they have picked up from elders in the family or at a training centre run by the non-profit Literacy India. Some have learnt to stitch clothes, embroider, block print and make small handicraft items.

Chandni is perhaps the only girl in the settlement to have cleared the Std 12 board exams, and that too with a first division. She hopes to study fashion design if she can save up for the fees. “I tutor children for a couple of hours and spend a few hours at the Literacy India centre, stitching bags and uniforms,” says Chandni, who was five years old when her family crossed over to India. She earns up to ₹3,000 a month.

From Sindh and Punjab, they came

At Bhatti Mines, most of the Hindu migrant refugees came to India in the past decade from Pakistan’s Sindh and Punjab. An overwhelming number belongs to the Odh community, people who traditionally worked as earth diggers. Many of the older residents came from Bahawalpur in Punjab. Quite a few of them are descendants of those who had crossed over to Gujarat and Rajasthan in the early years of independence and had come to the area to find work in the mines in the 1970s. The settlement is also home to Kumhars, Rajputs and a few Brahmins, some of whom migrated from Pakistan as pilgrims, with the intention to stay permanently in India.

A large number of Sindhi migrants, who arrived in the current decade, settled down at several sites in northern Delhi, including the Shri Ram Camp, one of the bigger refugee camps next to the Majnu ka Tilla Gurdwara.

There are 130-odd families at the Shri Ram camp. A few residents came earlier this year, before the train links between India and Pakistan were suspended. Many of them used to be farmers, and some were fruit and vegetable traders, in Pakistan. There are four camps in the north Delhi area, and the newest has come up on the plains close to the Signature Bridge, the iconic cable-stayed steel bridge over the river Yamuna, a short distance from the Shri Ram Camp.

Some men of the Shri Ram camp have set up small shops on the pavement of the busy Outer Ring Road, selling refreshments including freshly brewed tea and snacks. Some work in the fields along the Yamuna for wages and others at the vegetable wholesale market. “We are willing to work hard and earn a living. But those who set up stalls along the pavement or sell small items are often harassed by the municipal authorities, as they do not have permits to vend,” says community pradhan Sonadas, who was among the first to settle at this camp in 2014, three years after he crossed into India.

The women at the Majnu ka Tilla camp, also adept at needlework, discovered that they could make some money by selling their creations after Humanitarian Aid International (HAI), a non-profit working at the camp, enrolled them in a Diwali mela at Noida. The NGO has started a skill training centre, where women are taught to make small items of commercial value.

Living sans basic amenities

Life at the Majnu ka Tilla Camp is, in many ways, more difficult than that at Bhatti Mines. While most homes in Bhatti Mines are brick structures, with toilets and metered electricity, only a few houses are pucca and have toilets at the Majnu ka Tilla camp. Solar panels connected to batteries help light the tiny rooms and run a fan for a few hours at night. Until two years ago, the Delhi government provided the camp with electricity from a generator but that was removed after a ban was imposed on the use of generators to counter air pollution. Mobile community toilets have been installed by the state government’s Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. Piped water to their homes became a reality in recent months after HAI sought the intervention of the National Human Rights’ Commission.

Pipe dream: Water supplied from a borewell is stored in plastic containers at the Bhatti Mines refugee camp

 

Despite the many deprivations, the residents say they are content, and relieved to be in India. “We are where we belong, with people of our faith” is a common refrain. “We feel liberated, as we can move around freely and by ourselves, without being draped in heavy cloaks,” says Chandrama, a young mother.

The Majnu ka Tilla-Shri Ram camp lies along the busy Outer Ring Road, which gives residents easy access to the rest of the Capital. But the Bhatti Mines settlement adjoins the Asola wildlife sanctuary, which is several kilometres from the heart of the city, and suffers from poor transport connectivity. If the Majnu ka Tilla camp is always at a risk of flooding when the Yamuna rises above the danger mark, the arid Bhatti Mines area, with its perennial water shortage and unpaved lanes, is a dust bowl.

Yet, the residents have no desire to move elsewhere as that would mean more disruption. They do, however, fear that they may have to. “The National Green Tribunal wants us moved out from here [for ecological reasons]. But where will we go? Our children study in the municipal schools in the neighbourhood, the government hospitals are near, and we have a Majnu ka Tilla address given to us by the Delhi government,” says Dayaldas, another community pradhan. “We will lose everything we have invested in over the past few years if we are moved from here.”

Brick by brick

They came with little but many have built brick-walled units, one room at a time, on savings and borrowings, over the years. At Majnu ka Tilla, construction is underway. Most homes at both settlements have asbestos sheets for roof, which makes them unbearably hot in summers. A stone roof or a reinforced cement concrete one is beyond their budget. Residents at Bhatti Mines have some appliances — such as refrigerators, television, fans and desert coolers — as they have metered electricity. Majnu ka Tilla residents don’t have such luxury. At the most, they have a fan.

Ramchander, who has been living in Bhatti Mines colony since 1975 and who earlier worked in the mines to extract sand used for mixing with cement at construction sites, hopes that the government will declare the settlement an authorised colony.

Seeking a new identity

But the biggest problem the people at the camp face is an identity crisis. As they are Hindus, they feel that India is their homeland. “But people here refer to us as Pakistanis,” laments Kiran, who has started a garments shop in Bhatti Mines. “It makes me uncomfortable and even insecure.” A similar sentiment was expressed by some at the Shri Ram camp. Most have entered India on a short-term pilgrim visa that allows them to visit up to five places as a group. Once in India, they begin the process of applying for a long-term visa that entitles them to live here for up to five years and seek further renewal. That also entitles them to get an Aadhaar card, open a bank account and get a driving licence. Under the law, they can apply for citizenship after living in India for seven years.

The refugees urge the government to expedite their citizenship and help rehabilitate them. Some hope that the Indian government will allot them a piece of land to build a home. It is to be seen if the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, currently in Parliament, will speed up the process to converting the refugees to Indian citizens.

Tina Edwin

Published on November 15, 2019
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