The camp for Pakistani Hindu refugees stands next to a landfill site. It’s a straggle of tents lining a busy thoroughfare. This is now home.
The government has donated tents, sending water tanks, mobile toilets, and a generator that runs for a few hours a day. The neighbouring Majnu ka Tilla gurdwara chips in with tea and langar, in a characteristic display of altruistic generosity that is the way of Sikhism.
The ground that serves as a bed is uneven and cold, not clean enough, though not really dirty, and the children run around in clothes that are far from adequate for the chilly Delhi winter.
One expects resignation and defeat, but what one encounters is gratitude. It disarms you. Where is the anger at the unfairness of being homeless? I don’t see it.
But everything changed. “Muslims are killing Muslims, how will we survive?” Chandrama asks me. She’s 40 years old, but her face, creased by the struggles of being on the move, tells another story – one even the smiles that she breaks into in the midst of a difficult conversation can’t erase.
Bhaguram, a 65-year-old farmer from Hyderabad, Sind, interjects: “We have left our country, but not our faith. We are here for our religion.”
He left his country in 1998 with the ashes of his 30-year-old son Anand, who had been shot dead by extremists for refusing to convert. Life was already difficult by then. Persecution based on religion was on an upswing. Carcases of slaughtered cows left at temples were the kind of barbaric messages that were becoming the norm.
Bhaguram, an activist by instinct, petitioned the courts – but the case never came up for hearing. When he arrived in India for the last rites of his son (“Mera Anand”, he calls him, his happiness – not just the name of a dead son, but also an enunciation of a lost joy), his decision was already made. There was no point in returning.
Since then he has been assisting his large extended family to find their way out of Pakistan. A “pilgrimage” visa is the only way out and to India. I begin to understand why they seemingly accept the hardships of their present situation – if not cheerfully, then at least without complaint. Even the birth of a child by the road is a blessing.
Dai (a midwife) tells me a story from two weeks ago. They had nowhere to go and were camping on the road when, late at night, a pregnant lady went into labour. She paced up and down till her water broke, too frightened to tell anyone about her condition, till it became unbearable.
Dai rushed over and the women from the camp lit a makeshift fire and held up blankets under which the baby was born. Now her mother nurses the baby girl under a tent and she is bundled up in a blanket.
Outside, some children jump up and down on the tent, using is as a trampoline. I ask the others what they do all day. There are as many as 250 children here and none of them has ever been to school.
“We walk around,” chatty little Divya tells me. All day? Yes, say the collective nods.
Varsha (22), abandoned by a man who promised her Indian citizenship, is the neighbourhood kiranewali (grocer). She operates out of a battered steel trunk which contains her stock in trade – face bleach, rubber bands, toffees, face creams, matchboxes and biscuits.
“Who is going to buy beauty products from you in these conditions?” a woman laughs.
But Varsha is not to be deterred. In this box rest hopes of normalcy and aspiration, even if there are no takers. She wants to earn a living and has entrepreneurial skills. She is cold and her voice is hoarse, but it doesn’t defeat her natural ebullience. She tells me about the 100 mehendi designs she can make, if given the chance. That’s what they all want – a chance.
There are as many as 250 children at the camp, and none of them has ever been to school. When asked what they do all day, a chatty little girl replies, “We walk around.” All day? Yes, say the collective nods.
I have often written about displaced people here. I have written of the nomadic Gadia Lohars of Rajasthan and their vulnerable girls who live on the streets and are denied basic rights for being asthayi (temporary). The Muslim Vann Gujjars of Corbett, who eke out a living from the buffer zone, are denied settlement and treated as secondary to the tigers.
The overwhelming commonality among them is the simple need to be humanised and counted, not to be forgotten. The Pakistani Hindu refugees petitioned the president, prime minister, home minister, external affairs minister, law minister, Lieutenant Governor of Delhi and the Delhi chief minister in 2013, but have not heard back from any of them.
The Vann Gujjars of Corbett collected money, hired a bus and travelled to Dehradun to meet the chief minister, succeeding in getting an audience only after two failed attempts when meetings were scheduled and then cancelled.
Before the change in government in Rajasthan and prior to the state elections last year, the Gadia Lohars came together and travelled to Jaipur to present themselves as a vote bank, but returned with empty promises and no voter IDs. They didn’t count either.
The moral – if you don’t count, you are not likely to be counted.
By Advaita Kala