For more than a decade, Ajmal Singh has been trying to get Indian citizenship. He fled Pakistan 14 years ago and continues to live in a refugee camp, with ten children, on the outskirts of Jodhpur.
He worked as a driver before crossing over but doesn’t know farming or mining, the only two jobs readily available to Pakistani Hindus who have fled to India. His citizenship application is caught, as is often the case in India, in a bureaucratic maze fuelled by political apathy.
The 39-year-old is one of the more than 100,000 Pakistani Hindus who have taken refuge in India since 1965, citing religious persecution. Of these, 55,000 have settled in Rajasthan but continue to be ‘nowhere people’.
Every week, the Thar Express brings more families who come with visas that don’t allow them to leave Jodhpur. Many of them are illiterate, poor farmers, who join thousands of others living without basic amenities of electricity, running water and proper toilets.
Hope flickered in 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders held out the promise of citizenship for these refugees during poll campaigns. But two years have passed since the BJP came to power and little has been done to improve the lives of thousands like Singh.
At a citizenship drive in July, over 1,200 applications were received by Jodhpur’s district magistrate BC Malick, who says “only some’’ were processed. The NDA government says more than 4,200 people have got citizenship between 2014 and 2015 but a Right To Information application revealed the number to be a mere 289.
Hurdles vs Hope
The biggest hurdle for the Pakistani refugees who want to be Indian is lack of paperwork, Malick says. The government wants proof that the grandparents or parents of refugees were born in undivided India. But the absence of documents is only a small slice of the plight of these displaced people.
Singh attended the citizenship drive, filled out the papers and then found he had to pay Rs 15,000 to be given for Indian citizenship. This was an impossible sum for the impoverished man who earns Rs 100 or Rs 200 a day if he’s lucky. “It’s a choice — do I feed my children or do I get citizenship?” he asks.
School children at a camp for Pakistan refugees in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.
(Aishwarya Kandpal / HT Photo )
The government had promised to make citizenship free for extremely poor refugees like Singh, but this plan has not yet materialised. In the meantime, Pakistani Hindus are left to fend for themselves. Often, they face the same bigotry that they ran away from.
Kavita Ram is 13-years-old. Her father, Chetan Ram, has been living in India since 2001. He developed an equation with the local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh branch and a related body, The Hindu Helpline. He’s got an Aadhaar card, a phone connection and his slum, Angandwa — just five kilometers outside Jodhpur — has a sewing centre, a shop and water installed by the helpline.
He is filled with hope of a better future. While he feels the Modi government has taken some steps, Kavita disagrees.
“I am scared all the time. When I go to school or go to the jungle to do my business, drunken men come and shout at me. They say they will kill me, that I am a Pakistani, that I should go back to where I came from or I will be dead.”
Many of the refugees are disillusioned by the government’s claim to care for them. “They keep calling us to attend camps. (Chief minister) Vasundhra Raje has come,this one has come, home secretary has come. Come to the camps, they say. But, we come. We sit in the sweltering heat for hours. Nothing ever materialises,” says Singh’s wife Sri Devi.
Yet, if one asks them whether they regret leaving behind land, school and amenities in Pakistan, their answers always is an emphatic ‘No’.
“The government may not think of me as Indian, but in my heart I’ve always been a part of this country. This is my land, I love it like one loves their mother (and) father,” says Singh.
“I will live here and die here… even if it is under the label of Pakistani. I know I am Indian.” Govt announces citizenship drive for refugees who have been in India for over five years Modi promises citizenship for refugees at several election rallies. The BJP-led NDA govt comes to power got citizenship between 2014 and 2015, claims the government. RTI reveals only 289.