Of the thousands of Hindu refugees who have escaped from Pakistan, alleging persecution, more than 500 are camping in Delhi’s Bijwasan and Majnu Ka Tila alone. They have been petitioning the Indian Government for citizenship and are steadfast in their resolve not to return. As governments in India and Pakistan busy themselves with intricacies of policy and the law, the refugees are demanding their basic right to live and practice their religion. The Hindu visits a camp in Bijwasan....

From the outside, it is just one of those private schools tucked away in an obscure corner that holds out the promise of convent-education, but once you are inside the poorly-lit building -- known as House No.16 -- in South-West Delhi’s Bijwasan, you are confronted by the presence of countless buzzing flies and a pervading nauseating stench. This school with cramped classrooms and no students is home to grown up men and women and their little children, all waiting for life’s new chapter to begin.

Do the flies and filth bother them? “We are refugees who have escaped from what is much worse…why should we complain when we have reason to be happy that we are alive. And besides these are just flies,” says Mala who lives in the school with her parents, six sisters and three brothers.

Mala and over 400 others have fled from Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province fearing for their lives. In “Hindustan” for the past month-and-a-half, these “Hindu refugees” -- as they are known -- want India to accept them as their own.

“We were so tired of living a life that was all about zulam (atrocity) and no dharma (religion). When we got the opportunity to leave, we did not look back,” she says. Being in India means an opportunity for a fresh start. “There is so much to do here…we can go to school, we can look for jobs, we can pray as we please and we won’t have to worry if someone’s going to claim us girls and take us away,” she explains.

Mala with green eyes and a slender build is 15 and still single; unusual for a girl of her age in her community.

“The girls get married by 13. We cannot take the risk of keeping them home; they are vulnerable, because they get picked up. Back in Sindh we have lost so many girls…they were picked up and forcibly converted. You must have heard it on the news,” says Mala’s father Nehru Lal.

With seven daughters and no hope of a better life, Nehru Lal used the recently-concluded Maha Kumbh in Allahabad as a pretext to flee, like the others who are now in India. “They [Pakistani authorities] asked us why we were all going. I was shaking with fear, but I managed to say that the teerath (pilgrimage) is important and comes only once in several years. Till the time we set foot in Hindustan we weren’t sure we’ll manage to escape. This teerath has been truly godsend, it set us free,” he says.

In the same camp is Radhika, eager to show how she can write her own name. “I am an angootha-chhap (illiterate), like all others I never went to school, but here someone taught me how to write my name,” she laughs. Radhika is here with her aunt Lakshmi and her daughters. The girls are happy they can wear bindis and do not have to hide indoors. Lakshmi, however, is worried about her brother and his family that are still in Hyderabad. She’s nervous that Pakistani authorities would have found out that Maha Kumbh pilgrimage was an excuse to flee and might want to persecute those left behind.

“I want them all to come here. The Hindu Government [Indian government] should send for them, otherwise their life will be a thousand times worse than before. I dread to think what will happen to the girls,” she says.

Lakshmi and her husband used to take just “one girl at a time” with them for an outing. “We could never dare take all of them together, how would we have protected them…so we took turns,” she recalls.

Radhika and her cousin, also called Mala, interrupt; they want to know how girls in India fare. “Do you go out alone? We could only do house work and sew at home. Are you married? Do you have children? Do males from the family always accompany you…” their questions are endless.

This new-found freedom is something that the men too are happy about. There are no taunts, there is no violence, no ‘go-back to India’ comments….Yes, they are worried about their future, but there is optimism that things will get better. “I was mostly addressed as kafir (non-believer), most did not bother using my name,” says Sudama, who worked as a farm help and supplemented his income selling vegetables and fruit.

“But it was hard to sell anything, because the locals would forbid each other from buying from kafirs. We had separate utensils for our use, we couldn’t sit with the locals and no one allowed us into their homes. And I don’t remember ever being treated fairly,” he says.

Back in Pakistan, most of these men worked as labourers, were not paid fair wages and lived under the shadow of constant threat to their lives. “Have you seen the film Mother India where the protagonist’s karz (loan) just kept multiplying? That is our story,” says Hari Chand, who is now teaching his eight year-old son Aakash conversational Hindi.

“He should know the tongue, if the government allows us work permit, he can look forward to earning and who knows maybe going to school,” he says.

Desecrated temples, forcibly taken-over land and houses, poor living conditions, pushed into taking up menial jobs — the stories are similar. “We miss nothing about the place….we don’t even call it home, that place is home to just people from one religion and that is not ours,” says Sudama.

The only memory that tugs at his heart is that of his younger brother who was killed and lies buried in Sindh.

“He got a job in the railway, but then someone got jealous that a Hindu boy was given work. He was killed. We were not even given his body, three days after they hurriedly buried him, and we were informed. We could do nothing; we went to the grave and prayed for his soul. Now, he sleeps there,” his voice quivers.

It is noon and time for lunch, the children have to be fed and in an instant the long corridor where we sat listening to the stories of Mala, Radhika and Sudama is turned into a make-shift kitchen. Kerosene stoves are out and the women, oblivious of the oppressive heat, the stink and the dirt around them, sit down to make perfect round rotis.

“There is plenty of food here,” smiles Ganga as she reclaims bits of dough from her little son’s grip. Outside the sun is searing and most of the refugees are making their way back from a demonstration outside the UN Office.

“We had gone there to tell them [UN officials] that we need a place to stay here. There is nothing there [in Pakistan] for us. And if they force us to go back, we might as well kill ourselves because at least then we might get a funeral we deserve,” says Sobha Ram in between morsels of food that have been given as zakat (charity).

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