Influx from Pakistan could pose hard challenges for governments on both sides

Early this month, Chetan Ram abandoned his home in Pakistan for a flapping, cloth shack, held up with bamboo poles against the searing desert wind. Around his shack, six kilometres outside Jodhpur on the Jhanwar road, many others too camp — a stark symbol of the growing exodus of Hindus, faced with Islamist violence, from Pakistan that could pose hard challenges for governments on both sides of one of the world’s most fraught borders.

The largest group of refugees, made up of 184 people, came in by the India-Pakistan Thar Express on the second Sunday of September. Last Sunday saw another 48 Pakistanis arrive on pilgrim visa, and then refuse to return home. There are now over 300 people housed in the camps on the town’s suburbs.

Ram and his extended family fled Pakistan in the face of religious persecution. His father, Soomro (70), died just nine days before the team left for India. Soomro was buried at Mitho Khoso in Tando Adam of Hyderabad district, 40-45 km from the place of his death. The grieving family says it had no option but to take the body that far and bury it as cremation — the traditional way of disposal of the body for Hindus — was not allowed.

“Life there is worse than death,” says Ram. “The main reason for our decision not to go back is the insecurity to our women and the religious persecution.”

There are social and economic hardships too like bonded labour, non-payment of wages and lifting of livestock belonging to the minority population.

Asked about the reported instances of kidnapping of Hindu girls that have figured in the Pakistani media in the recent months, Dharma Ram, Suraj Mal, Devji Ram, Longa Das, Lokumal and Kanwar Ram claim that the average is of 30 cases in a month in Sindh alone. They said a 14-year-old Puna was kidnapped from their locality 10 days prior to their departure.

“The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has conceded these figures,” says Hindu Singh Sodha, head of the Seemanth Lok Sangathan, an organisation working for refugees from Pakistan. Lobbying by Mr. Sodha has enabled Indian citizenship to as many as 13,000 in 2004-5.

Most of the refugees, landless labourers from Sanghar, Matiari and Hyderabad districts in the Sindh province of Pakistan, have their origins in the western Rajasthan districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner. Many have relatives in the region.

Bheel adivasis and Meghwal Dalits live on both the sides of the border and share a similar lifestyle — a word perhaps inappropriate to the desperate hardship that characterises their lives. While the wars between the two neighbours in the 1960s and early 1970s drove them in hordes out of Pakistan —90,000 reached Rajasthan in 1971— the fencing of the border in the past two decades had almost put an end to the illegal crossing over to this side.

Initially, Ram’s group stayed on the Dali Bai temple premises, but it had to vacate the place for making space for pilgrims on way to the Ramdeora Fair in Jaisalmer.

“The government has done precious nothing for these people. We are feeding them two times with the help of individuals while keeping the political parties and vested interests at a distance,” says Mr. Sodha.

“A minimum of 800 cups of tea which need 30 kg of milk, and provisions worth Rs.15, 000 for two meals a day is a tall order for us and these nowhere people,” notes Prem Chand, a raddhiwallah (waste paper vendor), who came from Sanghar a few years ago and has now turned a local.

Collector disputes claims

Jodhpur Collector Siddharth Mahajan disputes these claims, insisting that the administration had offered the migrants both shelter and food but the local “patrons” did not want it to happen for “some reason.”

A visit to the camp and other locations such as Ramdeo Nagar inhabited by migrants gives the impression that the administration, though sympathetic, has not done much. This is despite Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot himself promising them help.

No one is certain what the long-term prospects of the refugees to stay in India might be. “Though India is not a signatory to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, 1951 and 1961, it cannot turn a blind eye to these people’s plight as it is a humanitarian issue. India is after all a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” argues Mr. Sodha.

“We have asked them to fill the forms for permanent stay,” says Mr. Mahajan. “We are in a dialogue with the Centre.”