Though having crossed over to India to escape persecution, the woes of Hindu families from Pakistan’s Sindh province, now settled in Rajasthan, are yet to be over
Random epiphanies can often lead people out of their homelands and across borders, where they are doomed to spend their lives in gloomy tent house settlements.
For Chetan Bheel, a burly, middle-aged man from Pakistan’s Sindh province, that epiphany came during his last visit to Jodhpur, when he went to visit a well-to-do relative. The man was sitting in his courtyard and beside him was his pet dog sitting on a chair, says Chetan. “On seeing me, he did not shoo his dog off the chair but instead asked his servant to bring another chair for me to sit on.”
That was when he realised that “pet dogs are treated better in India than Hindus are in Sindh”.
So last year, Chetan, along with his family and another 166 people, decided to leave Sindh and move to India, “the land of our ancestors”, for a life of dignity. The 171 Hindus that arrived in Jodhpur last September comprised the single largest group to have crossed over since the fencing of the Indo-Pak border.
“But now my people curse me for leading them here. ‘We left our homes and came here on your advice, now it rains and we are left facing this bitter winter out in the open’, they say,” rues Chetan, adding, “There they used to call us all kafirs, and here we are ostracised for being Pakistanis.”
There are five major and several other smaller settlements of Pakistani Hindu immigrants in Jodhpur and about 7,000 Hindus continue to live as asylum seekers all across the State.
While spending harsh desert winters under the open sky and sleeping out the nights on wet ground make for extremely inhuman living conditions, for the 171 Pakistani Hindus, cramped in a small cluster of makeshift tents on the outskirts of Jodhpur, it is just another chapter in the story of their collective misery.
At this point, the one thing they are concerned about is to get the “refugee status” from the Government of India. “Both the Centre and the State government are absolutely indifferent to their plight. All they are demanding is to be declared refugees but the government is shying away because then it will have to provide them with basic facilities like food and shelter,” says Hindu Singh Sodha of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, which has been working with Hindu immigrants from Pakistan.
Unlike other refugees living in India, these people have not crossed over to the country illegally but have visas and passports, points out Mr. Sodha. He feels that the indifference might have stemmed from the fact that the asylum seekers are Bhil tribals with little or no representation in the government or the bureaucracy.
“Of late, members of castes like Jats and Malis have also started coming over. Perhaps that will make the government take notice,” he adds.
Four years ago, the Rajasthan government had constituted a high-level committee to address the lingering issue of the Pakistani aslyum seekers. However, Mr. Sodha, who is also on the committee, says the panel has not met even once.
Earlier, people used to cross over via Attari along the Wagah border but since 2006, the Thar Express, an international train service connecting Jodhpur to Karachi, has been the preferred mode of transport for those seeking entry into India.
“Going through the Punjab border used to be a tormenting endeavour. Punjabi soldiers on the Pakistan side used to abuse us and call us kafirs for travelling to India. But Sindhi officers do not care as long as they get their share of bribes and cuts from the ticket prices,” says Gowardhan, who came to Jodhpur five years ago.
Till a few years ago, people came to India on a visitor's visa but with visa restrictions getting tougher, the pilgrim visa has emerged as a surer way to book a berth aboard the Thar Express. Getting a pilgrim visa is easier, especially in view of the ongoing kumbh mela.
Getting tickets to board the Thar Express, however, is also a challenge. “The journey from Karachi to Bhagat ki Kothi station in Jodhpur costs a little over Rs. 400 but when authorities see groups of people desperate to cross over, they charge much more. We paid Rs. 700 each for 171 tickets,” says Chetan.
Once they are here, most of them stay in Jodhpur; but many also fan out to remote villages spread across districts of western Rajasthan.
“We originally belong to Jaisalmer but during the 1960s drought, our families crossed over to Sindh in search of labour and settled there. For us, it was easier to go to Sindh than to Gujarat because of the distance. Also the border used to be very porous then,” says Premchand, who crossed over 10 years ago.
“In the 70s, we were given identity cards under the Zufikar Ali Bhutto government. It was all good till the Babri masjid demolition in India, after which things took a turn for the worse and we realised we were in the danger of being persecuted,” he says.
Interviews with the asylum seekers suggest the Hindu minorities in Sindh have been living under the shadow of segregation and persecution on religious grounds. People said the harassment was manifested in Hindu children being discriminated against in government schools, Hindu residents not being allowed to buy property and bullied into leaving their establishments among others.