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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Engaging with the Pakistani Hindu refugees of Rajasthan — A Journey

In December 2019, I got the chance to re-visit the beautiful cities of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer in the state of Rajasthan. This time however, my visit was different — I was on a mission to see how the global Indian diaspora could help the Hindu refugees from Pakistan fleeing to Bharat since 1971; people whose existence I had no idea of, until recently.

Most of us think that when Bharat was partitioned into an Islamic Pakistan and a pluralistic India in 1947, all the Hindus in Pakistan came over to the Bharatiya side, while only those Muslims who disliked the idea of living in an inclusive society would have gone over to Pakistan. In reality, such a neat division never did happen even though some seven million Hindus and Sikhs moved to Bharat from both West and East Pakistan and a similar number of Muslims moved in the opposite direction immediately after the Partition of 1947. It is the largest displacement of human population in history. Later, in the run-up to East Pakistan’s liberation from West Pakistan, there was another massive exodus of Hindus from Islamic Bengal.

However, when we saw the popular television serials of the 1980s such as Buniyaad and Tamas, which showed the traumatic period of Partition, most of us thought we were watching a recreating of events that took place in a distant painful past, which was over and done with.

Only a chance visit to the Adarshnagar camp in Delhi brought me face to face with Hindu refugees that had fled from Pakistan as recently as 2013. It was the first time I learned about young Hindu (mostly Sindhi) girls being kidnapped, raped and converted to Islam even today in Pakistan. I marvelled at the courage of these people who had stayed staunch Hindus and held on to their Gods despite the worst persecution. Ever since then, I have been writing about Hindu refugees on social media platforms hoping to bring awareness about a major humanitarian crisis largely ignored by international bodies including the media.

In mid-2019, I joined the Board of Directors of Ishwar Sewa Foundation, a Dallas-based non-profit led by Jiger Patel that is working to provide sustainable livelihoods to displaced, marginalized Hindus who are victims of violence, religious persecution and social injustice. It was a privilege to be a part of the solution after writing about the problems. Shri Jiger is a young Indian-American hotelier who, unlike most successful immigrants dreams of not just making millions but to use them to help millions.

One of the most impressive people I met in my recent trip to Rajasthan was Shri Hindu Singh Sodha, founder of Universal Just Action Society (UJAS), which was earlier called Seemant Lok Sangathan. Shri Sodha is himself a migrant from Tharparkar in Sindh, Pakistan who moved to Bharat in 1971 just ten months before the India-Pakistan war.

Shri Hindu Singh Sodha, Founder of UJAS; Photo Sahana Singh

“While the Partition of India in 1947 caused destructive riots and a massive exodus of people between West and East Punjab and between West and East Bengal, it was different in the desert region of Tharparkar called “Dhaat” bordering western Rajasthan and northwestern Gujarat,” explained Shri Sodha. These areas were cut off from the rest of Sindh and shared a common culture in terms of language, cuisine, and customs. “There was excellent harmony between Hindus and mostly non-practising Muslims in the areas where Hindus were in majority and in fact, we were unaware that Partition had even taken place!”

Shri Sodha revealed that even though the Partition of Bharat took place in 1947, it was not implemented in the Dhaat regions with large Hindu populations until the 1965 war between Bharat and Pakistan. “People did not even know where the border exactly was; Pakistanis attended marriages on the Indian side; they purchased from shops there and could even pay with Pakistani currency; similarly, Indians could go over to the Pakistani side without passports or visas!”

It was after 1965 that the government of Pakistan executed a systematic policy of oppression of Hindus living in these districts and asked the local Muslims to either convert or kill their Hindu neighbours. As violence began to be unleashed, the paradise of harmony was destroyed and thus began an exodus of Sindhi Hindus from Pakistan with most of them heading towards Rajasthan and Gujarat. Shri Sodha recalled the resignation letter written by Jogendra Nath Mandal to resign from the position of Law Minister of Pakistan in which he had predicted that a day would come when no Hindu would be left in Pakistan.

According to a 2018 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan, at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year. This is a highly conservative estimate. The recent viral video of a Hindu father crying and beating himself up in front of a police station after his daughters were abducted, forcibly converted and married is perhaps the most moving evidence of the sheer helplessness of the Hindus in Pakistan.

Blasphemy is a charge that is used extensively to put Hindus behind bars, often just to settle scores. A child who wanted to teach his school headmaster a lesson spread a rumour that he had insulted the Prophet which led to mobs vandalizing a Hindu temple and crowds baying for the teacher’s blood following which he was taken to a secret destination by the police.

UJAS has been working in western Bharat for the rights of the Pakistani Hindu migrants from the past 15 years. “Until now, there have been no legal mechanisms to ensure the safety and security of these migrants,” said Shri Sodha. He explained how the Pakistani tag of the migrants prevents them from getting rights which other foreigners are entitled to in Bharat. For example, they cannot get an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. They need a visa for every place they visit in Bharat. Thus, a Jodhpur visa would preclude a migrant from visiting Delhi or Mathura. Shri Sodha pointed out that the misery of the migrants comes from the fact that they are ill-treated for being minorities and kafirs in Pakistan while in Bharat, they are looked at with suspicion for being Pakistani.

The Pakistani Hindu migrants who flee to Bharat have often been jailed or deported because of petty visa offences; a matter which has been taken up by UJAS over the years. By and large, the tendency of the Bharatiya government, both at the centre and state has been to push migrants back into Pakistan. Under the BJP government, there has been some sympathy for them; however there is no legal mechanism for them to rent a home, receive healthcare, gas/water/electricity/telephone connections, obtain a driver’s licence, buy a mobile SIM card or set up a business in their name. Basically, the Pakistani Hindu migrants have no identity nor a country to call their own even though they regard Bharat as their natural homeland.

Shri Sodha has personally led many protests and movements in the past in order to stop the deportation of many Hindus to Pakistan by the Bharatiya government. His efforts have led to some 20,000 migrants securing Bharat’s citizenship in the past. A highly respected figure in Rajasthan, he has spent the best years of his life advocating for change in laws in order to accommodate the persecuted Hindus, who were often detained without trial. “The authorities should penalize migrants after proper investigation if they actually commit offences,” he says. “But to detain them endlessly or deport them back with their families to a hell where they will be harassed and raped is crime against humanity!”

Ashok Suthar, a development professional who has been working for the migrants informed that most of them had little idea about the modalities involved with Indian visa extensions; and could little afford the long wait to get citizenship. Shri Ashok is himself a recent migrant from Pakistan and is waiting in the queue to become an Indian citizen. He has deep knowledge about the issues of the Dhaati people who live in the desert region of Pakistan which is contiguous with the desert of Bharat. Most of the migrants streaming into Bharat are Dhaatis who speak a dialect that is similar to Sindhi and Rajasthani.

While we all deliberated at the UJAS office, a historic bill was being debated in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the Indian Parliament) — the Citizenship Amendment Bill which would fast-track the citizenship applications of minorities suffering religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh — the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis and Jains.

Until now, the eligible migrants had to wait for a minimum of seven years in order to obtain citizenship. The new bill sought to reduce the wait to five years and to not criminalize those who were overstaying their visas. We caught some glimpses of the debate and cheered when the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. Now, it remained for the bill to be passed by the Upper House. Citizenship for the migrants would make them eligible for all the subsidies and benefits that poor citizens of Bharat are entitled to.

I got the chance to visit a number of government-operated homeless shelters in the city of Jodhpur. Thanks to the efforts of UJAS, many of these shelters are taking in a large number of Hindu refugees from Pakistan. These are essentially large halls in which the homeless spend their nights while during the day, they try to make a living as vendors or other miscellaneous work.

Along with my husband, I also visited the Anganwad basti (settlement) at the edge of the city on desert land where a large number of Pakistani Hindu families who migrated in the last five years are living in huts. Most of them are struggling to make ends meet. The sun was setting when I reached the basti; the men had still not returned from work; it was all quiet in the huts.

A child looks on at the Anganwad Basti in Jodhpur; Photo Sahana Singh

UJAS has helped to provide every household with a sewing machine which is enabling them to gain some income from sewing. I met some enterprising boys who are well-trained in operating the machines and executing small tailoring orders.

At Anganwad Basti in Jodhpur, migrants are taught how to use sewing machines.

UJAS is also helping to run classes in which children of different ages groups are being taught by dedicated teachers. It was clear that the children were loving their classes and had a close bond with the teachers.

It was a surreal experience to sit down and talk to the migrants. The sun had set and light was fading. I scanned the faces of the people sitting around me and wondered how the hardships in their lives had changed them. I asked if they were excited about the Citizenship Amendment Bill which had been passed in Lok Sabha earlier that day and they answered in the affirmative. “Modi ji and Hindu Singh ji are like Gods for us,” said one elder. It struck me that so many of us had taken our Indian citizenship for granted; we did not even think about it but here were people who would cherish it as their most precious gift if they got it.

A touching moment came when a young girl from the basti sang a patriotic song she had learnt at the government school she went to.

Is mitti mein paida hona badi garv ki baat hain,

Saahas aur veerta hamari purkhon ki saugat hain

[It is an honour to be born in this soil,

Courage and heroism are the legacy left behind by our ancestors]

My heart was full as I reflected on all the horrors that her community has gone through and the courage with which they were living each day.

A young man from the basti, Ram Singh came forward to sing some beautiful bhajans and geets. When he lived in Pakistan, he used to accompany his uncle who was a professional singer. I wondered if it was possible for him to be invited to perform during satsangs and pujas in Bharat. Perhaps, the video I have recorded will help him to gain visibility. Pakistani Hindus have preserved some of the old songs in Sindhi and Gujarati that are now forgotten in Bharat. That is why it is so important to document those songs by encouraging singers like Ram Singh.

I also met a young boy in the basti who has been practising martial arts and gymnastics simply by watching youtube videos on this mobile. He picked up the basic skills from Arya Samaj. The basti residents told me that every evening he gathered other children in a vacant area near the camp and taught his skills to them. I was impressed with his passion and dedication. It is so easy to be despondent when one lives in poverty but here was a child teaching us adults about how to be positive and find some way to learn and teach a subject of one’s choice.

On the next day, I went with the head of UJAS’s design team Sangeeta Aidasani to meet women from the Pakistani Hindu migrant community who had been organized into a group for developing skills in handicrafts. Most of the women are good with embroidery and are experts in different kinds of threadwork. Traditionally, they are not conditioned to sell their work since most of their art goes into crafting wedding trousseaus and quilts for their daughters.

UJAS is helping them to adopt a commercial approach and prepare samples of their work to display at textile exhibitions around Bharat. Already these women are realizing the power of earning their own money by working for a few hours every day. I heard stories laced with humour of how the women had to find their way around demanding mothers-in-law and husbands.

With a collaboration between Ishwar Sewa Foundation and UJAS, it will soon be possible for artisan women from the Hindu migrant communities to execute large orders, which can help them to become active, contributing members of the Bharatiya economy.

I also visited the carpenter community of artisan migrants who have been organized into groups and are producing a variety of products. Ishwar Sewa Foundation will soon be working with them to popularize their products and sell them to a large clientele in America. The head of the artisans presented me with a beautiful tray that took my breath away.

Perhaps the most memorable part of my trip to Jodhpur was its sheer timeliness. On my last day there, when voting was going on in Rajya Sabha for the Citizenship Amendment Bill (after it had already been passed by the Lok Sabha) I stopped everything and went to Shri Sodha’s house and watched the proceedings live on TV! From the past two days, journalists had besieged Shri Sodha to get quotes on everything related to the bill — the history of the Hindu migration from Pakistan, the legal quagmire of citizenship and the tortured path of advocacy. The phones rang non-stop. I felt anxious. What if the opposition parties united together in Parliament that day and decided to block the bill? What if the hopes of the Hindu migrants were crushed?

“The voting can go either way,” said my ever-realist husband.

I steeled myself.

Then came the moment when the parliamentarians voted on the bill or #CAB as it was being tagged in social media. 125 votes were in favour of the bill and 105 were against it — the bill was all set to become an Act! I looked at Shri Sodha’s face to see how he was reacting. How does a man who has been toiling for a lifetime react when a major objective of his labour is met?

There was silence.

For a second, I fell into confusion. Did the bill just get passed or was it just a dream? Why was Hindu ji so silent?

“Where are the sweets?” I almost shouted. “We must celebrate! Where are the sweets?”

“Yes yes we must celebrate!” said Shri Sodha, coming out of his disbelief. The sweets arrived and we all rushed to do the traditional “moonh meetha karna”. How could such a sweet moment not be celebrated with sweets in proper Bharatiya tradition!

On the next day, a large number of Hindu migrants from the Anganwad basti including the women came to thank Shri Hindu Singh Sodha. The media persons from various papers and TV channels were there too. When I arrived from my hotel, the women were already garlanding their hero. Sweets were being distributed. Some of Hindu ji’s fame rubbed off on me and journalists began to interview me. I wanted to be a bystander but the journalists were curious to know what I was doing there. At one point, I found myself being garlanded too! We all stood there congratulating each other; it was like being victorious in a battle.

I watched and recorded as an India Today journalist interviewed Shri Sodha on his reactions to the historic Act. It felt as if I had inadvertently become a part of history.

Reactions to my posts were pouring on Twitter and Facebook. People told me to hashtag #CAA since the Bill had become an Act.

All of us knew that an important milestone had been reached but the challenge of resettling the refugees and giving them a meaningful life of dignity still remains.

My trip has shown the potential for Ishwar Sewa Foundation to make a huge impact on the Hindu migrants settled in Rajasthan by working with a professionally-run grassroots-level organization. We will soon be inviting Shri Hindu Singh Sodha on a speaking tour to the US when he will share the stories of his journey and how the Indian diaspora can contribute to mainstreaming the migrants into the economy and world culture. Stay tuned.

-by Sahana Singh

(This article was published on on January 29, 2020 and has been reproduced here.)

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