Citizenship Act: Escaping religious persecution, the ‘broken’ finally break free

With no identification papers and sans rights to jobs and livelihood, the religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan lived in shanties and slums all over India.
Hindu refugees from Pakistan were unable to control their emotions and celebrated the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, at Majnu-ka-tilla (MKT), in New Delhi on Thursday.
Hindu refugees from Pakistan were unable to control their emotions and celebrated the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, at Majnu-ka-tilla (MKT), in New Delhi on Thursday.

They had escaped to India from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to escape religious persecution and indignity, lived decades here but had been refused equality. With no identification papers and sans rights to jobs and livelihood, they lived in shanties and slums all over India.

Their near apocalyptic state, however, turned to hope last week as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act finally helped them ‘break free’. For these thousands of pariah Hindus, India is now home…

Time: 10.36 PM. Day: December 11, 2019, Wednesday

In the small 5X4 mud and brick room in a ramshackle shanty- in which people and utensils jostle for space and breath-the small colour TV on a three-legged stool-balanced on one side with old newspapers- had virtually lain besieged the day through. A huge whoopee at 11 pm, broke the reverie. The still, grim-faced crowd of some 13 people, some inside the room, rented by Nainabati-some standing close and outside- finally broke into laughs and guffaws- suddenly spirited. One fetched a brass plate and ‘stole’ the pestle and started hitting it like mad as if it were a temple gong. Others joined. Then emerged the swell of people, crossing over 200 in under 7 minutes. ‘Jaikaras’ followed-‘Hindustan Zindabad,’ the refrain taken up again, and again, and again…   

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Majnu ka Tila, hugging the banks of the Yamuna near Kashmere Gate had suddenly come alive. This is where in some hundred–odd clusters of around 10-14 families each-over 750 persons who repatriated themselves from Pakistan have resided for long. The cause for celebration was given by Home Minister Amit Shah when the BJP-led Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019 was passed late evening, Wednesday.
“Akhir mein Bharat ke ho gaye (finally I am an Indian), sighed Sita Devi, 29, a Hindu refugee who migrated from Hyderabad province of Pakistan. “I wish to forget the nightmare which assailed us through our existence there. I have erased all memories,” she says.

‘I can recite Gita’

“Yahan sab apne hain, sabka haal barabar hai (here we are together-all equal). I don’t regret leaving the land of my birth. I am a Hindu. I belong to Hindustan. Here, I have religious freedom. I can recite the Gita and visit temples,” adds Sita. Nainabati, 27, recollects that her maternal and husband’s family were farmers, owned land and pucca houses in Karachi. “What they lacked was a sense of belonging.”
She adds: “We may have had land, some wealth. But what’s that if there’s no freedom. One day my family took courage, packed bags and made its way to Delhi.”

It’s the first time that the ‘bustee’ (settlement) has seen some cheer. They danced. Somebody procured a few crackers to celebrate. The people here who have survived with odd jobs as labourers, rickshaw-pullers, vegetable sellers in the absence of citizenship papers-just danced and danced into the night.

“We are finally in,” said one.

Though few have any idea about what the Bill means, they “only hope that we will not have to show up at police stations any longer.”Some 350 km out West, thousands in Jodhpur celebrated the passage of the Bill. Amidst shouts of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, they hailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi, distributed sweets and exchanged garlands to express their happiness.

Hindu Singh Sodha, President of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, working for the Pakistan Hindus in Rajasthan said, “Three years ago the government had issued directives to collectors to mainstream us but nothing happened, lost as it was in the bureaucratic maze. Now it will.”

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‘No more a foreigner’

Wearing dozens of garlands, Sodha said, “It’s like a dream come true. There are 25,000 Pakistan Hindus who crossed over, of whom 18,000 are registered with Foreigners Registration Office (FRO). Most are extremely poor and been waiting years for citizenship.”Many Pakistan migrants belong to SC/ST category. They hope, now they can avail of benefits for such sections. Among them is Deepa, a class XII student in Jodhpur. Earlier she would have had to wait 12 years, while the Bill has cut down the wait to 6 years. “I want to be a doctor. With reservation and special benefits, I hope I can be one and serve the society,” she said.

Ashok Suttar and family came in 2013 but was unable to buy property.

“We finally have a home,” he said, even as Chetan Das Meghwal, a teacher in Pakistan who has waited 19 years is sad that his daughter Devi, who graduated in engineering from Hissar, could not get a job for lack of citizenship and committed suicide out of frustration.

Hem Ji who came from Mirpur Khas five years ago said, “I am not worried about my children anymore. My wife Ganga and five children are now Indians.”

Manna in the desert

In the desert stretches of Bikaner, Barmer and Jaisalmer, thousands of migrants lighted candles over CAB. In Gangana and Aloksar, Chikha, Kali beri, Aangarwa, Banar and Dali Bai Mandir villages, many of them are engaged as artisans and in the farming, mining and handicraft sectors.

Among them are businessmen who believe they can now expand and commute to Delhi and Mumbai freely for trade.

Noor Ji Bheel at Dali Bai was a qualified doctor in Pakistan but since 2004, when he came in, he has been unable to practice. He was embroiled in a case for practicing and has been unable to resolve it still. His wife and parents are citizens though.

There were similar scenes of joy in the Barak Valley, Hilakandi and Cachar districts in Assam, where Hindu Bangladeshis rejoiced. Nabadwip Das had come during the Bangladesh Liberation War from Bhanugach in Sylhet district.

“I feel the problem will end now and my children will be Indians”, he said.

Biswajit Nath who is from Karimganj said he was born there but neither he nor his family members, figure in the NRC. “We have a new life due to CAB,” he said.

There are many such Hindu and Sikhs who have come in from Pakistan and Afghanistan and are settled in Punjab and Haryana for 10 to 25 years. In Jalandhar, which hosts some 187 families, Ashok Kumar, 45, who works for a sports goods manufacturer, is happy.

“I came with my parents in 1999. We have faced hardships, but it’s over now,” he said.

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No more police calls

Sukbir Singh who works as a scrap dealer had come in 1995.

“I got my sister married in Patiala but every year we have to get permits renewed from Delhi and report to police to extend our stay.”

For the 250 families in Elenabad, Hobli, Haripura, Neemla and Mameran villages of Sirsa in Haryana, the ‘CAB has come as a boon.’

Most had migrated from Pakistan’s Rahim Yar Khan and Bahawalpur areas.

“I came in 1997 from Pakistan’s Punjab. My father died six months back. We do not have bank accounts, Aadhar or any document, which would allow us to work. Hope the nightmare is over,” said Surta Ram.

For 40 families settled in Rohtak’s Bari Banu, Kahnor and Mandina villages and work as menials and labourers, the CAB means they ‘can breathe independence.’ 

“We were lost and tortured souls but have now been found,” said Prakash, who came in 2004.

Leaving Kabul climes

Surpal Singh Khalsa said. “Only 300 Sikh families reside now in Kabul, Ghazni and Jalalabad and there are only 1,500 such left in all of Afghanistan. Rest migrated to India.”

His family came with 70 other families after his father was killed in a blast in Kabul.

“There, we were called Indians; here we are known as Afghans. That ends now,” he added.

81-year old Nand Kishore, taken to Pakistan by Abdul Qadir-a Muslim landlord of Deoria- at partition time and converted, is happy. He came back to Rudrapur of Udham Singh Nagar in 1974 and has been awaiting citizenship.

“I am an Indian in soul and spirit. I didn’t know what to prove and how to before CAB came,” he said.

The migrants in Uttarakhand, mostly residing in Haridwar, Dehradun and US Nagar have clung to life with odd jobs and with charity.

There are 2,000 such households like Laxman Sharma’s who migrated from Khaira of Sindh and now live in Haridwar. He writes for an Urdu newspaper and does manual labour when not selling vegetables.

“We can now be free of fear and hunger,” he said.

Kavita Sharma left Battagram in Pakistan to avoid forced conversion and marriage after her uncle Jagdish was killed for resisting it. She is happy to be in “my country” to live sans fear of deportation 24/7.

Persecution passé

People in Race Course area of Dehradun like Sanjeev Vij, 52, arrived in 1996. “We were persecuted there and forcibly converted. Hindus were objects, not people In Pakistan. Now we have dignity,” he added.

There are some 20,000 migrants from Pakistan in Indore. Among them is Indira Bai, 70, who came in 2011.

“Now I hope to be a legal Indian citizen,” she said.

BJP MP Shankar Lalwani who has been helping Hindu refugees from Pakistan said, “Now that the bill is passed, the exodus of Hindus from Pakistan to India could intensify to escape the unimaginable persecution there.”

The mood among the ‘bitter’ and broken Pakistani Hindu community throughout India’s towns is of relief and the sense of finally breaking free from darkness and into light. 

( INPUTS: Somrita Ghosh-Delhi, Rajesh Asnani-Jaipur, Harpreet Bajwa-Chandigarh, Anuraag Singh-Bhopal, Vineet Upadhyay-Dehradun, Prasanta Mazumdar-Guwahati )

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