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Neglected by India, Hindu refugees return to danger

June 21, 2022
topics: Refugees and Asylum
by: Hanan Zaffar, Shaheen Abdullah
located in: India, Pakistan
tags: BJP, Hindu, India, Pakistan, refugees

Last year, more than 800 persecuted Hindu migrants returned back to Pakistan after failing to get citizenship in India. This came amid tall promises by the Indian government to work for the benefit of Hindus from neighbouring countries.

In 2000, Noor became a doctor, after graduating from Pakistan’s Sindh University - a rare accomplishment in his community, Bheel, which is an underprivileged 'lower caste' group composed mostly of peasants. 

But soon, he began receiving threats urging him to "convert to Islam" by certain men in his city. Forceful conversion to Islam by religious fanatics in Pakistan is not something unheard of.

"I am a Hindu. I faced religious persecution and I took my family and left Pakistan in 2004," says Noor, who now goes by the name Noorji Hindu Bheel, in order to project his religious identity. 

He left Sanghar, his original home in the Sindh province of Pakistan, and moved to Jodhpur, a border district in India’s Rajasthan state. With confidence that his medical degree would fetch him a livelihood, Noor brought all of his family to India to start a new life. 

Noor is among thousands of Pakistani Hindus who left their country in order to escape religious persecution and obtain Indian citizenship - an assurance often repeated by the leaders of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But Noor claims that persecuted Hindus like him get no respite in India. 

His application for citizenship has been rejected three times - in 2012, 2015 and 2018 -  with no clarification, which made him rethink his decision to migrate. Worse yet, Noor was booked for practicing as a doctor in 2018 and currently has two cases against him with accusations of being a "quack." 

"I am almost 50 years old now. But it seems that my life hasn’t begun yet," laments the father of four.

According to Seemant Lok Sangathan (SLS), a group advocating for the rights of Pakistani minority migrants in India, more than 800 persecuted Hindu migrants returned to Pakistan last year after they failing to get citizenship in India. As per SLS, there is no proper "legal framework" to absorb them in India.

"They have become victims on both sides of the border," Hindu Singh Sodha, president of SLS, told FairPlanet. As he views it, it is a lack of adequate policy that is driving these migrants to return to a place where they are still "vulnerable."

"People have to wait for 20 years in the hope of settling here. It means another generation has arrived and still they have no homeland," he added. 

Unknown wait times and indefinite family separations are two major reasons for people to return to Pakistan; but migrants maintain it is not a safe move.

"We discourage them from going back [to Pakistan]. But they have little hope that they will have a life here," Sodha said.

Once they arrive in India, migrants have to go through a slew of bureaucratic hurdles. They must seek an extension of visa from a Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO) and renew it from time to time.

According to Indian law, to acquire Indian citizenship a person has to be a resident of India for seven years and have had a parent born in undivided India - the period before the India-Pakistan partition in 1947. Otherwise, they need to have stayed in India for at least 12 years to submit an application. 

The law then requires a background clearance by law enforcement agencies which may take years to complete, as the law does not stipulate a specific time frame for the procedure.

The Indian government admits that as many as 10,635 applications for citizenship were pending with the Ministry of Home Affairs as of 14 December 2021; 7,306 of the applicants were from Pakistan.

Precarious situation, indefinite wait

Even though India’s ruling BJP has been positioning itself as a 'saviour party' for Hindus in the region, its tall political promises are but "hollow slogans," as per the migrants.

The controversial 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the BJP - which intended to "fast-track" the naturalisation process for certain migrants from persecuted communities, including Hindus from the three neighbouring countries (including Pakistan) - has yet to come into force. 

Sodha of SLS claims that more than 80,000 Pakistani Hindus continue to live in the northern states of India as refugees. They live in illegal settlements with no facilities, while Indian civic bodies regard them as "outsiders" and all but neglect them. 

"They have to be residents of India to be eligible to apply. But governments don’t bother with how they live during that period," Sodha pointed out. Migrants also need permission to travel, which exacerbates their distress.

Hemji, another persecuted Hindu from Pakistan who came to India in 2012, said that authorities fail to provide even basic amenities to them.

"They have not even provided pipelines for clean water, even though we have a water plant nearby," Hemji, who lives in a shabby migrant settlement in Jodhpur, told FairPlanet. "There is no school, medical facility or power supply. All we hear is political promises."

Hemji lost his brother last year due to COVID-19, and had to take two jobs to provide for both families. He says he has stopped renewing passports and visas, as he can no longer afford the fees.

"We have to review our passport annually, and it will cost me everything I saved," he added.

"The permission to travel outside the state may take six months and we can’t afford to break any law which will hamper our clearance from the agencies," said Prem Chand Bheel, a Pakistani born Hindu who recently got Indian citizenship after a tedious 16 year struggle.

Upon receiving his citizenship in 2021, Chand Bheel had to apply for his children, who were born in Pakistan.

"It is a tough procedure. I had to wait for my parents to get citizenship to apply for my citizenship and now I have to get it done for my kids because they were born in Pakistan,” said Chand Bheel, criticising the government for putting distressed people through such a "painstaking procedure."

"All we hear is political promises."

“Caste” Dynamics

Refugees also say they face discrimination due to their social background.

Most Pakistani Hindus who arrive in India come from underprivileged communities like Bheel, Meghwar, Baghris and Kolhi. The majority of people from these communities belong to lower castes - a term used to describe social groups at the lower stratum of Hinduism’s stringent class-based hierarchy. These groups have been traditionally discriminated by the people of dominant and privileged castes.

"We have to wait for years to get citizenship, while upper-caste Hindu migrants will get their procedure done in months," said Chand Bheel. 

The children of these migrants, who are qualified to attend colleges in India, have to apply as a foreigner with exorbitant fees, while people from a similar community in India get special scholarship due to their social background. 

"They have camps and rehabilitation schemes for Kashmiri Pandits . But we have never been given anything by the government. Al least gives us refugee status," he added.

"We had one problem [in Pakistan]. Now we have five new problems here," Chand Bheel told FairPlanet.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had also initiated an online citizenship application process in 2018. It instructs officials in seven states to accept online applications to grant citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Jain and Buddhists from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

But migrants complain that they are still asked to appear in-person to submit documents.

"We have waited for decades now. I can’t leave India and look for other countries now. It's very late for us as we have exhausted all our savings while waiting here. This was supposed to be our home," lamented Noor.

Change needed in Refugee Policy

Before contesting the election in 2014, BJP announced a Ghar Wapasi (Homecoming) campaign, positioning India as a place of refuge for persecuted Hindus across the world.

But Hindu migrants, who had good faith in Narendra Modi’s government, are disappointed, as no substantial change has been effected during the party's seven years in power.

"It will become a political tool for the next election. Meanwhile, they [have not even implemented] the current laws," said Sodha.

The perception that India is "enthusiastic to receive Hindus" makes the plight of Hindu migrants receive less attention. UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) is yet to consider Pakistani Hindus in India as "refugees," claimed Sodha. 

Human rights groups, however, argue that the solution is not to implement the latest amendment to the Citizenship law, which is protested widely for being exclusionary based on religious identity.

"Even CAA has a cut-off date. India needs to have a better response to asylum seekers. We have been suspicious about people coming from outside and there is a failure in coordination between security agencies and civil servants," said Aakar Patel, chair of Amnesty International India.

Although India is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, the prohibition of refoulement has become an international norm that experts feel India is bound to respect.

"They are promised many things, but they get nothing," said Patel of the migrants, accusing the government of "gross incompetence."

Neelkanth, a senior leader of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, refused to comment on the plight of Hindu migrants from Pakistan. "I am not aware of the party’s position. We have not been given any official communication," Neelkanth told FairPlanet.  

India’s treatment of Rohingya refugees and their hasty deportations to Myanmar in recent years has also drawn international criticism. 

An official at UNHCR India said they will respond to the FairPlanet’s questions on the situation of Hindu migrants from Pakistan over an email. The story will be updated once we receive a response.

Image by UN Women/Allison Joyce

Article written by:
Hanan Zaffar
Hanan Zaffar
Author
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Shaheen Abdulla
Shaheen Abdullah
Author
India Pakistan
A Hindu refugee from Pakistan shows her now-expired Indian visa page on her passport during a demonstration outside the UN office in New Delhi.
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Indian people protest against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register in New Delhi, India.
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