Seven-year-old Bindiya loves Holi. “We played a lot with the pichkari. What did you do?” the resident of Bheel basti in Jodhpur’s Kali Beri area, that houses around 125 families of Pakistani-Hindu migrants from Sindh and the Rehmiyar Khan district in Punjab, asks me. For these returnees, Holi is special, a reminder that they are in their ‘own’ land.
The porous Rajasthan border has been the principal entry point for Pakistani Hindu migrants. Most of them are from Sindh, home to an overwhelming majority of Pakistan’s 25 lakh Hindus. The steady trickle that began with the Partition and continued through the 1965 and 1971 wars has now threatens to become a flood.
Since the 90s, especially after the riots in Pakistan following the Babri Masjid demolition, an estimated one lakh migrants have come to India. “Every year, we see a thousand-odd Hindus, mostly tribals, crossing over owing to ‘religious persecution’,” reports Hindu Singh Sodha of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, an NGO working with the displaced communities in Rajasthan’s border areas for the past two decades.
Jodhpur alone has 5,000 or more of these recent migrants, who have applied for Indian citizenship but have no idea when, and if, it’ll be granted. By 2005, Sodha helped around 13,000 of these migrants get citizenship. The rest, scattered across western Rajasthan in Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bikaner and Ganganagar, claim to be in a ‘nowhere land’ since they aren’t sure whether they can go back to Pakistan.
Most of these migrants claim origins in India: in the 1900s, their grandfathers migrated from villages around Jodhpur and Jaisalmer to work as agricultural labourers in Sindh and Punjab, and stayed on.
However, the linkages were always alive: 60-year-old Sugnaram Bheel of Jodhpur’s Ramdev Nagar arrived about ten years back. “My cousins were always here, but my father went to Pakistan for majdoori (labour). I had to come back, but now that I am here, they won’t let me go back to pick up my dead mother’s ashes,” says Sugnaram, of the Bheel-Meghwar tribal community which forms a majority of Pakistan’s Hindu population.
In the anti-Hindu backlash, the tribals, most of whom are unskilled, bonded labourers, found that the existing caste hierarchies had compounded their misery.
And then they started to escape. Three teenaged brothers are lodged at the Ramgarh police station in Jaisalmer, caught while trying to cross the border on August 15 last year. “We were sold by our relatives to a Muslim landlord; he would give us food once a day and make us work. There was no choice but to cross the fence,” says Bhagwanram, 18, one of the three Bheel boys now waiting for clearance from the home ministry to stay put in Jaisalmer.
For better, or for worse
It may not have been that harrowing for everyone, but it’s a life few want to turn back to.
Thirty-something Ranaji of Kali Beri, who followed his cousin Gomand Lal, is now applying for an extension for his one-month visa to India and wants to stay back. His wife was forcibly converted to Islam a few months back, which is why he fled with his two kids. “The maulvis wanted us to convert,” says Ranaji, pointing to the temple site at the Kali Beri settlement, where a lone flag of the Lord Ramdev flutters in the desert wind. Soon, a temple will come up, along with a pucca school, in his locality.
There are many like Ranaji streaming into India, citing “religious persecution” by fundamentalists in Pakistan, a fact that has been recorded in the 2007 annual report compiled by the human rights commission of Pakistan.
It’s a difficult life for these recent migrants. They hold visas that don’t allow them to travel outside Jodhpur — visas issued from Pakistan are route specific — and working in Jodhpur’s stone quarries is hardly an option. When they tried to venture out, their passports were seized.
While the MEA declined to comment on the issue, principal secretary of state, home department, S.N. Thanvi, says, “We have asked the home ministry to reduce the fees for citizenship [it’s gone up from Rs 3,000 to Rs 10,000], but the application is still pending. There are demands to decentralise the process, so that it is done at the district level [applicants have to travel to Delhi now]. These will be looked into.”
Meanwhile, life here has moved on for some. Twelve-year-old Raichand who has been living in a Bheel basti in Jaisalmer for the last 10 years, wants to go back and see what his birthplace is like. “Par ab lagta nahi ki jaa payenge (but it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to go),” he says. When asked why, the boy retorts, “Don’t you watch the news?”