Sikh, Hindu refugees from Afghanistan torn between identity and livelihood in India
Narendra Modi government’s proposed legislation seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to grant Indian citizenship to people from minority communities -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians -- from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India instead of 12 even if they don’t possess any proper document.Updated: Jan 13, 2019 19:14 IST
Every couple of months Surveer Singh, who fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, is torn between identity and livelihood.
And his dilemma between fulfilling requirements for citizenship of his “natural homeland”, India, and holding on to a stable job refuses to end even after 27 years.
The 33-year-old, who, along with his family of four, lives in Amritsar, says he is struggling to stay afloat as every other month he has to visit government offices and cut through red tape to continue living in his “natural homeland”.
Surveer Singh’s family had been living in Afghanistan’s restive Nangarhar province before his parents decided to move to India in 1992, when a wave of Hindus and Sikhs left Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the USSR and the arrival of Mujahideens.
Being the sole bread-winner of the family, Surveer Singh, who earns his livelihood doing odd jobs, says though his family migrated to India at the same time, every person in his family has their visas and refugee certificates issued on different dates.
As their citizenship application is caught in a bureaucratic maze, they need to visit government offices on a regular basis to maintain their papers. They have pleaded with several political leaders for getting the Indian citizenship but all they have got is assurances, he says.
“Since the papers expire every 12 months, I have to visit New Delhi once in two or three months along with one of my family members for renewals,” Surveer Singh said, adding that he is sick of his shaky status in India.
It is already very difficult to find a job as no one wants to employ refugees. Even if one secures a job, often low-paying ones, the need to visit New Delhi every other month frustrates employers who then look for staffers who need leave less, he said.
The plight of immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan seeking to renew long-term visas and refugee certificates does not end here. They also have to find two Indian citizens who are ready to become their guarantors.
“After hearing that we are from Afghanistan, no one readies to become our guarantor. We continue to be nowhere people,” he says.
However, the Narendra Modi government’s push for the Citizenship Amendment Bill has rekindled hopes of Surveer Singh and thousands of other refugees from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The proposed legislation seeks to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 to grant Indian citizenship to people from minority communities -- Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians -- from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan after six years of residence in India instead of 12 even if they don’t possess any proper document.
“I request the government to pass the Bill as soon as possible,” Surveer Singh said.
Like him, Saran Singh said he wants a dignified life.
The 50-year-old, who left his properties worth crores of rupees in Pakistan and reached Punjab in 1999 along with his family, says they were treated as “second-class citizens” in Pakistan.
He lived in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency where militancy and religious persecution are rampant.
He said militants would often coerce him and his family to convert to Islam if they want to be alive. So many women were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.
“No one wants to marry our daughters and sons as people become suspicious once they get to know that we are from Pakistan. People say since you do not have the Indian citizenship, what would happen if the government decides to deport you? What would happen to the marriage?” said Saran.
“We escaped religious persecution in Pakistan and reached India, our natural homeland, but here we are entangled in red tape and bureaucratic hurdle. Sometimes officials ask us to renew our Pakistani passports for which we have to risk our lives to visit Pakistan and get the papers issued,” Saran said.
“When we were living in Pakistan, locals would say you are not Pakistanis as you are Hindus and Sikhs, and you must go to your country. While living in India, people say you are from Pakistan,” Saran said.
He requested the government to give them citizenship as soon as possible as the pain of living in India as refugees has been taking a huge toll on their lives.
“We have been facing a lot of hardships in our daily lives as one needs Aadhaar and voter identity cards for any work,” Saran said.
In the absence of papers, many refugees are even unable to educate their children, he claimed.
The condition of refugees living in Punjab is worse as compared to those living in New Delhi as every time they apply for citizenship, their file gets stuck on the way and never reaches the capital.
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One of the biggest hurdles for the Pakistani refugees seeking the Indian citizenship is lack of paperwork. The government asks them to establish that their grandparents or parents were born in undivided India, Saran said.
“Finding proof that our grandparents or parents lived in undivided India is like finding a needle in haystack,” he said.
From a vibrant population of 2.20 lakh in Afghanistan, the number of Hindus and Sikhs have now come down to 5,000 now, according to estimates of India security agencies.
The refugees have now pinned their hope on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, whose approval in pending in Rajya Sabha. They say the opposition parties should not protest against the bill and ensure its safe passage on humanitarian grounds.
“It is our last hope of leading a dignified life,” one of them says.
First Published: Jan 13, 2019 19:02 IST