Religious persecution and constant fear for their lives are making Pakistani Hindus leave their homes for an uncertain life as refugees in Rajasthan. Nisha Susan reports. Images by Shailendra Pandey
THE REFUGEES DON’T call them the Taliban but they say the tablighis used to visit their homes every month. “They give you false promises of wealth, of their daughters in marriage. They tell us that we will go to hell if we don’t convert,” says Ajmal Ram, a 23-yearold Pakistani refugee, one of the 1,000- odd who arrive in India every year.
Every month a couple of Hindu families (of the 2.44 lakh Hindus in Pakistan) leave the land where they and their parents had been born, to seek refuge, in India. Each one talks of feeling watched, being pushed further into their homes. They celebrate their festivals as quietly as possible or not at all. They pray behind closed doors and many have considered giving their children Muslim first names, except that even that might attract violence. Riding in public transportation is a fraught event because someone might decide that Hindus should sit with them.
‘In Pakistan even inside our homes we feared for our lives. Here we sleep soundly at night’
PRITAM AND PYAARI, Fled over a year ago
PRITAM ONCE WORKED in a gynaecologist’s clinic in Pakistan’s Punjab province acting as the doctor’s general factotum. Their fears of living in the land they were born in came from rumours of attacks against Hindus. They were afraid to buy more than what was absolutely necessary at the grocery store because they didn’t want to attract the attention of those who looted and killed Hindus. Then a Muslim accused Pritam of having an affair with his wife and publicly threatened to shoot him. It was the last straw. They spent their savings in getting a visa to India.
‘It’s difficult here but we can’t think of going back to Pakistan. We could never keep our children safe’
AJMAL RAM, Arrived this year
WITHIN YEARS OF each other two young children in Ajmal’s family disappeared. When they reappeared as ‘willing converts’ to Islam the parents were not allowed to take them home. Ajmal’s family did not even dare to speak to the police. They moved to India in the hope of a freer life. Four months ago Ajmal was suddenly rendered the only breadwinner for the large clan. His brother and father had broken visa regulations by going to Bikaner to visit relatives. They have been in jail since then.
‘Hindus are not considered human beings in Pakistan. They have no respect for us’
RAJURAM, Arrived this month
THERE IS NO future for Hindus in Pakistan,” says 25-year-old Rajuram. His younger brother Munna does not speak much but nods in agreement. In Pakistan, the brothers were agricultural labourers who had to move as often as six times a year in search of better landlords. “In Pakistan, there is no point in Hindus going to school or trying for government jobs,” says Munna. “Hindus are afraid of sending their children to school because we didn’t want our children to be spotted by the Muslims. If our children are seen doing well they would make them disappear,” says Rajuram.
JEEOBHAI, Arrived last year
JEEOBHAI’S SON WAS 13 when he disappeared. After frantic days she found him in a neighbour’s home. Her son was Muslim now, she was told. The police ignored her complaints and the protests her community organised. She did not see her son until he came home as an adult. The family moved to India hoping that living among Hindus would ‘cure’ her son but he returned to Pakistan within months.
KABIR RAM AND RANI, Arrived in October
WE WANT TO be able to celebrate our festivals openly,” says Kabir Ram. He is too old to work, his wife is deaf and he is not sure how many years it will take his children to get visas to come to India. But he has no regrets about the move. “Every last Hindu family in my village is trying to get visas to move to India”.
Every refugee has a story of forced conversion they witnessed. Women and young children have disappeared only to reappear as ‘converts’. The parents attempting to get their children back are thwarted by a society that sees them as non-Muslims first. “We stopped sending our children to school. If they were spotted doing well we would lose them to the Tablighis,” is a constant refrain.
They have lived with public contempt for being ‘bhoot-worshippers’. (There is some irony in this because the refugees are almost entirely Bhils and Meghwals whose deity is Baba Ramdev, the 14th century saint. Baba Ramdev or Ramshah Pir is venerated by Muslims on both sides of the border.) They have lived for decades wearing their faith as invisibly as possible. But now it seems like they cannot be invisible enough.
The persecution deepened the poverty the families have suffered over generations. Work as agricultural labour was plentiful in their fertile villages but the Bhils rarely had an assured future. The Meghwals, most of whom have family trades such as shoe-making, told themselves that success would make them noticed and hence vulnerable.
‘If our children were spotted doing well we would lose them to the Tablighis,’ is the refrain
The refugees usually spend years trying to get a short-term Indian visa, trekking from their distant villages (usually in Rahim Yar Khan district in Pakistan’s Punjab province) to Islamabad. Each family has stories of living in the Krishna temple in Islamabad, of pleading to the Indian High Commission staff (Aren’t you Hindus too?) When they finally board the Thar Express that takes them from Pakistan to Rajasthan, they carry little more than their clothes.
Pakistani Hindus have lived for decades wearing their faith as invisibly as possible
The Indian relatives they have never seen (but have been corresponding with) have already told them it will take them years of hardships to become a citizen. Until then the Indian government will give them nothing but will insist that they stay put in one town — usually Bikaner or Jodhpur. But nothing stems the growing exodus. Each family talks of the dozens more in Pakistan struggling to escape.
“Our fathers may have lived as slaves in Pakistan but we can’t,” said Rawat Ram, a 23-year-old who was a promising college student but is now a tailor in Jodhpur. Others chafe at the current restrictions on their lives. Even decade-old settlements have no water or electricity The government is open to granting them citizenship and concurrent benefits if they wait out the decade required. The refugees have no intention of returning to Pakistan. Meanwhile staying alive, is still a challenge.