Pakistani Hindu migrants rejoice Indian citizenship promise while Muslims protest

Pakistani Hindu migrants rejoice Indian citizenship promise while Muslims protest
Pakistani Hindu migrants rejoice Indian citizenship promise while Muslims protest

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Aarti Devi gazes at a life-size poster of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that adorns the wall of her shanty in a New Delhi makeshift camp for Pakistani Hindus, rocking her new-born daughter.

Nagrikta - meaning citizenship in Hindi- was named in tribute to India’s newest piece of legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act.

The legislation allows persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who arrived in the country from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015 to receive Indian citizenship without any documentation. The same rights will not be afforded to Muslims, however.

“When I learned Modi is giving us Indian citizenship, I was so happy that I named my daughter Nagrikta. I am Hindu and my heart always belonged here. Now, I will become an Indian citizen. It has only become possible because of Modi,” said an elated Ms Devi, 21, who gave birth to Nagrikta, her second child, just two days before the contentious legislation was passed in Indian parliament.

There is no government data on the number of Pakistani Hindu migrants currently living in India but local news sources estimate the number living in makeshift camps in various parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi to be in the tens of thousands.

"In Jodhpur, Rajasthan there are 25,000 Pakistani Hindu migrants but they are also in Gujarat, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and New Delhi," said Hindu Singh Sodha, an activist working for Pakistani refugees in India. "There are estimated to be between 40,000 and 50,000 migrants who crossed the border and will benefit from the legislation."

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan strongly criticised the Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi for excluding Muslim migrants from the legislation.

“India, under Modi, has been moving systematically with its Hindu supremacist agenda,” Mr Khan tweeted.

Muslims are a minority religious community in India, making up 172 million of the country’s 1.2 billion population. Since 2014, when Mr Modi came to power, there has been a spike in the attacks on Muslims.

According to Hate Crime Watch, a FactChecker database that tracks such crimes, nearly 91 per cent of hate crimes motivated by religious bias recorded in the decade between January 2009 and April 30, 2019, took place in the last five years, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.

The act became law after assent by President Ramnath Kovind late Thursday evening, amid violent protests in several parts of the country, including four deaths--two teenagers in police firing in north-eastern Assam state where students unions are protesting against the Act fearing it will give citizenship to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who have crossed the border since partition and Bangladesh's independence.

But the camp in Manju Ka Tilla, near a Tibetan refugee settlement in the capital city, hundreds of Pakistani Hindus rejoiced with distributing sweets, waving Indian flags, dancing and singing Indian patriotic songs.

“It is like a dream come true. We had never thought that one day we will become Indian citizens,” said Daulat Ram, another migrant at the Manju Ka Tilla camp where Ms Devi resides.

Nearly 600 Hindus from Hyderabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province came to Delhi by road and rail with valid pilgrimage visas over the last decade but never returned, fearing persecution in their states of origin.

More than 15 million people were uprooted following India's independence from Britain in 1947, which sparked months of violence in which at least a million people were killed for their faith.

Despite the exodus, Hindus remain one of Pakistan's largest religious minorities, making up around 1.6 per cent of the population. Around 90 per cent of the country’s 8 million Hindus in the Muslim-majority country live in Sindh province.

But migrants in the camp say Hindus face discrimination, alleged forced conversions and pressure to study Urdu and read the Quran.

Daulat Ram, 40, crossed the border in 2013 after allegedly facing pressures from Muslim clerics to convert to Islam. He worked in the fields in Pakistan but left his mother and five siblings behind for the future of his children.

Earlier this year, a video of two Hindu sisters from Sindh Province emerged accepting conversion to Islam and marrying Muslim men that led to riots in the province. In September, All-Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, a non-profit organisation, claimed another Hindu girl was allegedly abducted and converted to Islam in the province.

"These people have suffered a lot in Pakistan. They were persecuted there. They couldn't celebrate their festivals and were forced to convert to Islam. now they have a shelter and confidence to practice their religion in India,” Sandeep Gupta, an activist at NGO of impoverished children Nyay Path said.

“Life was tough in Pakistan. They never treated us equally. We worked on fields for Muslim landowners but they never paid us full wages,” Mr Ram said.

“There was no work opportunity for us, as Muslims would get all the jobs, even the educated Hindus would not get work.”

Mr Ram claims his community were forced to celebrate Hindu festivals in secret and his children were forced to study Urdu at school.

“Now my kids can happily live as Hindus and openly celebrate our festivals,” added the father of seven.

The Hindu migrants came in large clusters, first arriving in New Delhi in 2011 followed by waves of relatives and acquaintances over the next nine years. They renewed their long-term visas every five years in the hope of eventually becoming Indian citizens.

But life in India has not been easy.

After spending the first night camping on the side of the road in Delhi’s bone-chilling winter, the migrants were moved by Hindu groups to a makeshift camp in Majnu Ka Tilla on the floodplains of Yamuna river, where they continue to languish in abysmal conditions.

About 150 families live in tiny shanties erected using donated logs and woods, bricks from abandoned buildings and debris and asbestos roofs.

There is no electricity or running water, meaning people depend on government water tankers twice a day for all their needs. All the families share just six tolets between them.

During monsoon season, the camp regularly floods, leaving the camp uninhabitable.

Most of the families at the camp are from underprivileged Hindu castes who worked as farmers, fruit sellers or blacksmiths in Pakistan. But after crossing the border, they were left with no work opportunities as they had no education or valid documents.

With help from local non-profits, the men now sell mobile phone covers, tea and biscuits in carts and kiosks, bringing home $5 a day while women sew cushion covers and embroider on fabrics to support their families.

“We are happy that we are where we belong, but we are living from hand to mouth. The main occupation of most people here is farming. We hope that the government provides us land on lease or instalments for cultivation of crops,” said Ravi Das, a teacher who taught Hindi and English to children of his community in Pakistan.

Updated: December 14, 2019 08:01 PM

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