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Footprints: Hindus in no man's land

September 30, 2014

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— AFP file photo
— AFP file photo

“I WILL never go back to India, but sooner or later I’ll also leave this place,” says Mahesh Kumar, who is in his mid-40s, as he spares me a moment while attending to customers at his bustling general store in the Hindu mohalla. This is in Thul, a small town in Jacobabad district that takes its name from the Sindhi word for ‘stupa’.

Present-day Thul bears the remnants of a decaying European township. Residents here tell me stirring stories of the resilience of Hindus and Muslims who came to each other’s rescue during the devastating floods of 2010 that inundated every village in the area.

Know more: How are the Hindus facing Hindutva?

Back then, they were able to save the town’s physical boundaries. But today, they are finding it difficult to maintain this town’s pluralistic religious ethos. The Hindu community that once constituted nearly half the population is now dwindling by the day. With increasing religious intolerance, kidnappings and forced conversions of teenage Hindu girls, abduction of Hindu traders for ransom and desecration of temples have forced many to migrate to India and elsewhere. Community leaders say that hundreds of families have left.

People leave to seek a better life. They want to build the lives they have envisioned for themselves and their families. Kumar and other Pakistani Hindus had hoped that this would be the case when they moved to India last year.

He and his family, including his wife and two sons, fabricated a reason to visit India, declaring to officialdom that they were going on a pilgrimage. Once they obtained the visa, they took a train journey to Lahore, entered Amritsar and reached Bhopal where some of their relatives were settled.

“But problems are not resolved through migration,” says Kumar. “In fact, as we discovered, the challenges began once we arrived in India. Our relatives were kind and helped us initially. But I met several Hindus from Sindh whose applications had been pending for many years. My mind was plagued with questions. What if we don’t get the nationality? What will become of us? Even though I was frustrated by the thought of this long-drawn-out process, I decided to be practical and returned to Thul within three months. I bought my shop back and have resumed my earlier life,” he says.

A similar account is narrated to me by a Hindu rice trader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “My family and I moved to Indore in 2011 where my relatives have been living for a long time,” says he, a stocky man in his early 50s. “I invested in a shop and was managing to earn a living but we couldn’t reconcile with the anti-Pakistani sentiment of the locals. My children couldn’t get admission to schools because they lacked the necessary documents. If there was any trouble in the neighbourhood, we were questioned because we were Pakistani. Once I reprimanded a group of rowdy teenagers and the locals ganged up against me. This left me disheartened and so we decided to come back.” The rice trader returned to Thul early this year.

Ravi Dawani, the secretary general of the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat, calls Pakistani Hindus “stateless people” who are “Pakistanis in India and Hindus in Pakistan”. He says quite a few Hindus who had earlier migrated to India are now returning in increasing numbers.

“Most go to cities such as Ahmedabad, Raipur, Indore, Bhopal and Pune, but apart from a few resourceful families, others face immense hardship,” says Dawani. “They remain insecure as Pakistanis, are discriminated against in jobs and school admissions, and get nationality after decades of ordeal.”

Citing figures provided by the Indian home ministry, the All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat says that between January 2013 and June this year, 3,753 Pakistanis surrendered their passports and obtained long-term visas (LTV) for India that permit a once-a-year visit to Pakistan. Since January 2011, 1,854 Hindus belonging to Sindh have been given Indian nationality.

Shahnaz Sheedi, from the NGO South Asia Partnership Pakistan that works on minority issues, says non-Muslims formed a quarter of Pakistan’s population when the country came into being; now, they account for just four per cent. “Most non-Muslims have migrated to India. Those few who remain behind live in terror,” she says. “They are denied many basic rights, and treated even by the state as second-class citizens or even worse.”

I am not surprised when Kumar tells me that he continues to seek a place where his family can live a better life, preferably in his own country. “I will leave Thul and perhaps go to Karachi or Hyderabad,” he muses. “These cities are far more open to all kinds of communities. No one is bothered about your religion. And what is more satisfying than not having to leave the country of your birth?”

Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2014