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Why restarting Thar Express is essential to stop persecution of Pakistani Hindus

Hindus in Pakistan protest against kidnapping of minor Hindu girls (Photo: Twitter)

A recent story by The Hindu made a lot of uncomfortable noise as it mentioned 800 Pakistani Hindus leaving India for Pakistan in 2021. It was unsettling to read that Hindus who wanted to stay in India left the country for Pakistan where they are routinely discriminated against. Lack of empathy in India and Covid-19 also played a major role in their return to an unsafe situation.

Between 2015-2019, India granted citizenship to 2,668 Pakistani nationals, but these numbers are minuscule compared to the tsunami of people fleeing Pakistan due to religious persecution. Rajasthan houses the maximum number of Pakistani minority migrants—around 25,000, of which 7,500 are in Jodhpur alone. Since the Partition of India, millions of people both Hindus and Muslims migrated but after a few years, the Muslim migration to Pakistan stopped while Hindu migration to India continues till date due to persecution of Hindus at the individual and State-level. 

India is no Israel that will help evacuate Hindus from Pakistan as Israel did through Operation Moses (1983-85), in which it evacuated hundreds of Ethiopian Jews in the midst of a civil war. Also, the evacuated Jews became citizens of Israel the moment they landed at the Ben Gurion Airport. While Israel is a Jewish State and Israel's 1950 Law of Return grants every Jew the right to come to Israel, India is a secular state and is guided by the Nehru-Liaquat Pact 1950, which states that minorities have equal rights of citizenship, irrespective of religion and full sense of security in respect of life, culture, property and personal honour and equal opportunity to hold political office, civil services and armed forces. However, Pakistan has not abided by the pact either in letter or spirit resulting in an unending Hindu migration to India. 

Every year around 1,000 girls from minority communities are forcibly converted in Pakistan while destruction of places of worship, harassment and blasphemy cases are common. 

Indian visa obstacles for persecuted Hindus 

Any Hindu refugee who wishes to visit India requires one of the two types of visas–a visitor visa or a pilgrim visa. For a visitor visa one needs a sponsor from the Indian side, possibly a relative who can vouch for the person. The sponsorship application needs to be approved by a gazetted officer. Many Indians are apprehensive while providing a sponsorship letter to Pakistanis, due to Pakistan’s image over terrorism. Further, getting a visa generally takes 4-5 months as government departments including Ministry of External Affairs, the Ministry of Home and even the Intelligence Bureau complete their checks. 

It is said there is an undeclared quota of 2,000 visas/month by India, out of which the least preference is given to the visitor visa, as most people on this type of visa are asylum-seekers. People have shifted to pilgrim visas, which are easier to get despite sponsor requirement (mainly from religious institutions) and given to a group.

For an individual taking asylum, he has to go to the Foreigners Registration Office (FRO) and submit an application for asylum. The registration is done by the CID. His application is sent to the respective state government and then to the Central government. Initially, an asylum seeker applies for an extension to stay, generally six months, after which he can apply for a Long-Term Visa (LTV) which is five years. This process generally takes one year in the best possible scenario. The movement of the asylum seeker is restricted and the person has to live in the state where from where he/she is applying.

The first step is the Citizenship Act 2005 and its amendments under the much-debated Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA). Then there is the Citizenship Rules 2009 and its amendments. Lastly there are various circulars which the Government of India keeps releasing.

Indian citizenship can be acquired through birth, descent, registration and naturalisation. Most refugees try to get citizenship by way of registration wherein an individual has to live in India continuously for seven years. However, many have waited between 10-20 years to get citizenship.

Famous musician-singer Adnan Sami got Indian citizenship in 2016 by way of naturalization for distinguished service in the field of arts. Sami had first applied for Indian citizenship during the Vajpayee government. 

There have been instances where the Hindus received citizenship through camp mode organized by the government. The best example is after the 1971 war when refugees starting started pouring into India and in 2004 when 20,000 people were given citizenship. 

Driving poor Hindus deeper into poverty 

Most people hail from Sindh which habitats most Hindus in Pakistan. Though Sindh and Rajasthan are connected through a common border, still people have to travel to Punjab and enter India via the Attari-Wagah border on foot just because Pakistan suspended the Thar Express, which used to run between Karachi and Jodhpur, after India revoked Article 370.

Pakistani Hindus have been urging the Pakistan government through social media campaigns to restart the Thar Express as it is cheap and convenient for Pakistani Hindus to travel to India.

Both Pakistan and India seem to be united as far as bureaucracy is concerned. The case of Ramesh (name changed) is unique to understand the complexities of the Indian system. Ramesh came to India in 2013 while his brother Suresh (name changed) came in 2009. Both of them have received citizenship while their spouses and kids haven’t. Suresh was lucky to have landed in India on 25 May 2009, which was a blessing in disguise because as per the 17 November 2014 circular, the MHA exempted minority community members who arrived in India before 31 December 2009 and whose passports either expired or lost, could receive Indian citizenship by providing an affidavit to the Collector/District Magistrate/Deputy Commissioner Office instead of a renunciation certificate, which is an essential document provided by the Pakistani Embassy for taking Indian citizenship.

The 10 January 2018 MHA circular stated that minority community members who have entered India before 31.12.2014 are exempted from having valid travel documents or a valid passport (which may have expired after entering India) for grant of LTVs. A big relief for people to get their stay increased but they are not eligible for citizenship till their passport is renewed. Suresh’s wife entered India in January 2010, her passport expired along with CNIC (Pakistan’s National Identity card). Though LTV was granted to her but in order to get citizenship, she needs a renunciation certificate from the Pakistan Embassy. An essential criteria to get the renunciation certificate is for the passport and CNIC to be valid. If the documents are not valid, the person has to go to Pakistan and get them renewed.

For a small work like this, visiting Pakistan is a costly and tedious affair, it takes Indian Rs 50,000-100,000 for an individual to go to Pakistan and come back. Then there is the renewal fee for passports, which is around Rs 3,500. Hindus from Pakistan are mostly families and each family comprises between 5-10 members thereby increasing the costs of administrative fees for already suffering distraught people. Further, getting a renunciation certificate costs about Rs 8,500 per person plus travel costs to Delhi along with food and lodging. Eventually, an individual spends Rs 1,50,000 and undergoes an ordeal to get Indian citizenship.

Organizations helping Pakistani refugees with Indian citizenship say that for people who arrived on or after 01 January 2015, the situation is worrisome as under no provision they can get LTV if their passport has expired. This means that they have to ultimately return to Pakistan and get their passport renewed and re-start the process, which is a long haul and can take years. Till then they live a life of uncertainty, confusion and face depression, especially children.

Ramesh says most of the refugees coming to India are poor. Most of the poor migrants work as labourers and live in slums, earning just enough to feed their families.

The Hindus migrating from Pakistan not only face bureaucratic hurdles in India but also Pakistan’s duplicity. Islamabad suspended rail services linking Sindh and Rajasthan but opened the Kartarpur Corridor on 12 November 2019 for Sikh pilgrims to visit Dera Baba Nanak. Pakistan charges USD 20 for every pilgrim visiting the Sikh place of worship.

‘Pakistan should restart the Thar Express’

Mangla Sharma is a Member of the Provincial Assembly (MPA) in Sindh from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-Pakistan) party. When I inquired her thoughts on re-staring of the Thar Express, she said, “I fully endorse the request of the common people to restart the Thar Express because relations between the Indian government and the Pakistan government should not determine the fate of the people because they have been living here for centuries while the borders were formulated recently. People have relations on both sides of the border”.

Sharma added that The Thar Express is a lifeline for poor people who cannot afford a flight ticket. She said: “It is unfortunate that Hindus first travel to Punjab from where they cross the border into India. Sindhis have relatives in Kutch, Bhuj, Ahmedabad, Agra, Jodhpur etc. And it is unfair to these people that they had to travel so far when Rajasthan is the border state. Relations between India and Pakistan will improve one day but until that time serious permanent damage will be done to these poor people”.

The Hindu migrants also recce the systems and take an understanding of sustainability and work culture in India as it takes them a minimum of seven years to acquire citizenship of India. The MHA under its order dated 15 December 2014 has allowed migrants with LTV to seek employment of a private nature with permission by state governments and said that the information needs to be reported to the MHA. Children of Pakistani nationals staying on LTV can get admission in schools, colleges, universities, professional institutions etc. subject to conditions prescribed for foreigners.

A handful of Hindu professionals like Pakistani doctors too come to India. Though India is in dire need of medical professionals, bureaucratic hurdles trump societal needs. In 2020, Dr Noorji Bheel, (Pakistani National on LTV) was arrested on the suspicion of quackery and sent to jail under Section 420—cheating. Dr Noorji had cleared his MBBS from the University of Sindh in 2000, left Pakistan in 2002 and started practising in Jodhpur. Pakistani doctors in India want their medical degrees to be recognized under the Scheme of Reciprocity which was before 1999. The Hindustan Times report of 30 April 2022 stated that National Medical Council (NMC) will allow migrants and their children who have studied medicine or other higher studies in Pakistan with Indian citizenship to be eligible for Foreign Medical Graduate Examination (FMGE) exams. But Dr Noorji is on LTV and his citizenship is pending.

For Pakistan migrants leaving Pakistan India is a safe haven. In India they are no more a bonded labour nor have the sword of conversion over their heads. Neither do they fear their daughter’s forced marriage to an elderly Muslim. Still, India is no bed of roses as the Hindu migrants have to struggle to meet their ends.

On 9 August 2020, 11 family members of the Hindu migrant community were found dead in Lodta village in Dechu area of Jodhpur. Family members had personal grievances and the police termed it suicide. But the news spread like wildfire not just in India but across the border in Pakistan. Pakistan’s Members of the National Assembly (MNA) protested in front of the Indian Embassy, Islamabad and defamed India. Pakistani politicians blamed Indian security agencies and political parties for the death of the 11 Hindu migrants. In 2014, the same MPA had stated in the National Assembly that 5,000 Pakistani Hindus are leaving Pakistan every year due to religious persecution.

Hypocrisy over the CAA

On 11 December 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which talks of two things–relaxed cut-off date to 31.12.2014 for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The CAA also said that those who entered India illegally will not be treated as illegals. Secondly, relaxation is provided to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, where the aggregate period of residence shall be five years rather than 11 years in case of requirements for citizenship by naturalization. 

However, the CAA faced resistance from Indian Muslims who not only protested vehemently but also blocked roads and caused financial loss to millions of people. Internationally too, various Islamic and also secular countries opposed the law without understanding its real intention. Protests continued for almost a year culminating in the Delhi riots where 53 people were killed and 200 were injured. 

Organizations working for Hindu refugees say that they have not seen a single case of Hindu migrants entering India illegally. On the contrary, not a single Rohingya Muslim migrant entered India legally but continue to live and work in India with the aid of Muslim organizations and political parties. 

Even political parties took an anti-Hindu migrant stand on the CAA. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot of the Congress categorically said he will not implement CAA in the state even though Rajasthan houses most of the persecuted Hindu community from Pakistan.

Hindu Dalits traverse countries to cover just 240 kms 

As I have stated earlier there has hardly been a case of Hindu refugees entering India illegally but with difficulties for Hindus, a family of 10 members entered India via Nepal. The head of family, Rajesh Kumar—a Dalit says that the family is continuously being given death and rape threats. Rajesh says his brother was kidnapped by friends and the family was threatened. It was only when the kidnappers understood about the poor financial condition of the family he was released.

Under dire circumstances, in December 2021 the family went to Dubai and applied for an Indian visa which was denied. Then they travelled to Nepal from where they took the help of a local who helped them cross the border into India. The persecuted and scared family reached Barmer in Rajasthan and have asked for asylum from the government. Interestingly, the family is from Mirpurkhas in Pakistan, just 240 km from Barmer, but had to travel thousands of km to enter India.

 Most Hindus who want refuge in India belong to the SC-ST castes like Bheel, Meghwal and others. Ironically, the Left parties including the Congress and Dalit political parties like the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (led by Prakash Ambedkar, the son of BR Ambedkar), Bahujan Samajwadi Party and Bhim Army which opposed the CAA and indirectly supported the suppression of Dalits in Pakistan. 

If India cannot guarantee Hindus from Pakistan safety and respect, it is not abiding by the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution. It may be too early to say but somewhere India might also be losing its civilization relevance of thousands of years by not protecting the natives on their own land.