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Pakistani Hindus living in India

10 min read

Everyday discrimination and the threat of violence have driven many Pakistani Hindus in recent years to leave their country for India, reproducing the legacy of Partition and undercutting the ideal of religious pluralism within Pakistan. Commonly travelling on 30-day pilgrim visas, many arrive in India by train, taking the Thar Express to the state of Rajasthan. The majority of Hindus from Pakistan live in an estimated 400 refugee camps spread across Rajasthan, including more recent arrivals as well as those who have been in India for over a decade. Others travel to Madhya Pradesh, where the All India Sindhi-Hindu Society has recorded approximately 35,000 Hindus from Sindh are living, with a significant proportion in Bhopal and Indore. More recently, some have also settled in Delhi, in areas in the north and north-west of the city including Majnu ka Tila, Adarsh Nagar and Rohini Sector 11, as well as elsewhere, such as Faridabad.

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Photo credit: Mirza Arif Beg.

Majnu ka Tila: a temporary ‘home’ for Pakistani Hindus in Delhi

Majnu ka Tila in north Delhi, long home to Tibetan refugees since the 1960s, has attracted a growing number Pakistani Hindus in recent years, with approximately 120 families now living there in makeshift accommodation. Sanjesh,* a leader of the community, originally from Hyderabad, who has been living in Majnu ka Tila since 2011, explains that many of those living in the area are unwell or exhausted, emphasizing the sub-standard living conditions. Sitting on one of the wooden and metal beds outside the small room his family has constructed from mud and dung, he points to the fans overhead, explaining there is only access to electricity for part of the day, with it usually shutting off at 11.00 p.m. The heat – which often reaches above 40 degrees Celsius in certain months – makes it difficult to sleep. The area is located on the left bank of the Yamuna River so this hardship is exacerbated by the unrelenting presence of mosquitoes from which residents struggle to seek reprieve.

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Audio recording: 

Further into the camp and closer to the river, Ashok* and Amar,* sitting outside their home with the rest of their family, explain that they avoid going inside during the day due to the swarms of mosquitoes, which are easier to bear outdoors. In addition to the lack of reliable electricity, the area also lacks other basic necessities. Ashok and Amar added that members of the Pakistani Hindu community in Majnu ka Tila had met Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, to draw attention to conditions in the area, as well as the precarious position of Pakistani refugees who remain ‘irregular’, a status which brings with it significant implications in terms of employment and educational opportunities. While facilities such as a water pump for drinking water and latrines have been provided, Ashok and Amar expressed dissatisfaction with the response from Indian authorities. In particular, they emphasized the presence of barriers to education for their children, claiming a lack of sufficient paperwork precludes the children’s enrolment beyond the 5th grade.

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Photo credit: Mirza Arif Beg.

While the specific drivers of migration are complex, multi-faceted and differ on a case-by-case basis, some of the issues commonly regarded as important in influencing Pakistani Hindus to migrate to India have included: education for children, access to employment opportunities, freedom to openly practise their religion, a sense of belonging and personal security. As has been widely documented, minorities in Pakistan face discrimination in the education system including by their teachers and classmates, but also in the official curriculum, including textbooks that carry discriminatory content. Moreover, there have been reports that minority children are compelled or forced to take Islamiyat or Islamic Studies, despite provisions within Pakistan’s Constitution under Article 22 that ‘No person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or take part in any religious ceremony, or attend religious worship, if such instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.’ While the provincial government of Sindh has begun to take steps to address this, including through the introduction of a book called Ikhlaqiat (‘Ethics’), allowing minority students to study teachings of other religions instead of Islamic studies, inequalities persist.

Manju,* a teenage girl from Hyderabad in Sindh who migrated to India with her family in 2011, describes how discrimination in the education system has also already considerably shaped the lives of many young Hindus who have grown up in the province:

‘When kids go to school there in Pakistan, they would say, you should learn Islam and the kids would say “We will not learn Islam.” Because of that we did not learn there. So we said, we will go to India, to our country and learn to read and write.’

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However, Manju added that accessing education in India has been impeded by obstacles:

‘There are a lot of kids here who have not gotten admission into schools. The younger kids have gotten admitted into schools but the older kids have not gotten admission yet. They say, “They are over the admissible age and so we cannot admit them.” We came here for education and to save our religion. We left everything behind. We want to educate the kids but the school is saying they will not admit the kids, so then tell us what we can do.’

Ashok,* a teenage boy, also from Hyderabad, explained that in the interim, ‘there is a sister … and a sir who comes to teach us here’, likely on a voluntary basis.

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‘Now that we are here in India, we should be able to become something good’, he added, ‘a doctor, something good’.

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Audio recordings:

Indeed, Pakistani Hindus living in Majnu ka Tila expressed their hope that migrating to India would yield greater employment opportunities, in particular highlighting discrimination against Hindu farmers in Sindh.

‘All the poor, the hopeless farmers are rotting … [in Sindh]. You can be farming, yield a harvest, and they come and loot and plunder and take it all away. They put all our money and income into their own pockets. The landlords there exploit the poor farmers and in the end say “You ate this, you ate wheat, rice, etc., so now this is your debt amount and we will recalculate your debt and earnings next year again.”’

­­­­­Sagar,* a boy from Sindh, claimed that because they are Hindus, access to the employment market in Pakistan was also restricted: for example, they were prevented from selling their goods in certain areas, and their carts overturned or their goods stolen.

While Pakistani Hindus are able to practise their religion more freely in India, economic, social and political impediments persist, albeit it in different forms. While those who have overstayed their visas are not actively removed from India, they claim that their lack of paperwork and discriminatory attitudes towards Pakistanis significantly limit their access to employment. Even those who have completed formal education in Pakistan struggle, their schooling certificates often unrecognized, relegating them to informal jobs such as selling items on the street.

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Photo credit: Mirza Arif Beg.

While grateful for a place to stay in India, the current situation continues to undermine their basic rights and undercuts their ambitions for a better life in India. Two residents of the camp who asked not to be named or recorded, due to concerns for their families still residing in Pakistan, expressed frustration with the governments of the two neighbouring countries, accusing both of exploiting Pakistani Hindus for their respective political gains. Indeed, Hindus in Pakistan – similar to Muslims in India – are often impacted by the vicissitudes of inter-state relations between India and Pakistan. In the early 1990s, for example, following the attack on the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh by Hindu nationalists, Pakistan’s small Hindu minority – often represented as ‘agents of India’ – suffered retaliatory violence and discrimination. Parliamentarians in Pakistan have been known to conflate criticism of India with that of Hindus and, as with other minorities in Pakistan, Hindus have not been afforded adequate protection by the state.

The camp residents expressed that while this situation drove them to leave Pakistan, the promises made by Indian officials were also influential in attracting them there. In particular, in the run-up to the 2014 national elections, now Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party

(BJP) party emphasized that they would help realize the vision of India as the ‘natural home for persecuted Hindus’. This political messaging on the part of the BJP, much criticized for its exclusionary nationalism and communal politics, creating favourable expectations of life in India for Pakistani Hindus. Nevertheless, those living in Majnu ka Tila and elsewhere have expressed disappointment that two years after the election, little had been done to address their situation, for example by taking steps to ‘regularize’ their presence in India or providing economic and social support.

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Photo credit: Mirza Arif Beg.

Regional dynamics and legal status of Pakistani Hindus in India

India does not have a comprehensive refugee policy and is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. As the ARA Trust – an organization recently invited to help draft the domestic asylum bill for India in August 2015 – has argued, this does not mean the Indian government is without a general policy on refugees. Rather, this policy is not cohesive or structured, it being the outcome of a number of different ad hoc judicial pronouncements and executive policies.

Pakistani Hindus currently fall under the Foreigners Act of 1946 and, as per the Citizenship Act, have been eligible to apply for citizenship by naturalization after a given period of time. The regime governing citizenship of Pakistani Hindus and others applying for asylum is therefore characterized by uncertainty and often long delays, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. For example, some residents of Majnu ka Tila indicated that they had applied for Indian citizenship in 2011, but no substantial developments had yet taken place.

Nevertheless, in July the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was introduced in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of India’s Parliament), which aims to relax citizenship requirements for religious minorities, namely Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis, who are from ‘Muslim-dominated countries’, specified as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Currently under consideration, this bill would make special provisions for citizenship on the grounds of religious persecution: for example, by precluding religious minorities from the countries listed above from being labelled ‘illegal immigrants’, and streamlining the process by which to obtain citizenship.

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While welcome in that it may bring some reprieve to the Hindu refugees from Pakistan residing in Majnu ka Tila and elsewhere in the country, it has also opened debates regarding the relationship between citizenship and religion in India, with some commentators noting that the bill, as it stands, has the potential to undermine India’s strong secular traditions. This is because the bill introduces a more direct link between religion and citizenship by identifying those of all major religions, excluding Islam, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan as exceptions to the general law. Therefore, under the auspices of inclusion, the bill could contribute to more exclusionary understandings of Indian citizenship by advancing an identity-based response to religious persecution in those other countries, rather than a general avenue available to all those affected. Narrow conceptions of national identity are linked to rising majoritarian nationalisms in the region – this being a key factor contributing to the exodus of persecuted Pakistani Hindus in the first place – and therefore the bill has the potential to further weaken pluralism in the region.

This highlights the fact that in order to effectively understand and address the situation of Pakistani Hindus living in Majnu ka Tila, but also the challenges facing religious minorities more broadly in South Asia, it is crucial to consider regional dynamics. However, as tensions between Pakistan and India currently show no sign of abating, it is religious minorities on both sides of the border who will continue to suffer disproportionate levels of violence and discrimination by state and non-state actors.

* To ensure the security of rapporteurs and victims, all names which are not already published in media reports have been anonymized.