Gurmukh carefully arranges apples, oranges, grapes and other fruits on his cart, which is parked along a busy road on the outskirts of Delhi.
As business picks up, the 27-year-old Hindu says his work helps him to forget, even if it’s just for a short time, the oppression he faced in Pakistan and his tenuous status as a would-be asylum seekerin India.
Gurmukh, who goes by only one name, is among more than 1,000 Hindus from Pakistan who have come to India on pilgrimages and refused to go back, claiming that they face religious persecution in the Muslim majority country of their birth.
Hindus from Pakistan often travel to India on one-month pilgrim visas, purportedly to visit the innumerable Hindu holy places and shrines around the country. But since 2011, the number of Pakistani Hindus refusing to leave at the end of their stay has increased dramatically in response to the easing of visa regulations by the Indian government, which has announced that Hindus from Pakistan can get long term visas if they follow certain rules.
Most hail from Pakistan’s Hyderabad province, home to the majority of the country’s 2.5 million Hindus. Once in India, they can apply for refugee or asylum seeker status. But if their applications are denied, they can simply go on extending their visas.
Those who stay usually end up living in tents on land offered on a temporary basis by religious groups or temples. But lack of identification documents means no real jobs, limited income and no means to benefit from state welfare schemes.
“Give us some identity [status], but we do not want to go back,” says Gurmukh, who along with 21family members has been living in Delhi since 2011. Together they live in a tent provided by a Hindu religious leader and survive on a meager income, sometimes seeking donations of food or clothes.
Refugees, who may arrive in groups as large as 100 or more, claim they deserve asylum or refugee status or Indian citizenship because their families are not safe in Pakistan. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the country saw a 22 percent rise in religious violence last year, with 687 people killed in more than 200 attacks.
Fanatic Muslims “abduct our women, rape them and forcibly convert people to Islam”, said Gurmukh.
Krishan Mal, 37, who arrived in India last September, says that an “environment of hostility” toward non-Muslims exists in Pakistan, and that discrimination is particularly focused on Hindus.
“We are not free to practice our faith,” he said, adding that Hindu temples are routinely destroyed so they are forced “to worship in hiding, fearing attacks”.
Hindus cannot hold festivals yet “we are forced to observe their holy month of Ramadan”, Mal said. “Even schools teach subjects related to Islam.”
Sayani (right) wth her son in Delhi.
The British Indian empire was partitioned on the basis of religion in 1947, resulting in the birth ofHindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan. Many Hindu asylum seekers feel more at home in India that shares their language and traditions. The net result is a greater sense of security and belonging.
“I no longer have the fear that my girls will be kidnapped and raped,” said Sayani who also uses only one name. While preparing tea, she said: “I can be sure that my three children will grow up following my faith.”
But religious freedom is meaningless unless Pakistani Hindus are given legal status and allowed to hold legitimate jobs so that they can provide adequately for their families, said Ram Das, a college graduate who came to India in 2011. Like most other asylum seekers from Pakistan, despite his education, Das now makes his living as a lowly street vendor.
“Wherever we go to look for better jobs, they ask for identity cards and when we show them our Pakistan passports, they refuse us straight away,” he said.
“We are neither Pakistanis nor Indians,” Das said, adding that the Indian government is not responding to their repeated applications for asylum or refugee status. “We get our visas extended, but how long can we go on like that? At least give us refugee status.”
Overall, Pakistani Hindus have not benefited as much as other migrants from Tibet, Myanmar and Afghanistan, who have been assisted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). India shelters some 100,000 Tibetans, more than 110,000 Chin refugees, and some 250 who have fled Afghanistan.
Mal says that he has filed several requests for financial help at the UNHCR office, but all of these have been rejected.
A spokesperson for UNHCR said it’s up to the Indian government to decide whether or not to assist refugees and asylum seekers from Pakistan.
“In the absence of a national legal framework for refugees in India, the UNHCR has an understanding with the government of India whereby the government assists refugees and asylum seekers from close neighboring countries” and UNHCR assists those from Myanmar and Afghanistan, Suchita Mehta, UNHCR public information officer said in an e-mail to ucanews.com.
So for now, Pakistani Hindus can only wait patiently and continue extending their visas.
“When God has saved us from the atrocities in Pakistan, he will surely show us the way in India,” said 25-year-old asylum seeker Bindiya. “Good days will come. It is just a matter of time.”