Mashal Maheshwari, a 19-year-old Pakistan . Hindu who migrated to India in 2014, was in the news recently for not being allowed to appear take the All India Pre Medical Test despite scoring 91 percent in the Class XII examinations. “There are only two nationality options on the application form: Indian, and Overseas Citizen of India/Non-Resident Indian”, Mashal said. She belongs to neither category, as she and her family are here on a long-term visa since they fled religious persecution in Pakistan.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has come to Mashal’s aid since hearing about her case, but Mashal isn’t the only Pakistani Hindu expatriate who’s having trouble due to her shaky status in India. Over the years, scores of Hindus have fled Pakistan to seek refuge and citizenship in secular, democratic India. The BJP-led government is set to propose an amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 in order to make it easier for Pakistan Hindus to acquire Indian citizenship. Here’s a snapshot of the community:
1.9 million Hindus in Pakistan
Minority Rights Group International (MRGI) states on its website that there are 1.92 million Pakistani Hindus in Pakistan (a mere 1.2 % of the national population), of whom a staggering 96 % live in rural Sindh (there are also small populations in Punjab and Baluchistan. Most Pakistani Hindus from the interior of Sindh and Baluchistan are considered to be ‘scheduled caste’ Hindus in their country. According to a 2015 article in the Dawn, scheduled caste is a “group identity…given to several untouchable communities in the colonial period (that) has unfortunately survived in Pakistan.” A large number of these Hindus are bonded, landless labourers, and in 2004, the International Labour Organization Report (ILO) estimated that Sindh alone was home to a million families suffering from debt-bondage, defined as slavery by the United Nations.
Widespread allegations of discrimination and persecution
It has been widely reported that many Pakistani Hindus face discrimination, religious persecution and exploitation in their country, despite the establishment of the National Commission for Human Rights and the National Committee for Minorities . Allegations of marginalization, forced conversions, kidnappings for ransom, human trafficking and extortion have surfaced in both the Indian and Pakistani media. MRGI says that “discrimination and prejudice against the Hindus is reinforced by the religious orthodoxy, within educational institutions as well as by the state-controlled media.”
A “Country of Particular Concern”
In 2016, the U. S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIFR) recommended – as it has done since 2002 – that Pakistan be designated a Country of Particular Concern, a category that currently includes Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and North Korea. The USCIFR also says that in Pakistan, minorities like Hindus, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Shi’a and Ahmadiyya Muslims suffer from “chronic sectarian and religiously-motivated violence from both terrorist organizations and individuals within society.” The Commission says the nation’s anti-blasphemy laws “inherently violate international standards of freedom of religion or belief” and that there’s even “discriminatory content against minorities in provincial textbooks”.
The plight of Pakistani Hindu refugees
Therefore, Pakistani Hindus migrate or flee to India – the country with the world’s largest population of Hindus – in search of a better life. In 2015, a reported official estimate of Hindu and Sikh refugees in India stood at 200,000. However, living in India as a Pakistani migrant or refugee can involve new challenges. “When I lived in Pakistan, I lived as a Hindu, [but] when I migrated to India in search of safety and dignity, I have been given a cold shoulder for being a Pakistani,”a refugee is quoted as saying in Scroll.in, a news web site.
In addition to having to deal with India’s perceptions of their identity, many immigrants have to deal with life in refugee camps. Significant populations of Pakistani Hindus live in 400 refugee camps across the nation, including in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Raipur Rajkot, Bhopal and Delhi. Descriptions of the Pakistani Mohalla camp in Delhi in news reports reveal serious problems: the community of aspiring citizens has to live with limited resources and a lack of sanitation infrastructure, and there are families living on daily wages.
A “natural home for persecuted Hindus”
In 2014, the BJP in its manifesto said that “”India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus.”
In the run-up to the 2014 Parliamentary elections, the ruling BJP’s manifesto stated that “”India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.” In 2015, The BBC reported that the Indian government had informed it in writing that 1,400 Pakistanis – the vast majority of whom were Hindus – had become Indian citizens since 2011. In the same year, it was also reported that 34,000 migrants from neighbouring states had acquired visas in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and that the official estimate of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan residing in India was 200,000.
On Wednesday, an India Today report said that an amendment to the Citizenship Act 1955 was likely to discussed in Parliament’s monsoon session. The proposed amendment would reduce registration fees for Pakistani Hindus, and make it possible for them to open bank accounts, and acquire driving licenses and PAN/Aadhar cards.