By Ruchika Talwar
Aug 21, 2012
Their exact numbers are not known but the reason why Pakistani Hindus are coming over to India and choosing to stay in ever larger numbers is more or less clear. As the internal security situation in Pakistan worsens, among those increasingly being targeted are Hindus, especially their women.
Their families have dwelled for centuries in what is now Pakistan. India, for them, was only home to their shrines, relatives and Bollywood. But over the past five years especially, the Hindus and also some Sikhs who cross over into India on what is formally a pilgrimage (they usually arrive before Janmashtami) are choosing not to go back. As per Indian government estimates, the number of such Pakistani Hindus now on extended visas in India could be between 4,000 and 5,000.
While each pilgrim signs an undertaking at the Attari border crossing in Punjab, promising to return before their 30-day visa expires; most of them get their visas extended.
“Hindus are a weak segment in Pakistan, hence they become an easy target for religious bigots,” said Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the patron-in-chief and founder of the Karachi-based Pakistan Hindu Council, a registered society of Hindus of Pakistan. “Mostly young Hindu women are abducted and converted. We have petitioned in the Supreme Court against forced conversions,” he told The Indian Express over the phone.
Iqbal Haider echoed his views. A former federal minister for law and justice, information, human rights and parliamentary affairs, Haider currently practises law and is a prominent human rights activist based in Karachi.
Pointing out that social and economic insecurity was at its worst in Pakistan, Haider said: “Whoever gets a chance to flee, irrespective of religion and destination, is leaving. The minorities have been suffering more. A few years ago, the Christians were persecuted. I have dealt with their cases. The Sikhs were attacked three-four years back. Now it is mainly the Hindus. In 2012 alone, more than 45 cases have been reported so far.”
Rubbishing the argument that the cases of conversion by Hindu women were voluntary, he asked why most of the “abductions, rapes, conversions or forcible marriages” involved young, attractive girls. “Once I told a judge that this was nothing but the legitimation of forced sex.”
Because of his stand, Haider was questioned by the religious right-wing political party Jamaat-e-Islami for “opposing the spread of Islam”.
Among those to have crossed over into India is Mukesh Kumar of Mithi, Sindh, now staying in Hardwar. A businessman, he talked about extortion and forced conversion in Sindh and Baluchistan. “We request the Indian government to grant us asylum. It is difficult to stay in Pakistan now primarily because we have young sisters and daughters. The perpetrators always target young girls. They kidnap a girl and demand ransom, which people pay, sometimes even through their nose. Till then, they keep the girl in their custody. When the girl returns, she has no choice but to agree to marry a Muslim because no Hindu will marry her. Hence comes the ‘wilful’ conversion.”
A Sikh from Sindh, Roshan Singh is currently living with relatives in Indore. He came to meet them and to visit the Golden Temple in Amritsar and shrines in and around Indore. Reluctant to part with much information, Singh held on to the idea of returning to Pakistan after his 30-day visa expires later this month.
A local reporter in Attari working for the largest-selling Punjabi newspaper said the luggage some of these “pilgrims” bring along with them belies their reported intent to return. He saw utensils like paraat, chakla, belan (for kneading flour and making Rotis) and food grain along with their suitcases, handbags and trunks. “Why would visitors or pilgrims bring such stuff?” he said.
A Hindu journalist with a reputed Pakistani newspaper, however, has a different version. “This is not an exodus as is being projected. People go on pilgrimage every year. I have been a couple of times to Hardwar. Individual cases of disgruntlement shouldn’t be taken for migration,” he insisted.
In the absence of concrete numbers, it’s difficult to say which side is right. Enquires at the Wagah-Attari joint check post and the Attari Railway Station yield a vague figure of 500 since July, with a margin of error of 50. On August 13 alone, a jatha of 266 Hindus crossed over on foot from Wagah. They all said that they were pilgrims.
No asylum policy
A large number of about 5,000 Hindus who have come to India from Pakistan in the past couple of years have chosen not to return.
They came to India on short-term visas, which allow them a stay for 30 days, but many apply to stay for longer.
India has no asylum policy for the Pakistan nationals, and as a temporary measure, the Home Ministry has been granting long-term visas, allowing them a stay of six months to a year.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari this month set up a three-member committee of parliamentarians to visit different parts of Sindh to reassure the minority community.