Growing up in Pakistan wasn’t easy for Shaukat Ram. In the early 1990s, after Hindu nationalists vandalized the revered Babri mosque in northern India, Islamic fundamentalists retaliated against Pakistan’s small Hindu population. In his hometown, a small village in eastern Pakistan, Ram and his family saw temples being destroyed and stick-wielding mobs going door-to-door, spreading fear and wreaking havoc.
As things worsened, Ram, then 13, and his family fled across the border into India. They dreamt of a Hindu utopia where they would be embraced. Nearly two decades later, Ram, now a 32-year-old father of three girls, is still waiting—his dream deferred indefinitely. “As Hindus, we had no place in Pakistan,” he says. “And here in India, no one really wants us.”
He’s not alone. Over the past two decades, as life in Pakistan has become increasingly difficult for Hindus, more than 20,000 have absconded to India. These migrants live in some 400 refugee camps scattered across the northern state of Rajasthan, where roughly 1,000 new refugees arrive every year. Typically they come to the country on 30-day pilgrim visas, then seek extensions, month after month, year after year, in the hope of finally becoming citizens.
In one such camp on the outskirts of Jodhpur, the second largest city in Rajasthan, Ram and 330 fellow Pakistanis are among the thousands of Pakistani Hindu immigrants awaiting citizenship in India.
“They neither belong to Pakistan nor to India,” says Singh Sodha, founder of Seemant Lok Sanghathan, a lobbyist group fighting for the rights of Pakistani Hindu refugees. “The ad hoc citizenship rules have put their existence in limbo.”
India has never signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, nor does it have its own refugee laws. The state refuses to officially recognize Pakistani Hindus as refugees, but it doesn’t forcefully deport them either. Like other foreigners, they’re allowed to seek citizenship after living in India for five to seven years. The only problem: Many Pakistani Hindus lack the proper paperwork to show they’ve been there for decades.
Before the bloody partition of India in 1947, some Hindus would occasionally travel from the arid desert region of Rajasthan to work the fertile, green pastures of Sindh, which is now in eastern Pakistan. But once the two countries established a border, many of these migrants were unable to return home and eventually became citizens of Pakistan.
Today there are several million Hindus in Pakistan, and they compose the country’s largest minority group. But their numbers have dwindled as Islamic fundamentalism has made life difficult for them. Fearing discrimination, many families don’t send their kids to school and live isolated lives in the Hindu ghettos across the country. According to Ramesh Kumar, a Hindu member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, Hindus regularly face abduction and kidnappings, as well as forced conversion to Islam and marriage. “Being a minority,” he says, “the Pakistani Hindus fear constant backlash against them.”
Some Pakistani Hindus, of course, have been granted citizenship. For 30 years after partition, India welcomed hundreds of thousands of Pakistani Hindus as refugees. But since the 1970s, many of those fleeing persecution have encountered a bureaucratic nightmare.
In 2005, Indian authorities amended a decades-old law that specifically provided for Pakistanis to apply for citizenship in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, after completing five years of residency. The result: Roughly 13,000 Pakistani Hindus became Indian citizens.
Unfortunately, thousands of others haven’t been so lucky, including Ram and his fellow refugees living on the outskirts of Jodhpur. Many of these families came to India between 1992 and 1997—after the Babri mosque was destroyed—and settled in Haryana, a northern state next to Rajasthan. But because India’s citizenship laws for Pakistanis refugees were not applicable there, many families were left in between countries. Today they live in a series of crumbling concrete homes, hoping the Indian government will finally grant them citizenship. They have no documents or proof of residence, so good housing is hard to find. Most burn firewood for cooking and have no access to electricity.
Aside from being stateless, many of these immigrants face discrimination, even in India. Although Hindus by ethnicity, Pakistanis in general are stigmatized in India, where many harbor ill will toward their neighbors because of terror attacks, the longstanding conflict in Kashmir and general anti-Muslim sentiment.
“Pakistan’s name is spoiled because of terrorism,” says Sumar Jee, 35, a Pakistani Hindu refugee. “So even if one Pakistani has done a bad thing, the blame falls on the entire population and even us Hindus. We don’t get jobs or even hired as laborers. And if we reveal our identity to Indian people, they always look at us as ‘Pakistani is equal to terrorist.’”
Having lived most of his life as a refugee, Ram prays that his daughters won’t face the same fate. The good news for him and his fellow Pakistani Hindus is that the right wing Bhartiya Janata Party is poised to win India’s national elections this year. And they’re hopeful that a new government will end their plight. “My kids were born on the Indian soil, so at least they should be made the citizens,” Ram says. “Let them have a future.”