Sunday, October 4, 2009

Shoot us but we will never go back!

'Goli maar do, but we will never go back'

Avijit Ghosh & Saurabh Banerjee, TNN

26 September 2009

Rana Ram carries a bit of his pained past in a weathered wallet that's always close to him. It's a photocopy of a grainy clipping from an Urdu newspaper that shows a woman and her child. The caption reads: 'Impressed by Islam, the woman with the baby became a Muslim'.

"This isn't true,'' says Rana, a lean man with expressive eyes. For the last 18 months, he has been crying himself hoarse that the newspaper lied. "No, that's not why Samdi Mai, my wife of 10 years, changed her religion. Ever since my father-in-law switched his faith, we were under pressure from the maulvis and others to become Muslims too."

But Rana, of Sadiqabad tehsil in Pakistan Punjab's Rahimyar Khan district, resisted. Then one day, when he was away tending goats, a fleet of cars filled with bearded men arrived at his house. On his return, he found his wife gone.
The 30-year-old farmhand rushed to the police station only to be told that his wife had converted of her own will.

Someone passed on a message a few days later. It said, "To get her back, you also must become a believer."
Rana, though, wasn't ready to give up. He managed to get back his three-year-old daughter at a village 'court' after paying off the decision-makers. But his wife was 'out of the question'. That's when he decided to take the weekly Thar Express to Rajasthan.

Over the past four years, more than 4,000 Hindus have come to India from Pakistan, hoping never to return. A majority says they lived in constant fear of losing their religion, of worrying that their daughters would be dragged away and converted to Islam. Whenever such traumatic incidents occurred, local authorities just looked away. It was simply a question of 'us' and 'them'.

Laxmi Ram, daughter-in-law of Arjan Ram from Punjab's Bahawalpur district, says her uncle's seven-year-old daughter was abducted and that's the last they saw of her. Kewal Ram, from Punjab's Rahimyar Khan district, says his sister's daughter was converted to Islam by a locally influential man after her husband's death. "I went to every authority, two top minority leaders, one a Hindu, the other a Parsi. But nothing happened. That's when I decided to leave Pakistan, the only home I had known."

Displaced people like Kewal Ram now live in wretched settlements in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Barmer. And though they are disappointed with the local authorities' attitudes, they say, "Goli maar do, par wapas nahin jayenge."

This exodus from Pakistan is not new. During the 1965 and 1971 wars, Hindus arrived in steady streams from across the border. "The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 sparked a violent reaction in Pakistan, forcing many Hindus to flee. In the following years, the rise of extreme fundamentalism in Pakistan further ensured that migration continued," says H S Sodha, president, Seemant Lok Sangathan, which works for refugees across Rajasthan.

The latest rush started around 2007. Refugees say fundamentalism has grown dramatically in Pakistan's Punjab. Dina Ram, who now lives in Jaisalmer's Bhil Basti, says older Muslims were more understanding towards minorities. "The younger boys are more fanatical," says this former resident of Rahimyar Khan. And it is not the Taliban at work.

Like Rana Ram, many of the displaced come from Sadiqabad tehsil. Its Rahim Yaar Khan district is too far away for the followers of Baitullah Mehsud, based in Pakistan's remote northwest. Rather, refugees say, a general pro-conversion social climate prevails in rural Punjab that encourages even shopkeepers, neighbours and schoolteachers to urge Hindus to convert. Allurements ("Tumhari shaadi kara denge"), taunts ("Why do you worship idols?"), fear ("Tum dozakh mein jaoge") and veiled threats ("Tumhare liye yehi accha rahega") — every ploy is used to make them cross over to Islam.

There's a class dimension to the problem too. The refugees are among the poorest of the poor. Many originally belong to Rajasthan's border districts; their ancestors had moved westward in search of employment before Partition. Most worked as farmhands for zamindars and then were forced out. Dhapobai from Bahawalpur district, who now lives on Jodhpur's outskirts, says her family changed home 25-30 times. Being rootless, they are at the mercy of the local powers: zamindars and maulvis. Class exploitation combines with religious bigotry to force them to quit Pakistan.

About 100 displaced families live in Kali Beri, 20 km northwest of Jodhpur. The settlement looks like a half-excavated Stone Age ruin abandoned by archeologists. Thorny vilayati babools are everywhere, but there is no sign of toilets, electricity or hope. "Every family has a malaria patient," says Goman Lal, a resident since 1997. "The men work in the stone quarries and do 10-12 hours of backbreaking toil. But they have no complaints. These mines have saved our life and honour."

They live under stacked blocks of unpolished sandstone. Byapari Ram, 32, stays here with his family. His arrival on January 4, 2009 was spurred by Rana Ram's plight. "I feared we would be the next target," he says. His new home is furnished with just a bunch of plastic sacks packed with clothes, and a trunk with his sisters' photographs. "I wish I could get visas and bring them here," he says.

Having fled from religious pressures, the displaced land in further humiliation. When they arrive on the Thar Express, which runs from Karachi to Jodhpur, border officials are rude and demand bribes. Imran Kumar says that at Munabao, the first stop in India, an official confiscated his passport and demanded Rs 7,000. He got away with paying Rs 2,600. "Back there, Muslims troubled us. But I can't understand why even Hindus treat us badly," he despairs.

A majority of the displaced are either Meghwals (SCs) or Bhils (STs). Those in Ramdev Nagar feel the absence of a proper burial ground. Though Hindus, the Meghwals bury their dead. "We have had to fight with other communities. The government has given us jeevan daan but we also need mrityu daan," says Nand Lal, a former driver in Karachi who got Indian citizenship in 2005.

There is another battle. Those on extended long-term visas are legally bound not to leave Jodhpur's municipal limits or travel west of NH-15. But with limited jobs, many slip awayto other towns in Rajasthan.

In December 2008, a high-powered committee submitted its report on ways of improving the lot of these displaced people. But, says H S Sodha, also a committee member, even those with citizenship are not part of any state scheme for SCs. They don't have BPL cards either. "They need better livelihood programmes and comprehensive social security. Land should be more easily made available to them. Those on long-term visas but yet to receive citizenship are not eligible for a driving licence, bank account or insurance scheme. This must change."

Citizenship itself is an issue. Before 2004, the displaced had to stay put for five years to become eligible. This has been extended to seven. Application fees too have doubled. Between 2004-05, 11,327 were granted citizenship. Expectedly, this number dropped to 1,201 in 2005-06 and 1,207 in 2006-07.

However, Naveen Mahajan, DM, Jodhpur, says that the administration is seriously trying to help. "We are preparing the list of those who have got citizenship. Our prime focus will be on BPL cards. We are identifying a piece of land for their rehabilitation in Jodhpur," he says.

One thing is for sure: nobody wants to go back. "Sar kalam kar do, wapas nahi jaoongi (You can chop my head off, I won't go back.)," says Chhannobai from Bahawalpur district. Jeobai, the family's female head, takes pride in the fact that "Bacchi bacha ke aayein hain. Yehi bahut hai. (We have saved our daughters. That's enough)."

Rana Ram now lives with his uncle on the city's outskirts. Every morning, he gets up around five, cooks for his kids and readies his eight-year-old son for school before setting out to work in the quarries. It's a tough life. But he doesn't care. "At least I have the freedom to keep my faith and live without fear," he says.

(With inputs from Anindo Dey, Ajay Parmar & Vimal Bhatia)

The great escape

On the midnight of August 15 last year, two young boys fled the bondage of their Muslim landlord and crossed the border to freedom.

The sand was soft and they could scoop it out with their bare hands. But the fence was deeper than they had imagined. It was midnight, August 15, 2008. The Indo-Pak border was floodlit and any moment they could have been caught and sent back to the hell they were trying to escape.

They had walked 20 km, fleeing at noon when everyone had gone for Friday prayers. It was sheer luck that in his rush, the master had forgotten to tie them up. For three years that had been the routine, ever since their father sold them off to the Pakistani landlord for Rs 50,000.

Bhagwan Ram was 14 then and Pahelwan Ram 11. Their mother had died and their father needed the money for his second marriage. So, Bhagwan Ram and his brother became the property of Haji Zamir. For three years, the lads were strapped to a plough and made to till the fields from 6 in the morning till 6 in the evening. Dinner was the Zamir family's leftovers. And, at night, they were tied to their cots.

This was why they were seeking freedom on the midnight of August 15 last year. They had heard of relatives who lived east, "where the sun rose every day", a place called Jaisalmer. So they followed the sun as it slid west, and then the stars and a smelly canal that runs from Rahimyar Khan to the Indian border. On the way, they stopped at Dadi Ka Mazar, and sought dua. If they were to cross the border, dodge BSF bullets, and eventually find their relatives, they would surely need more than just the blessings of Tanot mata, their deity.

But they needn't have been here at all. Their master had given them a choice: "Become Muslims, forget Tanot mata, stop worshipping the boots (idols), and from tomorrow, you will get some money, more rotis, more dal, and maybe later, some land, and even a woman in your bed. And at night, nobody will tie you up. You will be free".

They chose real freedom instead.

When they could dig no further, they pulled at the wires till the gap was wide enough for them to scrape through. They still remember how the barbs dug into their flesh, the blood — but they kept their tryst with the midnight hour and got their independence.

And then, after stumbling along the sand on the Indian side for an hour, maybe more, suddenly the three — their cousin Sumeer Ram had come along too — were overpowered by sleep.

They were woken by the sun beating down on their faces. "A farmer saw us," says Pahelwan. "He asked where we were from. We said we were from Pakistan, and asked for water. He filled our two bottles, but said he would have to take us to the police. That was fine by us. We wanted to tell the police our story. We wanted rotis and dal. We wanted them to take us to Jaisalmer, where every day from our virtual prison in Pakistan, we saw the sun rise."

When they were handed over, the BSF jawans blindfolded them and took them back to the border. "They followed our footsteps," says Sumeer Ram. "They wanted to find out if we were telling the truth." After that, it was a year and three days in a police lock-up at Ramgarh in Jaisalmer. They didn't mind this either. They were never tied up and there was always enough roti and dal. Bhagwan Ram said, "I held the feet of the police officer and told him to shoot me, kill me but not send me back."

Freedom finally came on August 19 this year, when the Union home ministry decided not to deport them. They were released on the guarantee of their grandfather, who lives in Jaisalmer's Bhil basti. He traced them after a local newspaper report about three boys who had run away from Pakistan.

It will be at least another seven years before Bhagwan, Pahelwan and Sumeer can become Indians. Till then, every Monday, they must visit the local police station to prove that they haven't gone back to the hell they managed to escape from.

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