They had waited for years. So when the opportunity came they took it, even if it meant leaving behind friends and neighbours, brothers and husbands. Even a three-day-old baby boy. Seven weeks ago, almost 500 Hindus from Pakistan crossed into India on the pretence of visiting a religious festival. In reality, they had come to escape religious persecution and poverty. Some said they would rather commit suicide than go back.
“Pakistan is worse than hell for Hindus,” said one of those who managed to flee, Laxman Das, a fruit trader from Hyderabad.
Though Pakistan was established as a state for Muslims, the original vision of its founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was of a place of tolerance and inclusion.
“You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state,” he said in speech in August 1947.
Yet Jinnah’s vision has steadily been eroded. Today, as Pakistan prepares for a historic election on 11 May, its Christians and Hindus, which together comprise perhaps 3 per cent of the population, face persecution and assault. Some have fled.
“If people have any resources, they want to leave here,” Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said from Karachi.
The Pakistanis who have made their way to the village of Bijwasan, not far from Delhi’s international airport, all belong to the same low Hindu caste and come from the same part of Sindh province. They have applied unsuccessfully for visas to India for years and hit upon the idea of asking to visit the Kumbh Mela festival, the most auspicious date in the Hindu calendar. Though the festival is held every three years, it is only every 12 years that it is held at the confluence of the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Allahabad. This year the festival was held in February and March.
“Getting a passport is not so difficult. But getting a visa is very hard,” said 35-year-old Hanuman Prashad, another fruit trader from Hyderabad, explaining how they told the Indian authorities they wished to attend the festival.
The Hindus, who came in three groups, said their biggest motivation to leave was the challenge of educating their children. There was discrimination in government schools, where they were referred to as “kafirs”, told to go and work in the fields and obliged to recite the six kalimas, or tenets, of Islam.
For girls, it was even more difficult, so much so that few of the families bothered sending their daughters to school. “For the wealthy Hindus it is easier – they can send their children to better schools or else abroad,” Mr Das said.
They said the situation had become worse since the rule of the military leader General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who seized power in 1977 and for the next decade oversaw an increased Islamisation of Pakistan. Following the notorious destruction of India’s Babri mosque by a Hindu mob in 1992, the Hindus of Pakistan were often the victims of revenge attacks.
While hundreds of Hindus received visas to attend the festival, not everyone did. Almost everyone at Bijwasan – where they are squeezed more than 20 to a room in a former school, the air filled with flies – can tell a story of leaving someone behind.
Hanuman Prashad, who came to India with his wife and six children, said his parents had not been successful. When it came to leaving, with the knowledge he would not return, everyone wept. But his parents were insistent. “Whatever happens to us, go and save your life. Take your kids,” they told him.
Bharti Sulanki had travelled to the crossing at the Pakistani border town Khokhrapar with her husband and seven children, the youngest being only three-days old. She said the Pakistani authorities demanded a passport and visa for the newborn, too young even to have been named.
She said she pleaded with the guards to let her cross with the boy she was still breastfeeding but they refused. Dazed and tear-stained, Ms Sulanki said she believed she had no alternative but to hand the child to a relative who had come to the border with them. Since then she has been unable to make contact to discover what has happened to her baby.
She said she had prayed they would get their visas earlier so she could have given birth in India.
“I had no option,” she sobbed. “I sacrificed the baby for the sake of the other six children, so they can have an education.”
A 30-year-old pregnant woman called Laran Keswari was equally distraught. She had crossed with her five children but her husband, who is disabled, had not obtained a visa. She told him she did not want to go without him but he insisted she go ahead for the sake of their children. “God is on your side,” he told her.
Ms Keswari is anxious about how she will manage by herself with her children, hoping against hope that her husband will be able to join them. “We speak on the phone but we are both always crying,” she said.
An irony of the group’s exodus from Pakistan, a journey to escape discrimination, is that it was made possible by people with fundamental and, in some cases, extremist views. Their host in Bijwasan was Naher Singh, a former customs officer and policeman, who accommodated another smaller group of refugees in 2011. He asked his rent-paying tenants to leave his property and housed the Pakistanis instead. “These people are my God and Goddess. I worship them,” he said.
Mr Singh said the cost of feeding and housing the 483 people was met by various hardline Hindu groups, including the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Some of their members have been linked to confrontations with minority groups across India.
Mr Singh, who has been rousing his refugee guests at 3am to lead them in yoga and religious chants, said he wanted to forcibly drive Muslims from India. He made a series of inflammatory remarks.
Mr Singh was accompanied by a Hindu priest. Asked if Mr Singh was not displaying the sort of bigotry from which he claimed to be saving the refugees, the priest replied: “This is God talking through him. And I agree with him.”
The government of India has yet to publicly comment on the refugees or its plans for them. Sending them back to Pakistan would be politically fraught. Pakistan has not commented on the matter.
Mr Singh said he would fight any attempt to repatriate the refugees and claimed they would be accepted by the local community. He said: “We will find jobs for them here in the villages.”
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