Tejabhai Jepar was four years old when his family moved from Bhuj in the Kutch desert to Mirpur in the Sindh region, hoping to find a way out of poverty. It was 1947 – the year of Partition – and the Jepars soon found themselves stuck in the new country of Pakistan, unable to go back to their village.
As Meghwar Dalits who practised Hinduism, they faced discrimination from their Muslim neighbours if they wore bindis or chanted Hindu prayers out loud. They often lived in fear of abductions and forced religious conversions. Years ago, Tejabhai Jepar’s niece was kidnapped and her family never found her again.
It took Tejabhai Jepar 63 years to migrate back to India and register himself as a refugee from Pakistan. He had to wait another seven years before he could apply for Indian citizenship in 2016. But today, almost 73 years after he left Kutch, he is still unable to return to the village of his birth.
“When I brought my family to India in 2010, we tried to get visas to Kutch, but the authorities refused,” said Jepar, who is now 76, stooping and white-haired. “They gave us tourist visas only for Ahmedabad, which we have been extending for almost ten years. Until we get Indian citizenship, I cannot leave Ahmedabad to go home.”
This week, the Modi government pushed through an amendment to India’s citizenship law, which could ostensibly help Pakistani refugees like the Jepars become Indian citizens more smoothly and quickly than before. The amendment is controversial because it excludes Muslim refugees and only covers Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Christians and Parsis from three countries. It extends citizenship to undocumented migrants from these communities, who can prove they fled religious persecution before December 31, 2014. It also speeds up the process for them, allowing six years of residence in India to count towards citizenship as opposed to eleven years previously.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill was widely criticised within and outside India, but its passage in Parliament has left many Pakistani refugees in India ecstatic. An estimated 41,000 Pakistani nationals are living in India on a long-term basis – most of them either Hindu or Sikh.
On December 12, Pakistani Hindus at refugee camp in North Delhi’s Adarsh Nagar celebrated with BJP flags and slogans of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”. One of the refugees, Aarti Devi, who came to India from Sindh in Pakistan six years ago, even named her two-day old daughter Nagrikta – or citizenship.
“I named her Nagrikta out of happiness,” she said. “I feel that something will change if we get citizenship. We have to get it and we will.”
Arjun Das, a 52-year-old street hawker who migrated from Sindh to Delhi in 2011, declared: “Our banwaas [exile] is over.”
But in their crowded two-room flat in Ahmedabad’s Thakkarnagar area, Tejabhai Jepar and his family showed little enthusiasm for the Bill.
“We support the Bill, but we don’t know yet if it will benefit poor people like us,” said Moolo Jepar, Tejabhai’s eldest son and a retired mason who helps his brothers run a tailoring business from home. “In our experience, the process has been very tiring and expensive and involves too much running around.”
A complicated process
Jepar and 16 other members of his family applied for Indian citizenship in early 2017, submitting their documents with the Ahmedabad District Collectorate.
This was two years after the Modi government made legal changes that allowed asylum-seekers from minority communities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to indefinitely stay in India on long-term visas. Another change introduced by the government in 2016 allowed collectors in 16 districts across seven states – including Ahmedabad in Gujarat – to grant citizenship to asylum-seekers. The aim was to speed up the citizenship process for thousands of refugees.
This delegation of power to 16 district collectors, according to the union home ministry, enabled 2,447 “legal migrants” from Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and Christian communities to get citizenship between 2016 and July 2019. At the Ahmedabad Collectorate, a junior official told Scroll.in that his office had cleared citizenship for at least 600 Pakistanis – most of them Sindhi and Maheshwari Hindus – since 2016.
But only four members of the Jepar family found a place among those 600. Since Tejabhai Jepar’s youngest son, Chetan, had married an Indian woman from Kutch, he and his children were granted citizenship within 11 months of application. The rest of the family has been waiting anxiously for three years, but have still not made it as Indian citizens.
Until they get citizenship, asylum-seekers are not allowed to buy property in India and are restricted by their visas to specific parts of the country. The Jepar family, for instance, has been restricted to Ahmedabad city, even though they long to join their extended clan in rural Kutch.
“For the past two years, we have been visiting or calling the Collector’s office almost every week, and we have still not been told where our papers our stuck,” said Moolo Jepar. “Modi ji keeps saying, ‘mere Hindu, aa jao’ [my Hindus, come to India], but we know it is not as simple as that.”
The Jepars started their citizenship application procedure by paying an agent to fill up the online application form available in English. In the form, they had to fill in details about their family background, origin and why they were seeking asylum. The agent charged Rs 1,000 for each person’s form – a fortune for a large family that earns barely Rs 20,000 a month.
After submitting their forms and supporting documents to the district Collectorate, applications are typically verified by three different agencies: the state police, the state intelligence bureau and the central intelligence bureau. “Once we get positive comments from all three agencies, we grant citizenship and organise camps to hand out citizenship certificates,” said a junior official at the Ahmedabad District Collectorate. “The whole process takes just five to six months.”
Applicants like the Jepars, however, claim that the process takes much longer. “My brother Chetan got his citizenship because he is married to an Indian, and even he had to wait for a year to get it,” said Moolo Jepar. “For the rest of us, they have told us that our parents’ applications will need to be cleared first. But our parents are old now and can barely walk. How long will they have to wait?”
Frequent visits to the Collectorate to check on the status of their applications has been a financial strain on the family – each trip from Thakkarnagar to the Collector’s office costs at least Rs 100.
Proving religious persecution
Arjun Das, 52, was an agricultural worker in Hyderabad district in Pakistan’s Sindh province, and now sells mobile phones in Delhi.
In the 1990s, he visited India around five times for pilgrimages to cities like Haridwar in Uttarakhand, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, Kurukshetra in Haryana and Ayodhya.
Then, in 2011, while on another pilgrimage with his wife and seven children, he decided to stay back. He was tired of the religious discrimination his family faced as Hindus in Pakistan, he said.
But the Indian government did not extend his family’s visas. They were about to be sent back with 150 other Pakistani Hindu refugees when the Delhi High Court ordered a stay on their deportation in December 2011, acting on a Public Interest Litigation filed by the All India Hindu Mahasabha.
After the Modi government changed the rules in 2015 to allow Pakistani refugees to stay on long-term visas, Das and his family have extended their visas regularly. “We just renewed it again and it is valid till 2021,” he said.
The family has completed six years in India and is eligible for citizenship under naturalisation.
With collectors of two districts of Delhi empowered to grant citizenship to Pakistani refugees, Das’s family filed an application in May. They did not submit any affidavits declaring they had fled Pakistan because of religious persecution or the fear of it, nor any documents to support such a claim – a stipulation while applying for citizenship under the new law. Instead, they submitted affidavits of two Indian citizens testifying to the good character of his family.
“We do not know anyone here so someone from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad volunteered,” he said.
But the application process did not end there as Das spent hours at the magistrate’s office making enquiries. “Two to three days back, I got to know that my application has gone to the police but I am at the magistrate’s office every second or third day,” he said.
“The officials never meet me,” he added. “They keep telling me to come the next day. It has been more than seven months.”
According to community activists in Gujarat, around 2,000 Pakistani Hindu families live in the state, nearly half of them in Ahmedabad district. As Dalits, the Jepars are part of a very small minority among them. The Ramanis (name changed), on the other hand, belong to the larger Pakistani Sindhi community living in Ahmedabad’s Sardarnagar area.
Like the Jepars, the Ramanis, too, have had citizenship granted only to some members of their family. “My wife and I came to India from Sindh in 1989, and we got our citizenship in 2006,” said Suraj Ramani, a businessman. “But our children, who were born in India, have still not received citizenship. It has been 13 years, and we have no idea why.”
The Ramanis ran a grocery store in Sindh’s Kherpur district, and it is still managed by Suraj Ramani’s brothers. While money was not a problem, Suraj Ramani and his wife chose to come to India to escape the environment of fear prevalent among Pakistani Hindus. In Ahmedabad, Ramani had to start from scratch, setting up a small clothing business with the help of relatives.
In 2004, the central government briefly granted special powers to district collectors in Gujarat and Rajasthan to process citizenship applications of Pakistani migrants. “At least 20,000 people in these two states got citizenship during that time,” said Hindu Singh Sodha, a prominent Jodhpur-based activist working for Pakistani refugees in India.
Suraj Ramani and his wife were among those who benefited from the fast-tracked citizenship protest at the time. But they did not expect their children, aged 20 and 17 today, to be left out. “Maybe it’s because when they were very young, we had included their names on their mother’s Pakistani passport,” said Ramani. “But even then, their place of birth is still India, and if their parents are now Indian, why not them?”
Since 2006, the Ramanis have made multiple attempts to find out the status of their children’s files. At the Ahmedabad Collectorate, they have been told their files are stuck in Delhi. “We even made a trip to Delhi once, where they told us that our children’s files had been sent back to Ahmedabad.”
In 2016, when collectors in Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar and Kutch districts were granted powers to process citizenship requests, the Ramanis tried to trace their children’s applications again. “But this time we were told that only people with new applications could approach them,” said Ramani. “Now with the new Citizenship Amendment Bill, we have been told that our children’s old files will be cancelled and we will have to start the process all over again.”
The Ramanis are strong supporters of the Bill, and hope that it will finally bring citizenship for their children. But they have also seen enough corruption in the system to remain somewhat sceptical. “Many Pakistanis who have got citizenship in recent years have paid agents between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 to get it done,” said Ramani, who claims he cannot afford to pay that kind of money per child.
In 2017, Ramani claims he was forced to shut down his business after sales were hit by demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. Since then, the family has been surviving on Rs 10,000 a month that their college-going son earns as a part-time mobile phone salesman. “We will wait to see if the new law makes a difference. If not, we might have to pay up to get our children’s citizenship.”