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Foreigners in their own land, where education is guaranteed

A family of Pakistani Hindus from Sindh wants only one thing from the Delhi government: that their teenaged children be allowed to attend school despite being overage. Will anyone listen?

Dotted with small temples, Sanjay Colony in Bhatti Mines area is much like the other unauthorised villages in Delhi. Its inner lanes are unpaved, animals are everywhere – stray dogs and monkeys. The latter venture into homes like thieves, stealing bread and milk packets from inside unsuspecting residents’ refrigerators.

One of the more recent occupiers of a home here is Ravi Kumar and his family. Ravi is a 17-year-old who looks just like any other teenager, listening to music through his earphones, walking nonchalantly. But he is different from the many boys his age in the city, as he hails from Pakistan’s Sindh. He along with his parents and four sisters reached India in May this year.

They fled their home country from the fear of persecution, as they are from the minority community there: Hindus.

As he leads us to his new home, about a 10-minute walk from the main road, Ravi talks about the place he once called home. “I miss it, of course. In the beginning the sadness was much more but now I’m more used to it. I don’t speak to my friends that often because it just makes me feel worse”.

In the capital of India, he has made some friends at school, but not close enough to spend time with. Now as he and his two sisters have been removed from the Bhatti Mines’ Government Senior Secondary School – which they had been attending for the past two months — all he does is sit at home or lie on his cot, trying to pass time.

Ravi, his sisters Sanjina Bai (16) and Moona Kumari (18) had been studying in Grade 9 for just two months before they were removed. This is because they have gone above the upper age limit set for various classes – through a circular in 2016 by the Directorate of Education —  in the Delhi government school.

This case has reached the Delhi High Court. A writ petition deems this move by the authorities as “unconstitutional, arbitrary, discriminatory, violative of fundamental right to education as guaranteed…under Articles 14, 15, 21, 21-A, 38 and 41 of the Constitution of India read with the Delhi School Education Act, 1973 and the provisions of Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009”.

We meet the other members of the family in the two-room home, with a courtyard acting as their makeshift third room.

Gulsher, the siblings’ father, says he doesn’t want anything from the Indian government but that they reinstate the children in school. “We have been humiliated”, he says, “In Sindh Pakistan, the situation is very bad. No one knows how it is for the Hindus over there. No one would leave (their home) happily, right? They would leave because there’s some problem.”

And despite their struggles he says, the government “can’t even do this much”.

In Sindh, Gulsher worked as a truck driver and earned enough to get his children educated. Here he does not have a job and depends on his two elder sons to send them money.

“It isn’t like we haven’t given our children education. The two elder ones work in an offshore oil drill, they live well. I need to get the rest of my children full education as well. How can I not?”

The three of his children started attending classes here on July 8 but were removed on September 19. “We bought them all the books, clothes, shoes, spent all that money for them. And then two months later the school said they cannot continue their studies”.

Even before they were debarred, the family knew this day was inevitable. “We had already been warned, so we went from pillar to post to get some relief. They sent us from one office to the other. Sometimes we couldn’t even eat food, we would just run around but no one helped us. Time kept passing and then finally the administration said now they are overage and cannot continue. We are not disagreeing that their age is over. We had trouble for the past two years to get here.”

They are not the first case from Bhatti Mines to need special consideration. In 2016 the same school had denied another Pakistani citizen admission on grounds of not having proper documentation.

Another case from May this year, saw nine children belonging from two Pakistani Hindu families hailing from Sindh, denied admission in the Bhatti Mines school.

First step in a long journey

Gulsher and his family had first tried to settle here in India in the year 2016. But as luck had it, just 25 days after they had reached, Gulsher’s mother fell ill and they had to return to Pakistan.

She passed away two months later but since then they have been unable to secure visas.

There have been several incidents which have soured relations over recent years between India and Pakistan. And around the time Gulsher found it hard to come back, he says the Pathankot attacks was the reason.

In January 2, 2016 a terror attack at the Pathankot Air Force base had shaken ties between the neighbouring countries, which have only become worse now. The then external affairs minister (late) Sushma Swaraj had in August that year declared that India had ruled out any dialogue with Pakistan until it had “taken steps on the Pathankot terror attack”.

Gulsher says they kept trying and on the third attempt they got the visa again to come back to Delhi.

His daughters tell us how important it is for them to complete their education. They have big plans. Moona is more vocal, Sanjina a little shy, but when asked about what she wants to do when she grows up her face becomes more confident as she mimics her sister’s intentions – to join the Indian civil services.

Unlike in their home back in Pakistan, the sisters enjoy some amount of freedom here. They had made friends in their new school before being removed.

But if they missed their friends like their brother Ravi did, they don’t have much to say. The reason being, their parents say is, “The girls had friends in classes but they wouldn’t go out or spend time together outside the classroom. They were Muslim girls. It isn’t like how it is here.”

The girls would never go out unaccompanied by a male chaperone. Even his daughters would go to school and return accompanied by their brother.  “Now my girls can step outside their home”.

Ravi later told us that there had been many incidences of girls being kidnapped and forcefully married in neighbouring areas. This was one of the main reasons that they decided to leave.

In Rajya Sabha this year, the Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, had said that the government, “from time to time, has come across reports of problems faced by members of the minority communities in Pakistan, including those of intimidation, abduction, persecution, forced conversions and forced marriages.”

While the Kumars didn’t point to a particular incident of any such discrimination or violent behaviour, Gulsher says that the situation there was such that “If they want to fight, they just come after us”. There was, he said, no one to listen to their problems: “Hindus don’t have the law on their side (in Pakistan). Where will the poor man go? Here (in Delhi) a poor person and a rich person both have rights. Here it isn’t like that (like in Sindh).”

They kept hearing about incidents against Hindus taking place and Gulsher says they then decided to finally leave. “If one keeps hearing that the water is rising, that person will not wait for the flood to sweep through, right? They will move out before it gets them as well”.

And it has been rapidly changing, he says. “We have Muslims friends, there are good people and there are bad. But the atmosphere is changing.”

Moving across borders

The family is not alone. Since the 1970s, Bhatti Mines has been a refuge for migrants from Pakistan.

According to the Habitat International Coalition — Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN), the area, spread out over 145 acres, was created for refugees from Pakistan by late Sanjay Gandhi in 1976. It had grown into a full-fledged village with state support until 1990.

It has also been embroiled in struggle to retain its place as it occupies space in Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. But it still is one of the major areas in Delhi where people from Pakistan find a home – others include areas in North Delhi: Majnu ka Tilla and Adarsh Nagar.

“There are many families who have been living here for years. Every few months, at least 3-4 families come to Bhatti mines from Pakistan.” While many keep coming, there are also those who leave, finding no means of earning a livelihood and no family to fall back on.

“This home we are living in has been given to us by our extended family who now live in Delhi”, Gulsher says, admitting not everyone is this lucky. “Only those stay that get some help. Else they try and go to Rajasthan or Lucknow, where they have relatives”.

But two families were not so lucky and left for Pakistan recently. Gulsher tells us, “Some have children who send money. Some have money and can come here and start some business. Some have neither. They don’t have any means to make an income. What will they do for food? Where would they stay? They leave everything behind and come here. But after a few months they can’t take it any more and leave”.

In Delhi, there may be struggles, but he finds comfort in the fact that there are people like him around. For the first time, his family spent Dussehra in India. “We performed all the rituals, had a few children come over as well”.

In this area, there are many Rajputs like him, he tells us proudly, “This area has at least 20 homes of Rajput Pakistanis.” Clearly the Hindu caste system hasn’t lost any place in their social structure. “No one taunts us, because mostly everyone is from there and we are all mostly related”, talking about the area he lives in, the Bhatti Mines.

While we walked in from the main road though, it was quite apparent that not all were Pakistanis. Even the mention of the word resulted in some loud reactions from some men, which although unclear, did not sound positive towards the long-time foe.

Ravi merely says, “People here tend to get agitated.”

Where they come from

The three siblings are missing out on classes and education just as they did after leaving India in 2016. They don’t know when their case will be resolved and can only hope that the government helps. The father at least has hope in the central government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The Modi government has done a very good job. He has given us visa, allowed us (Pakistanis) to get Aadhaar cards when required. “No matter how much I praise him, it will be less. Getting a visa was tough before he came. We had tried before in 2014 and 2015 but couldn’t secure it.”

This, while the first term of this government began in 2014, and he himself has not been able to get himself an Aadhaar card nor a licence.

He just wishes that the government remembers his forefathers and their “sacrifices”. “We were part of this country, the Rajputs sacrificed their lives for this country. First India and Pakistan were one. Unluckily, we went to that side”, Gulsher explains, making sense of his own place in this country where he’s deemed a foreigner.

He was about two years old when the Partition took place. “We stayed in Sindh. Some went there, some came here. They (officials) must think if it were the other way around, how would they feel if their children wouldn’t get admission in school?” he asks and goes on to say, “We are not intruders, the government has given us visas”.

The family has entered India with visas which will last them for two years after which they will reapply until they are eligible for naturalised citizenship.

One report by Al-Jazeera cites the number of Pakistani Hindus which have been granted visas between 2011 and 2018 as 36,000.

A New York Times report shares data by the Ministry of External Affairs which says that 95% of long-term visas are given to Pakistani Hindus. In 2018, the Indian government granted 12,732 long-term visas, compared with 4,712 in 2017, and 2,298 in 2016.

This sharp rise goes in tandem with PM Modi’s promise to Hindu minority citizens of Pakistan, which also makes him a big hit among them.

His BJP-led government also plans to introduce the Citizenship Amendment Bill. This is to reportedly make it easier for especially Hindu refugees to get citizenship in the country along with, as Home Minister Amit Shah pointed out in October 1, to all “Sikh, Jain, Buddhist and Christian refugees”.

But citizenship isn’t a point of concern yet. What Gulsher and his family hope is that the government allows the three children their right to education and not compromise their future.  As Ravi walks us back to the main road from where we can access public transport, he tells us his friends, majority Muslims, keep telling him to come back. “They say: Come, we will not let anything happen to you. Tell us if someone troubles you, we will take care of it”.

What he wants now, though, that his sisters with their dreams of becoming officers quit “sitting at home and cooking” and to get education – which the Capital city promises all its citizens each day.