Indian citizenship is still a far cry for thousands of non-Muslim migrants living across the country, more than a year after the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
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The law that was passed on December 11, 2019, had sparked nationwide protests as it was deemed anti-Muslim. It grants Indian citizenship to what is called ‘persecuted minorities’ from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014.
Notwithstanding the criticism it had drawn, thousands of refugees in India saw this law as their only hope to become Indian citizens. But it has been more than a year since the CAA was passed, no immigrant has been granted citizenship under the Act.
Thousands of migrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan, living in appalling conditions across the country say they still await their citizenship status despite fighting for years.
More than 22,000 Hindus from Pakistan, living in the vicinity of Rajasthan’s Jodhpur city for years, complain of their inability to avail basic services. Although the state government has acknowledged that around 8000 of them are eligible to receive citizenship, not one has been offered so far.
Settled near the water treatment plant of Jodhpur city, some 250 Pakistani Hindu families complain of the lack of basic services including water supply, electricity, roads, among other amenities. The community, which migrated from Pakistan to India many years ago, has been struggling for identity and acceptability in Indian society for years without any success.
The people in this slum live in huts made of straw and bamboo. People living here have no identity documents, which denies them access to avail government services.
“We have been trapped since we were born. If we continued to live in Pakistan, we would have been called Kafirs, and now coming to India, we have one religion and caste, which is Pakistani.” Pakistan has become our identity. We are called Pakistanis, wherever we go,” one of the refugees living in the area told BBC.
BBC reports that only about 200 of the 1200 residents in this slum have managed to get their ration cards. No one possesses a bank account, driving license, or any other Indian identity documents.
Similar is the situation with the 200 Pakistani Hindu families living in North Delhi’s Majnu Ka Tilla who are yet to get citizenship under the CAA as promised by the federal government. The families said they saw a glimmer of hope in the legislation; however, no action was taken to grant them any acceptance since then.
The population here complains of severe unemployment and lack of basic service from the government, with the Covid-19 pandemic hitting them hard.
“We faced religious persecution in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We face identity discrimination in India,” said Surbeer, a Sikh refugee from Afghanistan, whose visa has expired, and now says he is living on a borrowed time.
“They ask me to return to the place I fled [from]. How can I go back now? For me, India is my home,” Al Jazeera quoted him as saying.
The city of Amritsar in Punjab hosts a large population of Sikh refugees who have traveled from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the last few decades. The residents here also complain of frequent discrimination, besides the difficulty in accessing government services for their children.
The controversial Citizenship Act passed by the BJP government had sparked violence and communal clashes in New Delhi and India’s Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is yet to draft guidelines to implement it. Home minister Amit Shah blamed the delay in notifying rules on the pandemic in the year 2020.
Surprisingly, many refugees have been going back to Pakistan due to persistent difficulties and government apathy. As many as 243 Pakistani nationals, including several Hindu and Sikh refugees, were given permission to return to Pakistan as they continued to face “financial hardships” in India, The Economic Times reported on November 26, 2020.
The newspaper reported that a batch of Pakistani Hindu and Sikh refugees living in India was going back, “giving up on their dreams of acquiring Indian citizenship in the face of financial hardships”.
“For the past four years, I have been running to FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) Jodhpur and home ministry in New Delhi to get visas for my wife and children. I have given up now and want to go back,” a 37-year-old refugee, Shreedhar told ET.
Another refugee said they came to India for a better livelihood, but the immense financial difficulties made it impossible for his family to continue living in India.
The report added that applications to return to Pakistan from the refugees were received from many states, including Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Delhi. In many cases, harassment and corruption at government offices during field verification had made the struggle more difficult.
Addressing a rally in poll-bound West Bengal on February 11, the Union home minister had announced that the process of granting Indian citizenship to refugees would begin once the process of COVID-19 vaccination ends.
Many in the BJP leadership now fear that the delay and confusion over the implementation of the CAA could make many turn against the saffron party.
“As the home minister of this country, I want to assure the minorities of India that none of you will lose citizenship. The CAA is about granting citizenship to refugees, it is not about taking away anyone’s citizenship,” he assured the crowd.