Citizen Issue |

Neither Here, nor There: Pakistani Hindu Claims to Indian Citizenship

Natasha Raheja & Shuchi Kapoor

Modiji ne bulaaya (Modiji called us),” Marvi said to me at the kutchery (District Administration) one balmy afternoon, as she and her ten children were waiting to hear back from the Foreigners’ Registration Office on the status of their resident permit application. Their visa had expired and they sought to “regularise” their stay in Jodhpur by getting a legal resident permit. It was Marvi’s fifth visit to the office in the past month, to no avail. Four years ago, her family had left work as daily-wage agricultural labourers in Pakistan’s Matiari district to move to Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Marvi told me about her brother-in-law’s dry-cleaning shop that was looted twice and how one of her cousins was mugged multiple times while working as a truck driver. They hoped that in Jodhpur they would live in more sukoon (peace) and that their children would have better education and employment opportunities. After all, their pardaade (ancestors) were from the region, so they felt an affinity to the contiguous Thar Desert that spans across Sindh and Rajasthan. Marvi’s was among the hundreds of Pakistani Bhil families in Jodhpur with short-term visit visas to India, where they sought to resettle and pursue citizen status.

When a Deputy Superintendent of Police, who supervised one of the immigration offices in Rajasthan, asked me what the Pakistanis were saying about their reasons for migration, I echoed what Marvi had told me: Modiji had called them. “As if Modi handed out personal invitations to them,” said the officer incredulously, with a laugh. Today, according to local immigration officials in Jodhpur, who cite security reasons for why they cannot give exact migration numbers, an estimated 2,000 Pakistani nationals cross the India-Pakistan border into western India each year. Many of these Pakistanis are scheduled-caste or tribal Hindus who believe they are caught on the wrong side of the border. They imagine going to India as a religious pilgrimage or a return to the ancestral homeland, and enter the country with short-term visit or pilgrimage visas for specified places of worship, or where family members may live. However, many overstay their permitted time, and express fears of returning to Pakistan, where they face religious and caste discrimination and economic insecurity.

Perhaps when Marvi claimed that “Modiji called them,” she was referring to a 2014 campaign speech he gave in Barmer, assuring the crowd that Hindus from Pakistan
would be welcomed in India. A short video of this speech also circulated in WhatsApp groups for Pakistani Hindus in India as reassurance of their acceptance. Indeed, since
the BJP’s election in 2014, the party has expanded special facilities offered to Pakistani Hindus, in addition to reducing citizenship application fees explicitly for religious minorities from neighboring countries. India’s affordance of special visas and residence permits to Hindus from Pakistan is a long- standing immigration policy with bipartisan support over the decades since Partition. Today, the Indian government allows Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, Buddhists, and Jains from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to seek long-term residence and citizenship by naturalisation on the basis of their religious minority status in their home countries, though the reality of the situation is such that the recognition and services promised to these communities are regularly deferred.

However, being Hindu is often not enough to garner acceptance in India. Pakistani Hindus often feel stigmatised for their low-caste or tribal status and their ties with Pakistan, considered an “enemy state.” Some suspicious local residents compare them to the character of Sita, the wife of the Hindu god Rama who, in the Ramayana, slept in another man’s kingdom. Some local workers also resent Pakistanis as competitors for jobs who undercut established rates of compensation. While Hindu identification offers Pakistanis cross-border mobility to India, alongside an avenue for collective belonging and some entitlement to an imagined, Hindu India, this dissonance can be disenchanting.

Since 2014, under the BJP, the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has organized two citizenship camps in Jodhpur, where Pakistani nationals can submit applications for naturalization. Pakistani Hindus in Jodhpur keep hoping that the central government will organise another camp as they did in 2005, when the Congress government, along with the BJP-led Rajasthan government, awarded Indian citizenship to close to 13,000 Pakistanis.

Marvi’s family and the other Bhil households that live in a settlement on the outskirts of Jodhpur, had originally entered India on 15 to 30-day visas to visit the pilgrimage site of Haridwar. They were both saving money and waiting for a special occasion (such as a visit from Pakistani relatives) before undertaking the pilgrimage. I had originally met Marvi and two of her daughters in 2015 at a handicrafts stall at an Indian Industry Mega Fair in Jodhpur, where a local NGO that advocated for Pakistani Hindus in India had asked them to showcase their craft of patchwork. Fair-goers walked by as these women cut pieces of colourful cloth into various geometric shapes and then carefully turned the edges under to stitch the cutouts onto block pieces of fabric. Marvi and her daughters told me about how they would stand at a major intersection near their settlement where labour trucks drove by in the morning to pick up people for daily work. Most recently, Marvi and other women in her settlement worked for months extracting aloe vera gel to supply Patanjali Ayurved, a consumer goods company started by magnate Baba Ramdev. Once there were no more plants left, they had to find new work. For a few months, some of the women in their settlement stitched white kurtas for a fashion designer they had never met; Marvi showed me some of the kurtas and compared them to the baggy kind that Pakistanis wore. One day, when I was at Marvi’s home, a women’s empowerment NGO came by the settlement and promised to return with a mobile beauty school training program to expand possible work opportunities.

Another afternoon, when one of Marvi’s brothers was trying to convince her to get an Aadhar card as an exercise in being independent and modern, he gestured toward me and said, “Just look at her, she’s so modern. Her bag must just be full of documents and cards.” Among the papers I carried was a copy of my Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. Though I was born in America and have never lived in India for more than a year or two at a time, it took me just a few months on the basis of my parents’ Indian birth to get an OCI card, for which Marvi and other Pakistanis are not eligible despite having parents or grandparents born in undivided India. Who then is a desirable citizen to the Indian state?

Marvi often voiced her longing for nagarikta (citizenship), with which Pakistanis in India could travel freely, obtain ration cards and utilities, and enroll in public schools, among other benefits. The continued liminality of Pakistani nationals in India points to how citizenship functions as an axis of inequality, which maintains hierarchal socio-legal orders within and among nations. In migrating to India and seeking citizenship, Marvi and other Pakistani Hindus confront the ways that caste, class, and religion, are inflected in their pursuit of belonging and recognition; “Neither here, nor there,” Marvi would often lament.

Natasha Raheja is a documentary filmmaker and Postdoctoral Associate of Anthropology at Cornell University.

Shuchi Kapoor is a self-taught documentary photojournalist, whose interests lie in regimes of representation and visual cultures. Her work focuses on humanistic stories and documentation spanning across regions, cultures, and mindsets in India.