by Maria Abi-Habib
Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Jodhpur, India, and Zia ur-Rehman from Karachi, Pakistan.
October 5, 2019
JODHPUR, India — By the time an angry Muslim mob stormed the local Hindu school and ransacked an adjacent temple a few weeks ago, many members of Pakistan’s dwindling Hindu minority had already been wondering whether it was worth trying to stay in a country where they felt increasingly unsafe.
In April, an angry mob vandalized a different Hindu temple, smashing its idols and chucking the pieces in an open sewer. In May, a Hindu veterinarian was accused of blasphemy in a neighboring town, his shop burned to the ground on the rumor that he was selling medicine wrapped in Islamic religious text.
More than 70 years after the partition of India and Pakistan, increasing violence in this officially Muslim country against the Hindu minority — about 1 percent of Pakistan’s 210 million people — is leading some Hindus to rethink the choices and fate that left their families on the Pakistani side of the line in 1947, residents say.
“Most of our elders at the time of partition did not migrate to India because they did not want to lose their businesses. But now they see it was the wrong decision,” said Kumar, a small-business owner from Ghotki District in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, where the attacks unfolded on Sept. 15. He asked that his last name be withheld, fearing mob violence.
“I am considering moving to India, where at least no one can kill me on the basis of my faith,” he said.
The trepidation among Pakistani Hindus is mirrored in many ways among the Muslim minority in India, where a campaign of Hindu nationalism led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party has left many Muslims feeling targeted. Sectarian fears in both India and Pakistan always peak during times of tension, and hostility between the neighbors is running particularly high right now.
In Pakistan, local officials say the pressure for Hindus to weigh moving to India has not been this great since a wave of sectarian violence led many to migrate in the 1990s, after a Hindu mob in India tore down a 16th-century mosque, the Babri Masjid, leading to retaliatory attacks in Pakistan.
The current migration is because of Mr. Modi’s open appeals to Hindu identity in India, they say, stripping the country of the secular framework it was founded on to give supremacy to their religion.
Since Mr. Modi’s election victory, Pakistani Hindus say they have had an easier time obtaining religious or pilgrimage visas to India, which they can then convert to long-term visas if they seek Indian citizenship.
Though the exact number of Hindu migrants is hard to pin down, indications of a wider push to go to India can be seen in the numbers of those long-term visas. In 2018, the Indian government granted 12,732 long-term visas, compared with 4,712 in 2017, and 2,298 in 2016, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. About 95 percent of long-term visas are granted to Pakistani Hindus, officials say.
Millions of Hindus remained in Pakistan when Britain carved out the state from the subcontinent to create a Muslim homeland at independence in 1947. They were unwilling to abandon their homes and businesses, like the millions of Muslims who ended up on the Indian side during partition, where now about 200 million live.
But angry sectarian mobs on both sides of the border sought to change those demographics at the nations’ birth, killing up to two million people and displacing 14 million. Trains packed with terrified Muslims and Hindus fleeing in opposite directions on the railway between India and Pakistan arrived full of corpses, passengers massacred mid-journey.
Train service between the countries was suspended when they went to war in 1965 and 1971, but eventually resumed. Last month, Pakistan suspended India-bound trains once again, protesting New Delhi’s move to strip the autonomy from the portion of Kashmir it controls, a Muslim-majority state the countries have long fought over.
Even among Pakistani Hindus who are considering going to India, there are very real reasons to hesitate.
Kumar is one who is torn. Though he was shaken by the recent violence in his hometown, he said he was still reluctant to pick up and leave when the trains start running again. He has said goodbye to neighbors who have migrated to India, only to see them return to Pakistan months or years later, disappointed.
Bhagchand Bheel is one of the disappointed. When he migrated to India in 2014, he was grateful to leave the violence and pressure of Karachi, Pakistan’s commercial hub. He boarded the Thar Express to Zero Point Station, the last stop before the border, where he and his family lugged their bags by foot into India, settling in a camp in the city of Jodhpur.
He was among his people, he thought, and could finally be free. But he is of a lower caste, and when he tried to enter a Hindu temple, he was barred entry by the priest because of it, he said. And when a friend tried to drink from the community water well, he was physically assaulted by upper caste Brahmins who accused him of polluting it.
“In Pakistan, the only thing that matters is if you are Hindu or Muslim,” said Mr. Bheel, whose last name is derived from his tribe. “Because we are Hindus, in Pakistan we were discriminated against. But in India, I face discrimination because I’m a Bheel.”
Like many Pakistani Hindus, Mr. Bheel migrated after Mr. Modi came to power in 2014, after a long campaign promoting Hindu nationalism.
Muslims in India say life has gotten progressively harder for them, too. Mr. Modi’s government is accused of turning a blind eye to the scores of Muslim men lynched by Hindu mobs. When an 8-year old Muslim girl was gang raped and killed in Kashmir last year by Hindu men, local police officers allegedly helped cover up the crime.
But despite the discrimination Muslims face in India, they do not tend to migrate to Pakistan in the numbers their Hindu counterparts in Pakistan do. Indian Muslims tend to migrate to the West instead.
In the Al Kausar Nagar migrant camp in Jodhpur, huts made out of thin, wispy branches, like birds’ nests, nestle in clusters, with quilts with vibrant Pakistani tribal designs hanging off their sides.
Bands of Pakistani Hindu women crouch over unfinished quilts, stitching away, hoping to sell them in the market to wealthier Indians. They complain that they receive little government assistance, siphoning what little electricity and water they can off municipal lines, and that the quality of public schooling for their children is not as good as it is in Pakistan, a main source of grievance for the many who migrated to give their children better opportunities.
This is not the Hindu paradise they had crossed the border to join, they said. This is not the India Mr. Modi promised them.
Mr. Bheel is wracked by doubt, the same doubt his grandfather had when he chose to keep the family in Pakistan during partition. Did he make the right choice?
He left his home and siblings in Karachi, trading a lucrative job as an administrator of a medical clinic there to live as a migrant in India. His medical diploma, one of the few possessions he brought with him, hangs proudly on a wall, although it is not valid in India. He struggles to make ends meet here.
“You take these decisions sometimes out of excitement for what your life could be,” Mr. Bheel said, his daughter cuddling beside him on a bench. “Then you arrive and realize it’s much different on the ground.”
Mr. Bheel looked on as his wife struggled to contain rainwater leaking from the ceiling, after a monsoon swiftly obliterated the sunny sky. Eventually she gave up, running out of pots and buckets.
“Maybe this wasn’t the right decision for me,” he said. “But maybe my children will look back and say, ‘My father made the right choice.’”