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The Nowhere People

Independence is, for a few hundred Pakistan citizens who emigrated to the erstwhile Malabar province in Kerala, a funny word.

More so this year -- for even as the rest of the country prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India's Independence, this particular section of Kerala society lives with the knowledge that it does not even have an identity of its own.

We refer here to the 300-odd people who, along with the general exodus, migrated to Lahore and Karachi during Partition. At that point, they were under the impression that as good Muslims, they were supporting the creation of Muslim Pakistan.

Disillusionment was swift -- even before they really found their feet in the newly created land, they were deported as 'infiltrators'. Thus, they returned to the Malabar area -- and since then, have lived in the twilight zone, belonging to neither India nor Pakistan.

Now concentrated in the Kannur, Kasargode, Kozhikode and Malappuram areas, they have, today, only one legacy from Independent India -- sob stories.

Take Hassan Koya (84), from Pandikkad in Malappuram district. A resident of Bombay at the time of Partition, he joined a group of caravans headed for Karachi. And once there, he set up a stationary shop and even married a Pakistani woman.

In 1953, Koya came to India to visit his relatives. And returned a little over a month later to find that his shop had a new owner and his wife, a new husband.

Even before he could protest, insult was added to injuries by the Pakistan police, who arrested him as an infiltrator and kept him in prison for two years before packing him off across the border into India.

Since then, Koya has been more of a political shuttlecock than a human being. "I was deported four times by the Pakistani authorities, and twice by their Indian counterparts," he says, choking on tears. "During my stay in Pakistan, the authorities branded me as an Indian spy and treated me shabbily. And when I landed in India, it was the same -- except that the authorities here thought I was a Pakistani spy!"

Sailing in a similar boat is Vattassery Mohammed (83), a resident of Malappuram. Mohammed was one of many who crossed the border into Pakistan at the time of Partition. Within a few years, Mohammed was disillusioned, and managed to re-enter India with a fake passport, surrendering to the Parappanangadi police in his home district Malappuram.

The result? Instant deportation by the Indian authorities and, as soon as he set foot on the other, he was attacked by the Pakistan soldiers guarding the border. "They fired at me near the Baramar police station in Rajasthan -- where I was abandoned by the Indian security personnel," he says.

Eranhikal Kammu of Munnivoor village is a veteran of four deportations and as many returns. His troubles began when his tea shop in Karachi was demolished by the authorities without any reason assigned. The fact that he could not speak Urdu was apparently the only excuse the Pakistan authorities needed to dub him an 'infiltrator'.

Now 75, Kammu recalls the days of his youth, when the Malabar area witnessed many uprisings against the British, beginning with the Moplah Mutiny of 1921. He remembers, too, how the British made arrangements for direct trains to ply between Parappanagadi, in Malappuram district, to Karachi and Lahore during the chaos of Partition. Kammu boarded one such train for Pakistan -- and has regretted it ever since.

Koya, Mohammed and Kammu are among 57 people officially registered with the Malappuram district authorities as Pakistani citizens. And at that, they are better off than unnumbered authorities who, for want of official documents, are neither Indian nor Pakistani, and have been forced to live 'underground'.

A year ago, 30 members of this group assembled at Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district and petitioned for Indian citizenship. They also approached the court to obtain stays against any further deportation to Pakistan.

Neither petition worked. The last instance of deportation of a Malabar Muslim is recorded as recently as on February 6, 1997.

Thus, these nowhere people live in limbo, appearing at their local police stations at regular intervals for mandatory verification and renewal of their passport and travel documents.

And yes, they now have one faint thread of hope to cling to. During the V P Singh regime, 75 of their number were granted Indian citizenship at the behest of then external minister Inder Kumar Gujral.

Today, Gujral is prime minister. And a vocal advocate of better relations between India and Pakistan. "We hope," says Mohammad, the despair in his eyes momentarily lightening, "that Gujral will help us find an identity, give us a sense of belonging..."