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How India can reach out to Pak Hindus

August 13, 2012 11:57 IST

India should push for re-opening of the consulate in Karachi for better protection of the Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan.

Maya Mirchandani of NDTV had an interesting discussion on the Hindu citizens of Pakistan on the night of August 11. She needs to be complimented for focussing with finesse and delicacy on this sensitive issue in the context of the recent arrival of a large number of Hindu citizens of Pakistan origin in India for an annual pilgrimage to the Hindu holy places.

The Indian visa rules relating to Pakistan permit group pilgrimages by Hindus as well as Muslims and individual family visits to India. Both Hindus and Muslims avail of the rules relating to pilgrimages and the mohajirs, who migrated from India, avail of the rules relating to family visits. The Hindu pilgrimage groups generally come to India around Janmashtami, visit a number of holy places and go back to Pakistan.

The Hindu pilgrimage visits this year acquired sensational (to us) and worrisome (to the Pakistan government) connotations because of reports in some sections of the Pakistani media that some of the Hindus from Sindh are actually fleeing because of various forms of harassment and may not come back.

This is a sensitive question. It would have been better if Maya and her reporters had not posed it to some of the pilgrims in front of the cameras. It was obvious from their replies that they were in two minds and had not decided what they should do. They have kept open the possibility of their going back to Pakistan.

If they did, their answers could be exploited by Islamic fundamentalist elements to harass and intimidate them when they return. The threat to the Hindus of Pakistan is from Islamic fundamentalist elements and the inability of the Pakistan State, particularly its police, to control the fundamentalist elements and protect the Hindus from harassment and intimidation by the fundamentalists.

This harassment is high particularly in the case of the Dalits, who constitute the majority of the Hindu community, and even more particularly Hindu women. Some women are forced to embrace Islam and marry Muslims. There are also instances of the fundamentalist elements seizing the land and other property attached to Hindu temples in the rural areas without the police intervening to stop it. There are also instances of well-to-do Hindus, many of them belonging to the so-called upper castes, being harassed and intimidated in relation to their property by the fundamentalists without the police protecting them. They come away to India and seek political asylum. It is the poor Dalits who suffer in silence because they find it difficult to come to India and seek asylum. They have no relatives or means of livelihood in India.

When Pakistan was formed in 1947, there were millions of Hindus, sons of the Pakistani soil, all over what constitutes Pakistan of today. Those in Punjab were driven out to India by Punjabi Muslims. In the North-West Frontier Province -- now called Khyber- Pakhtoonkwa -- some were driven out by the pro-Muslim League Pashtun Muslims and some others enjoyed the protection of the Awami National Party of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his successors.

Even though there were atrocities against the Hindus in Sindh and Balochistan, they were not comparable to the atrocities on the Hindus in Punjab. While a large number of Hindus from Sindh and Balochistan returned to India because of the atrocities of the fundamentalists, some who enjoyed the protection of India-friendly nationalist parties stayed behind and were protected by the nationalists.

After the death of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, a Baloch nationalist leader, at the hands of the Pakistan army in August 2005, the harassment of the Hindus of Balochistan by the security agencies as well as the fundamentalist elements increased because of suspicion of their sympathy for the Baloch nationalists, who had launched a new freedom struggle. As a result, many Hindus of Balochistan have either come away to India or shifted to Sindh.

The main concentration of Hindus in Pakistan today is in Sindh. Pakistan has not had an accurate census since the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. One does not know exactly how many Hindus are there in Sindh. There are varying estimates between one and four million. These are not descendants of Hindus who migrated from the rest of India. Barring those who came from Balochistan, these are the sons and daughters of the Sindhi soil. The descendants of Hindus, who were living in Sindh long before Islam came there, have proudly remained devoted to their religion and culture despite all the harassment they have faced since the birth of Pakistan in 1947. The Hindus of Sindh are the original Sindhis and not the Muslims, but they are treated as second-class citizens in their own homeland.

The India government's interest and responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the Sindhi Hindus arises from the fact that they are Hindus. The Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact signed in April 1950 after Pakistan was born gave the Indian government a locus standi for looking after the welfare of the Hindus and Sikhs all over Pakistan. The government was not able to adequately exercise this responsibility in respect of Pakistani Punjab, the NWFP (now called KP) and Balochistan because it did not have a consular presence in any of these areas.

But till 1994, India did have a consulate in Karachi, which used to, inter alia, monitor the welfare of the Sindhi Hindus. The consulate also closely interacted with the Sindhi nationalist parties and the Pakistan People's Party, which had many Hindu cadres, and persuaded them to pay better attention to the protection of the Hindus.

In 1994, Benazir Bhutto, the then Pakistan PM, on the advice of the Inter-Services Intelligence, ordered the consulate to close down. The result: Our ability to monitor the welfare of the Sindhi Hindus has been affected. Moreover, after Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao, successive governments that held office in New Delhi have neglected our past policy of active interaction with the Sindhi nationalists, who are the well-wishers of India and the Sindhi Hindus. Our hopes and those of the Sindhi Hindus that a PPP government will better protect their rights have been belied. The PPP has given ministerial berths to some of its Hindu members, but there is a feeling that they have not done much to protect the Hindu community.

There are limits to what India can do to protect the Hindus except periodically exercising pressure on Islamabad to look after them and protect them from the fundamentalists. Whatever limited role the Indian government could play in the past has been greatly diluted in the absence of a consulate in Karachi and the drying-up of our interactions with the Sindhi nationalists, the traditional opponents of the fundamentalists and protectors of the Hindus in whatever limited way they can.

Since 1994, from time to time, the Indian government has taken up with Islamabad the question of re-opening the consulate in Karachi. As a quid pro quo, Pakistan has reportedly been insisting on a Pakistani consulate in Mumbai to be located in the Jinnah House. It is understood that while India has no objection to a Pakistani consulate in Mumbai, it has reservations about its being located in the Jinnah House.

The re-opening of the Indian consulate in Karachi and better protection for the Hindus and Sikhs living in Pakistan should be taken up by our Prime Minister with President Asif Ali Zardari. We should revive our dried-up interactions with the Sindhi nationalists. We should also examine whether the Nehru-Liaquat Ali Pact needs updating.

B Raman