Mr. Sodha is a social activist working with Pakistani Hindu refugees. He himself was a migrant from Pakistan. He is working in the field for the past two decades and is the Convenor of the Seemant Lok Sangathan. The whole interview is reproduced here.
VB: What is the estimated number of people of this community throughout Rajasthan and Gujarat who still have not got citizenship?
HSS: There are about 7000 people without citizenship in Rajasthan and another 2000 in Gujarat.
VB: Have these people been accorded refugee status by the Government of India or the UNHCR?
HSS: The Government of India gave refugee status to Pakistani Hindu refugees only in 1972. When it comes to the UNHCR, well, it has never given refugee status to this community. Whenever we approach them, they say that they do not have mandate over refugees from South Asia.
VB: Has there been any change in the class of people (in terms of caste, income levels, literacy levels etc) crossing over with time?
HSS: No, there has been no change in the class of people crossing over. People from all classes, be it business class, feudal lords or daily wage labourers, were and are coming into India.
VB: With little or no access to healthcare, these refugees would definitely be facing problems related to their health. They live in big groups with unhygienic conditions. What are the specific problems plaguing them on the health front, especially with regard to children and women?
HSS: Their health condition is pathetic and children and women are the worst hit in terms of their health. As majority of these people belong to the weaker sections of the society, they are unable to feed their children a proper and nutritious diet. Pregnant women are the most vulnerable.
VB: Are they subjected to health checks when they enter India?
HSS: No there are no health checks conducted by the Government.
VB: What are the measures, if any, taken by governmental authorities to redress their health problems? As far as I know, without citizenship they would not be able to access the healthcare options, particularly the government health schemes, of the government.
HSS: Yes, you are right. People without citizenship cannot access the public health schemes of the Government. Also, as far as I know, there have been no measures taken by the Government to redress their health related problems.
VB: Do they face some hassles in accessing health facilities in local hospitals? Are hospital authorities hesitant when it comes to treating migrants?
HSS: They face a lot of problems in accessing facilities in local hospitals. I know a number of cases where the doctors did not even take up cases involving refugees, serious cases like cardiac arrest and child delivery, on the grounds that they are from Pakistan. Also, doctors try to discharge them as early as possible, sometimes even before their treatment is over in order to avoid any hassles.
VB: Living under such deplorable conditions for such a long duration of time, sometimes without their families and basic facilities is bound to create certain mental ill-effects. Are there some people who suffer from psychological disorders?
HSS: There have been cases of stress related problems. It becomes more significant and problematic when the earning member of a family is involved.
VB: I had visited the Bhil Basti in Kali Beri. The state of affairs there was certainly deplorable with no water, electricity, basic healthcare, livelihood options and the abject poverty. What about the other bastis, colonies and villages where they have been residing? Are the conditions similar to that of the Bhil Basti or is the picture better in some other places?
HSS: The government did not promote settlement in any scenario except in 1971. So the condition of the living throughout Rajasthan and Gujarat is quite the same.
VB: When I was in the Bhil Basti I saw a priest at the local ‘thaan’ carrying out a peculiar ritual with a person. He was making him bang his head on the ‘thaan’ in front of the diety. Are these kinds of superstitious activities very much prevalent among them? If yes, have you taken some measures to counter this?
HSS: Personally, I discourage such tactics but it is in fact due to their illiteracy that these practices still prevail in this community.
VB: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is playing a cooperative role with the Government of India in handling the refugee population. Has there been some help accorded by the UNHCR in respect of this issue?
HSS: As I had told before, the UNHCR doesn’t work with refugees from South Asia.
VB: With regard to the fundamental right violations or otherwise, has anyone from the Pakistani Hindu community taken recourse to legal action on his/her own or with your support?
HSS: Of course, in cases of deportation and harassment we have approached the Courts and have been successful in getting proper remedies.
VB: In respect of the families which have been residing in India for a long time now, have they made some kind of progress with respect to their initial condition in terms of education, literacy, employment among others?
HSS: It all depends on chance. Yes, if they acquire Indian citizenship they of course utilise every possible opportunity to be a part of the progress India is known for. Many of them aim to get into premier institutions. Most of the migrants are currently engaged in private employement.
VB: The policy of non refoulement is binding on the Government of India through the operation of customary International Law. What has been the position of refoulement in this case per se? Have there been instances where people from this community have been deported back to Pakistan?
HSS: Officials sometimes do try for deportation of a few but due to our organisational intervention in the form of approaching the judiciary we almost always succeed in such cases.
VB: Whenever there is a refugee problem the prime contention is always that of protection of national interest versus the protection of human rights; with respect to the issue on hand it gets more complicated as the other country involved is Pakistan. What is your take on it?
HSS: It is sad that on top most level, the policy makers don’t understand the ground realities; and often in the name of internal security human rights of the refugees are violated. When it comes to execution, it is on the lower officers and they usually forget the fact that these people have come here because of the violation of their rights in Pakistan.
VB: The biggest paradox is that despite being a country which has seen one of the world’s largest refugee movements since the time of independence, India does not have a robust refugee policy in place. What has your organisation done with respect to that recently?
HSS: Since the very beginning we have been demanding a uniform policy on the issue. The Government of India comes up with many excuses so as to escape responsibility. India neither is a signatory of UN Convention on Refugees of 1951 nor has signed the Protocol of 1967. Also, there is no domestic law to deal with refugees.
VB: How have these people been oriented with respect to their stay and further action to be taken?
HSS: When they come to us and narrate their intention to stay on due to religious persecution, we guide them in going about the processes and procedures needed to do so. During their stay they face enormous problems which we try to resolve on a daily basis, though due to lack of resources we are not able to do as much as we intend to do.
1. Supra note 38.