New Delhi: As the Rajya Sabha debated the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill Wednesday, groups of people huddled around a radio while some scoured their phones for news on the passage of the legislation that could finally stamp the seal of home for them in India.
The makeshift tents and unplastered walls with metal roofs in north Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila area are home to about 750 Pakistani Hindus who fled the neighbouring country to seek refuge here. Many others live in resettlement colonies in Rohini Sector 9 and 11, Adarsh Nagar and near the Signature Bridge.
Among them is 42-year-old Sona Das, who left his home in Hyderabad, Pakistan, and came to Delhi on a cold winter night in 2011, not knowing what would become of him and his family. All they had was a 15-day pilgrimage visa and a few bags of clothes.
After multiple protests, court cases and eight years, Das, his wife and nine children, the youngest just eight, are looking to the bill to give them stability.
“We cook on earthen stoves and use solar batteries to light up our homes. Only two or three houses have got television sets. Municipal bodies have made arrangement for water. But there is no sewer network. The city government doesn’t listen to us because we do not have voting rights,” Das, who manages to eke a living doing odd jobs, said.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to give Indian nationality to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who came to India before December 31, 2014, was passed in the Lok Sabha on Monday and is awaiting clearance from the Rajya Sabha.
With the passage of the Bill, those who have stayed in India for five years will be eligible for Indian citizenship. Earlier, 11 years of residence was the standard eligibility requirement for naturalisation.
Protests broke out against the bill in several parts of the country and opposition leaders and others have described it as antithetical to the idea of India, but the mood is quite different in Majnu Ka Tila.
Women peeked out through the windows and children ran through the serpentine, uneven dirt pathways with media persons thronging the area. Slogans of ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ were heard and flowers offered in the community temple.
Gathered in small groups, people in the locality, most of them daily wage labourers, discussed what would change for them if the bill is passed in the Rajya Sabha Wednesday.
Dahramveer Bagri, 43, who led a group of 484 Pakistani Hindus to Delhi in 2013, said, “The days of hardships will be finally over if we get citizenship.”
“NGOs have been kind enough to provide us basic healthcare. There are a few good people who have been raising our issues.”
A couple, Bhupindra Sareen (45) and Reema Sareen (43), came with a bag full of winter clothes and sweets.
Bhupindra remembered how he met Das and the other Pakistani Hindus one night in December eight years ago.
“It was raining on that December night and these people had no escape. They were shivering, sitting under the trees. My eyes fell on them when I was passing through the area.”
“I called up my friend who arranged for firewood and food. A lovely relationship, which started that night, grew stronger by the day,” he said.
Over the years, Bhupindra wrote to several ministers, politicians, social workers and NGOs about the needs and issues of Pakistani Hindus living on the banks of the Yamuna here.
A few NGOs, university students, retired teachers and hospital staff came forward and are helping them lead a “marginally” better life, Reema said.
Sanjeev Gupta of NGO Nyaya Path said his organisation helped them apply for Aadhaar card, long-term visa, bank account and advised them on legal matters.
“The passage of the Bill means those who came before December 31, 2014 need not wait too long for the citizenship and the respect that comes with it,” he said.
“These people live under constant fear of being uprooted from the area. Recently, after a petition alleged that the refugees were polluting the Yamuna, the National Green Tribunal ordered the Delhi Development Authority to evacuate the residents from the floodplains on account of encroachment.
“Secondly, we do not have regular work. Citizenship will change things for better,” he added.
Rajini Bagari, 26, said things would be a lot better with a voter ID card that declared her an Indian citizen.
“Our demand is that the government grant us citizenship and rehabilitate us properly,” Bagari said.
“There are many government schemes which are out of our reach now. If we get citizenship, political parties and governments will care for us,” she said.
The government is hopeful it will be able to pass the bill in the Rajya Sabha despite a boost in numbers of those opposing it.
Though the opposition has slammed the bill, alleging it is discriminatory against Muslims and violates the Constitution, Home Minister Amit Shah has asserted that people belonging to any religion should not have any fear under the Modi government.
The proposed law will give relief to minorities who have been living a painful life after facing persecution in neighbouring countries, he said.