Ashok Virumal Bajaj from Pune, Maharashtra, went to see his ancestral home in Kashmore village of Sindh in Pakistan earlier in 2020. Bajaj went back to Pakistan to meet his friends and relatives, just before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of the India-Pakistan international border. He was stranded – away from his family in India – as India went into nationwide lockdown to fight the virus. Born in Pakistan, 68-year-old Bajaj had migrated to India along with his family in 1986, and managed to get Indian citizenship in the early 1990s.
A Son Shares Story Of His Pakistan-Born Hindu Father’s Last Journey
Deepak Bajaj, son of Ashok Virumal Bajaj, spoke to The Quint from Pune, where he is under home quarantine after returning from Pakistan a week ago:
"“He (Ashok) wasn’t well as he was suffering from Parkinson’s and heart ailments. We thought we should take him to Sindh one last time to get a glimpse of the place where he was born. Memory loss was worsening, and at higher speed. He may not have gotten another opportunity to travel due to deteriorating health. They (Ashok and his wife) left for Pakistan via Wagah border on 5 February 2020, and were received by my cousins on the other side.”" -
This, however, was to be Bajaj’s last journey to the land of his birth.
“On 11 March, I traveled to Pakistan to get them (parents) back. We were supposed to travel back on 20 March (to India) but came to know about the lockdown in India on 19 March. My father had medication only for about two months, but his health began to suffer once the medicines were over, and he did not get proper medication in Pakistan. On 3 June, two days after his birthday, he passed away in Sindh at midnight,” his son told The Quint. Bajaj died during the COVID-19 pandemic without getting a last glimpse of his home in Pune, or his daughter who was stranded in Karachi.
Over 500 Pakistani Hindus Seeking Indian Citizenship Are Stranded In Pakistan Amid COVID Lockdown
This story isn’t the only about an Indian / Hindu-seeking-Indian-citizenship stranded in Pakistan. Over 500 Hindus who are Pakistani nationals – and have been living in India on a long-term visa basis (in order to acquire Indian citizenship) – are now stranded in Pakistan. Many of them had gone back to Pakistan briefly either on pilgrimage, for marriage functions, or to meet family members. Most of them are on a ‘No Obligation to Return to India’ (NORI) certificate or visa – which is given to Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals who stay in India for a long time (due to marriage or atrocities against minorities in their home country).
- Over 500 Hindus who are Pakistani nationals – and have been living in India on a long-term visa basis (in order to acquire Indian citizenship) – are now stranded in Pakistan.
- Many of them had gone back to Pakistan briefly either on pilgrimage, for marriage functions, or to meet family members.
- Most of them are on a ‘No Obligation to Return to India’ (NORI) certificate or visa – which is given to Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals who stay in India for a long time (due to marriage or atrocities against minorities in their home country).
- The High Commission of India in Islamabad has now been authorised by the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi, to extend the NORI visa of the stranded Long Term Visa-holder Pakistani citizens who are stuck in Pakistan due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
The Quint has accessed the letter written by representatives of 290 such Pakistani Hindus to the Foreigners Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs on 4 June, which pleads for visa relaxations and the repatriation (from Pakistan) of those Pakistani nationals who have been living in India on a long term visa basis (to ultimately acquire Indian citizenship), and who were on a NORI visa.
The letter reads:
"“We appreciate and understand the Government of India’s efforts to eradicate the impact of deadly coronavirus. We have been stranded in Pakistan since over two months from the date of visa suspension by the Government of India for foreign nationals and closure of Attari-Wagah border. A few members of our group are living away from their children and lonely, and in some cases, away from their parents who are in India. There are others who are short of money and facing extreme financial crises. We urge you to kindly arrange for stranded Pakistani nationals to meet their loved ones living in India.”"Several Hindu Families With Both Pakistani & Indian Members Are ‘Separated’ Amid COVID
The Quint has also received several SOS videos of stranded persons, addressed to the Government of India, and Member of Parliament from Indore, Shankar Lalwani, seeking immediate help and repatriation.
“My mother was granted Indian citizenship last year (2019). Since most of our relatives are in Pakistan, my marriage was solemnised with a Pakistani girl earlier this year right before lockdown in February, and she is pregnant, and we are stranded in Pakistan,” Avinash Talreja, who usually lives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, but is currently stranded in Pakistan, told The Quint.
"“There are several cases where the parents are Indian citizens and the children are on NORI visas. In other cases, the children are Indian citizens while the parents have a NORI visa. In such cases, families are divided between India and Pakistan. My mother is on a wheelchair and has got a call for repatriation because she is an Indian citizen, but I can’t send her all alone. Who will take care of her at this age in Ahmedabad.”"
‘Many Hindus Stranded In Pakistan Have Their Sources Of Income Back In India’
In a letter written by former Chhattisgarh Chief Minister, Raman Singh, to Home Minister Amit Shah on 4 May 2020, he writes: “NORI visa-holders from India to Pakistan have been stranded for over 45 days. Their visa duration is over. Such stranded citizens have to return home. They have been undergoing mental agony and facing financial difficulties. I request you to issue directions to end their misery.”
The Quint has in its possession a copy of this letter.
Kailash from Jalgaon in Maharashtra, was lucky to return to India two days ago (on 5 July), but his wife is still stranded in Pakistan. “When we reach out to officials, they say the delay is due to COVID-19 pandemic. We understand that, but my problem is that my wife is pregnant. She is in her last stage and it’s her eighth month. I requested the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for her repatriation. But I did not receive any response. Only I know how I have left her in Pakistan,” he rues to The Quint.
"“People who are stranded in Pakistan have their sources of livelihood back in India, and they are now an added burden on their families back in Pakistan. Businesses have started in India after the lifting of the lockdown, but many haven’t been able to operate because they are still stranded in Pakistan. How will they eat and sustain themselves? We, the middle class, have to think of our survival.” "
Why The Delay In Repatriating NORI-Visa-Carrying Pakistani Hindus to India?
The High Commission of India in Islamabad has been, meanwhile, authorised by the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi, to extend the NORI visa of the stranded Long Term Visa-holder Pakistani citizens who are stuck in Pakistan due to travel restrictions imposed by India amid the pandemic. “You are requested to apply for an extension of the NORI visa at the High Commission of India in Islamabad, after opening of international travel from India to Pakistan. They will extend NORI Visa up to 15 days from the date of opening of such travel restrictions,” a communication from the Foreigners Division of Ministry of Home Affairs, dated 2 June, to the stranded Pakistani Hindu families reads.
Government sources have told The Quint that the delay was due to the closure of the border amidst COVID-19 pandemic, and also due to the strength of diplomatic staff being reduced (after India decided to reduce 50 percent staff both in Indian High Commission in Islamabad and Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi).
While the assurance from the government (of extending the NORI visa once the international borders are opened) comes as a welcome relief to those stranded in Pakistan, they continue to await repatriation.
The mammoth Vande Bharat Mission launched by the Government of India doesn’t yet have an Air India flight for Pakistan to rescue stranded Indian citizens, or NORI visa-holders. The Indian High Commission in Pakistan, till now, has carried out the repatriation of 748 Indians in three phases between 25 and 27 June via Wagah-Attari border. 114 stranded Indians are likely to return on 9 July using the same route.
Over 32,000 Pakistani Hindus have been in India on long term visa extension for the last several years, in the hope of gaining citizenship.
Most of these Hindu families escaped from Pakistan after their families suffered atrocities and were subjected to human rights violations by the State and radical groups. To escape forceful conversion, they took shelter in India.
As the international border between India and Pakistan remains closed, several families remain separated and in despair. While Indian citizenship still remains a distant dream for many Pakistani Hindus, they eagerly await their return to the country they now call home, that is, India.
(Aditya Raj Kaul has a decade long experience in covering conflict, internal security and foreign policy for various national media outlets. He tweets at @AdityaRajKaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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