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Exiles In Their Homeland

By K.A.Shaji

08 June, 2007

Thoombil Ahammed is 76 now. When he was in his twenties, he worked in a restaurant in Mumbai on daily wages. In 1953, a travel operator promised to take him to Dubai in a wooden vessel for Rs 50. Ahammed agreed, but was offloaded at Karachi instead. He started working in a restaurant there. Some years later, when he got the news from home — Pattar Nadakkavu village, near Thirunavaya in Malappuram district — that his mother was unwell and he wanted to come and see her, his bosses advised him to apply for a Pakistani passport. Ahammed, who is illiterate, did as he was told. He spent three months in India during the first visit and used the same passport to come to Malappuram on five other occasions during his 22-year stay in Pakistan. It was during his visits that he married Kunhimariam and fathered three children. His wife and children never went to Pakistan and are Indian citizens.

Ahammed shifted to Dubai from Pakistan where, eight years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes and both his legs amputated. He decided to return home to India and that is when his troubles began. After he returned, the police and security agencies labelled him an "infiltrator" and, since then, have been trying to put him in prison or deport him to Pakistan. Ahammed has won temporary reprieve as the Kerala High Court has issued a stay-order in his favour. But he is not very hopeful, as he knows that the stay could be vacated any time and the police would then try to deport him to Pakistan. "Give me at least a chance to die as an Indian," he pleads.

Ahammed is not alone in his predicament. There are over 700 men like him in Kerala who went looking for jobs to Lahore and Karachi in Pakistan just before and after Partition. They were seeking a better source of livelihood to support their large joint families back home, and did not see much difference between Mumbai and Karachi at the time.

For many, disillusionment was swift. Unlike Ahammed who managed to stay on, barely had they reached newly created Pakistan, they were labelled infiltrators and deported. They returned to their homes, mostly along the Malabar coast in north Kerala, and since then have lived in limbo, belonging to neither India nor Pakistan. Now concentrated in Kannur, Kasargod, Kozhikode and Malappuram districts, in the autumn of their lives, they are still under the constant threat of deportation.

Eighty-four-year-old Hassan Koya who hails from Pandikkad lived in Mumbai at the time of Partition. He joined a caravan headed for Karachi, where he set up a stationary store and married a Pakistani girl. In 1953, Koya came to India for a month on a Pakistani passport, and when he went back he found that his shop had a new owner and his wife, a new husband. He was arrested by the police there and imprisoned for two years before being deported to India.

Since then, Koya has been reduced to a political shuttlecock. "I was deported four times by Pakistani authorities and twice by their Indian counterparts. During my stay in Pakistan, they branded me as an Indian spy and treated me shabbily. When I landed in India, it was the same — except that I was now a Pakistani spy," he said.

Vattassery Mohammed of Malappuram, now 83, went to Pakistan after Partition. He was disillusioned within three years and returned to India on a Pakistani passport. He surrendered his passport at Parappanangadi police station in Malappuram and was instantly deported. He was forced to cross the border near Barmer in Rajasthan, where Pakistani soldiers opened fire and he sustained bullet injuries.

Eranhikkal Kammu of Munnivoor is a veteran of four deportations and as many returns. Pakistani authorities dubbed him an infiltrator because he could not speak Urdu and demolished his teashop in Karachi. He says that there were direct trains from Parappanangadi to Karachi and Lahore before partition. He boarded one and has regretted it ever since.

Kundoor village situated near Thanoor in Malappuram has about 17 elders with Pakistani passports. Once every month they sign on the register at Thanoor police station. (At District Police Superintendent Office in Malappuram, about 270 aged men sign on the register each month .)

"All political parties, except for some hardcore elements in the bjp and the rss, agree that these men should be granted citizenship. mps MP Veerendrakumar and A.Vijayaraghavan have raised the issue several times in Parliament and have made representations to the home ministry, but to no avail," says Thoppil Shajahan, a Tirur-based social worker.

"I went to Baluchistan before Partition without anticipating that India would be bifurcated. Soon after Independence, I returned to India to join my family. But even at the age of 80, I am facing deportation," says Kuthirodathu Mohammed alias Baluchi Mohammed, who now suffers from respiratory ailments. He was saved from deportation twice at the intervention of the Kerala High Court. "I have never indulged in any kind of anti-national activities. Poor people like me never wanted the creation of two states," Mohammed said.

Ninety-two-year-old Perumal Parambil Syed Alavi is bedridden and can't even recall the place in Pakistan where he used to live before Partition. He is unable to acknowledge friends and relatives. But his name is still on the list of "Pakistani citizens" facing deportation. Policemen pay him a visit regularly. ("Are you the same official who came to my home last month to delete my name from the ration card?" he shouted at this correspondent.) A kindly supply officer had entered his name in the ration card but his successor deleted it, saying that there could be no ration without citizenship.

While authorities dismiss the matter as a minor issue involving a few families in north Malabar, problems of Indians with Pakistani passport also became an issue in Pondicherry last year when 74-year-old V. Ibrahim, a heart-patient for last several years, was forcibly deported to Pakistan through the Wagah border in Punjab under the orders of the Union home ministry. The expulsion order, which was invoked under the 1946 Foreigners' Act, reached Ibrahim during Ramzan.

Ibrahim hails from Nedumbram near Chalakkara in Mahe district, and his deportation raised numerous questions, especially the divergent attitude being adopted, both by the government and the society at large, towards these so-called foreign citizens. Mahe was a former French colony and is home to a number of French citizens who receive monthly pension from the French government. For them foreign (French) citizenship is a boon, while his foreign (Pakistani) citizenship has haunted Ibrahim all these years. Eleven months after he was deported, Ibrahim is now back in Mahe knocking at every door to avoid another round of humiliating deportation drama.

The unfortunate elderly men have to live with temporary visa extensions and regular visits to local police stations or courts to avoid the constant threat of deportation. All that they want is permission to remain with their dear and near ones at the fag end of their lives. They keep stressing that they have no criminal records.

Their problems began with Pakistan's decision after Partition not to allow migrants who wanted to visit their families back home to leave the country without a Pakistani passport. They unsuspectingly accepted the Pakistani passport, making them permanently suspect in the eyes of Indian authorities. While "Pakistani nationals" are usually unthinkingly associated with fundamentalist Muslim organisations, police authorities are clear that these elderly men have no extremist or criminal links.

Today, the Centre is reluctant to grant them Indian citizenship. The Kerala government forwards their applications to New Delhi as a matter of routine and there is no further action from the home ministry in Delhi which just sits on the files. Many cases are pending in the courts in Kerala, which gives authorities an excuse to delay any decision. Officials in the home ministry in Delhi refuse to comment on the subject. "The matter is confidential and cannot be discussed with the press," said an official dealing with the matter.

"The issue needs a political solution," says a home ministry official. Those who tried to go through the official route to get citizenship failed. Sixty-eight-year-old Masood, for instance, was asked by the Indian authorities to establish his Pakistani nationality first. They also asked him for a renunciation certificate from Pakistan. "For the last 11 years, I have shuttled between Kerala and Delhi trying to become an Indian citizen. The Pakistani embassy in Delhi wants me to cite three witnesses in Karachi to issue the certificate. I left Karachi around 35 years ago. How can I find witnesses?" he asks.

As Vijayaraghavan points out, there have been other cases where Pakistani migrants of Indian origin were granted citizenship — 1,469 migrants to Pakistan from Gujarat and 11,298 from Rajasthan got their citizenship upon their return to India two years ago. That is all that the long suffering men of Malabar want, so that they can spend the last few years of their lives in their country in peace.


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