New Delhi: With the Citizenship Amendment Act in place, the Narendra Modi government is granting citizenship to Pakistani Hindus who have been residing in India since before 2014. But at the same time, it has been denying entry to several Pakistani Hindus living across the border who have been waiting for years to scatter the ashes of their dead in the holy Ganga.
Every year, Pakistani Hindus’ visa applications seeking to conduct last rites in holy places like Haridwar have been rejected — some of them multiple times — either without assigning a reason or because of inadequate documentation.
To secure a visa for performing the last rights, Pakistani Hindus must furnish the death certificate of the person whose ashes are to be immersed, the applicant’s national ID card, a copy of an electricity bill, as well as a polio certificate.
If the applicants want to visit Haridwar to scatter the ashes, the Indian government also requires them to have a letter of sponsorship from someone residing in Haridwar. The letter needs to be signed by an appropriate state authority such as the police or a headmaster of a government college.
“Often, the visas are rejected with no reason, even if all the documents are furnished. Families feel obligated to go to Haridwar, as it is often the last wish of the person whose ashes they want to scatter. This problem has persisted over the years, but there’s still no proper system in place to address it,” Sunny Ghansham, chairman of a standing committee on minority rights of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI), told ThePrint over phone from across the border.
Ghansham said he is in the process of collecting data of the number of families whose visas have been rejected. “There are at least 200 to 250 that have been affected, and this is in recent years. Some leave their ashes in a Hindu temple in Karachi, and they have been lying there for even longer,” he said.
“On the one hand, India is passing the CAA, but on the other, there is no simplified process for those who want to come for this one purpose. It’s a must for every Hindu,” Ghansham added.
The Indian High Commission said in a statement that it “actively facilitates visa applications of all Pakistani applicants, including members of the Hindu community who want to travel to Haridwar to perform last rites of family members”. It added that it “already issues visas to relatives who want to travel to India for performing last rites” if they have the correct documents.
Hundreds of urns at one temple
The Panchmukhi Hanuman Temple in Karachi is home to hundreds of urns storing the ashes of the dead — some of them have been there since before 2010.
“Most people leave their ashes here because securing a visa is impossible. Either they don’t have the requisite documents, or the visas are repeatedly rejected. They leave them here with the hope that they will go across the border someday,” Ramnath Maharaj, priest at the temple, told ThePrint over the phone.
Maharaj managed to secure a visa last in 2016-17 for religious purposes, but brought 160 urns with him. Before that, he had got a visa in 2011 and managed to carry 135 urns.
“Every two to three years, people deposit about 180 to 200 urns with us in the temple,” he said, adding “I’ve never got the visa in one go”.
Karachi, in Sindh, is home to about 2.5 lakh Hindus. It houses the maximum number of Hindus of any Pakistani province, according to the Pakistan Hindu Council, which estimates the total Hindu population to be about 80 lakh.
Santosh Kumar Katiyar, an accountant living in Karachi, said he had applied for visa twice since his grandfather died in 2017, with all the requisite documents, but they were both rejected without reason.
“We have had to move the ashes around — first we kept them in a local temple in our village in Larkana. Then we moved them to Panchmukhi,” he said.
“Everyone who has migrated to India [and is now eligible for citizenship] came from here. We are neighbours, and both should be treated with consideration,” Katiyar added.
A long-drawn issue
This problem was first highlighted in 2005. Urns, some from the Panchmukhi Temple itself, had been lying in a dilapidated store room for decades after independence. In 2009, India approved a spate of visas for Hindus across the border to visit Haridwar.
However, according to the latest annual report by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of visitors from Pakistan has seen a sharp decline — the number stood at 57,283 for the whole of 2018 and the first three months of 2019, as against 1,04,720 in 2016 and 67,350 in 2017.
Wash Dev, a rice trader also living in Karachi, said his visa had been rejected three times between 2018 and 2020, despite telling the High Commission the purpose of travel and providing every document needed.
“My sister-in-law passed away on 1 January 2018, and she wished for her ashes to be immersed in the Ganga. But every time I applied, it was rejected with no reason, and I was simply told to try again,” Dev said. “They have strange and specific requirements for the visa, like a letter signed by a police officer from Haridwar. I did all of this, but it was still rejected.”
Dev’s visa application was finally accepted after his fourth try on 1 February 2020, but he said this happened only after some media houses highlighted his case the previous month.
Dev said he found it “hurtful” that India rushed to give citizenship to Pakistani Hindus living in India, but made securing a visa for those across the border so difficult.
“I feel bad because our religious community has such a deep relationship with India. We are one. All of the people who live there have migrated from here,” he said.