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Midnight's Orphans

Fifty years after, thousands of poor Sindhis still live in refugee camps across India. Continuing our series on people untouched by elections, Outlook visits the oldest...

Midnight's Orphans
A broken blade glides over calloused fingers as Bhagwanti slices bottlecaps into shape. A 1,000 caps later she would have earned exactly Rs 2. But she is among the more fortunate ones. Her neighbour, 80-year-old Chanchal Sugunamal, is knocked about by her mentally disturbed son. In rare moments of sanity, he steals her Rs 250 monthly dole. She latches the tin door within her shed, to protect herself from him and the pigs rushing in from the nearby garbage dump.

Welcome to Shanti Bhavan, the shelter of remnant Sindhi refugees who came to India during Partition. Sugunamal, among the oldest here, arrived in Bombay from Shikarpur in the erstwhile Sukkur district of Upper Sind, seeking a home. Fifty years later, all she has is promises. The government is marking time. Her death would release into its hands the tiny asbestos-concrete shed it had pledged to her. "Don't worry about them," comments one government officer, "the politicians will be back, distributing chits of paper with signatures that are supposed to legalise their homes."

 Sundar Khatri, 40, has these chits. But there exists a yawning gap between intention and realisation. "For 20 years I have lived on hope. The government neither says 'no' to our demand, nor 'yes'. It has been, still is, a long struggle against red-tape. I go to a Mumbai office, they send me to a Pune department, that sends me back to Mumbai." His mother, Meera Khatri, who had left Karachi, died believing that her chosen country will keep its word. Like her neighbour, Sugunamal, who now awaits her turn.

 Sugunamal was a young, three-month pregnant widow, when she came to Bombay with others of her flock. Unable to accommodate the gush of Sindhi refugees, the government shifted most of them near suburban Kalyan, into five camps now called Ulhasnagar. On November 22, 1948, a storm ripped apart the sheds of Camp 5, killing many. In 1950, the government categorised the one-lakh refugee population into non-destitute and destitute. The latter, mostly widows and older men, were handed a blue card that branded their pathetic status.

The homeless were herded into Shanti Bhavan, representative of the hopelessness shrouding 25 Sindhi settlements all over India, according to Mangalram Siphahi Malani, chief of the Sindhu Resettlement Corporation. These include, among others, the camps at Nashik, Nagpur, Deolali, Pimpri, Pune, Adipur, Sardarnagar, Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, Wardha, Ajmer and Bhopal. "There are 70 lakh Sindhis in India today. Of them 40 per cent live below the

poverty line. Two years ago, at Bhavnagar in Gujarat, the government demolished Sindhi sheds because it wanted to expand a road. No compensation was given. We Sindhis are homeless, after having made the sacrifice of giving up our homeland on the word of Acharya Kripalani who had vowed to give us a linguistic state," rues Kundandas Rohera, World Sindhi Congress president.

For Bhavan residents, such larger issues are outside their immediate concern. They are more hassled about Shanti Bhavan not being the promised harbour of peace. Take the case of 70-year-old Bhagwanti Mohandas Chanchaliani, among the 1947 driftwood widows from Sonmiani, still surviving, but only through government charity. After she dies, her deaf-mute daughter, now 50, will have neither home nor income. "The widows received Rs 18 monthly, with free food, after Partition. Food was stopped after raising the dole to Rs 50. In the '70s I protested in the Maharashtra assembly that the money was insufficient," says ex-MLA Sital Harchandani (BJP), recalling that by the time he pushed his proposal through, over 200 widows were dead. A saffron government may be in the saddle, but he is struggling to convince them to hike the dole to Rs 500 a month. He may find it more difficult to explain to Bhavan's people how a government, which has promised free housing to 40 lakh slum-dwellers, can throw out residents from their 50-year-old homes. This despite tenancy laws, introduced by the Congress government, conferring ownership rights to long-term tenants.

"The promise of roti, kapada and makaan remains an empty one. Tiny Mizoram, with just five lakh residents, has more representation and funds. Anglo-Indians, who are even less, have representation. Today these politicians are apologising to Muslims. Though there are 15 lakh Sindhis in Maharashtra alone we have nothing. We should have a reservation for three MPs in the Lok Sabha, at least Rs 300 crore annual funding. But our poor, scattered all over the country, are not a collective vote bank," laments Rohera.

In a land-hungry city, Bhavan's sheds are now goldmines, estimated at Rs 1 lakh at least, explaining the government's reluctance in handing them over. The shadow of a plan to construct a government hostel hovers. On May 31, 1993, the state government backtracked on its deal with the Centre, ordering closure of all refugee colonies in Maharashtra and dissolving the screening committee scrutinising their cases. It decided to apply the Land Revenue Code instead of the Displaced Persons Compensation and Rehabilitation Act (1954), proposing that the money realised by property sale no longer be recycled into the colonies. Sindhi representatives moved court to win an interim injunction, says Anand Bijlani, Congress councillor who penned a book on Ulhasnagar. But Shabir Sheikh, minister and local MLA with the ruling Shiv Sena, offers, "I am a resident of Ulhasnagar. I know of Bhavan, we have posted a development officer there. The residents will certainly not be thrown out on the streets."

 Meetings and representations to several important leaders, including A.B. Vajpayee, Sitaram Kesri, V.N. Gadgil, Narasimha Rao, even Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, were in vain. "We tried to convince Pranab Mukherjee to start some grants, upliftment yojanas to help those Sindhis below the poverty line. How will Shanti Bhavan be highlighted if there are no Sindhi representatives? Recently, Bal Thackeray agreed we were justified in asking that Ulhasnagar, among the largest Sindhi settlements in Maharashtra, be renamed Sindhunagar. Even that simple promise has not been kept," complains Rohera. Sugunamal sees the absurdity of it all. For, token gestures can't alter a lifetime of deprivation.

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