Living life on the borderline
Over the years, the largest district in Rajasthan, Jaisalmer, has seen an influx of Hindu Bhil tribal refugees from Pakistan who are now settled in various bastis in and around the Jaisalmer city. Who are these Bhil adivasis from across the border? Gaon Connection met up with them.
Kuldeep Chhangani 30 May 2023 1:42 PM GMT
Manaram Bhil surveyed what was left of his home in Amar Sagar panchayat. For the past few days, the Bhil adivasi has been living in a temporary shelter at Jaisalmer town about six kilometres away. But the daily wage labourer returns to his ‘home’ every evening to water the plants he had planted there and to feed a stray dog that he had adopted as his own.
Earlier this month, on May 16, Manaram’s home, along with the homes of 139 other Hindu Bhil tribals who hail from across the international border in Pakistan, were razed to the ground by the Urban Improvement Trust, under the direction of the district collector, Jaisalmer.
The collector, it is informed, acted on a complaint from the sarpanch of Amar Sagar panchayat, who claimed the settlement of Bhil tribal from Pakistan had come up in the catchment area of a water body in the area.
But who are these Bhil adivasis from Pakistan, who practise Hinduism, and have crossed the international border and now live in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan?
Jaisalmer city lies not more than one to 15 kilometres from the Indo-Pakistan border. Over the years, the largest district in Rajasthan has seen an influx of refugees from the other side, many of them, like Manaram, from the Hindu Bhil tribal community.
Manaram Bhil said he continued to be jarred by the ripples of the Partition in 1947, even so many years after Independence. Manaram came away to Jaisalmer in India from Pakistan 25 years ago in 1988, and has been staying with kith and kin in Amar Sagar panchayat for the past five years along with 139 other Hindu Bhils. Before that he lived in another basti.
Nathuram Bhil is another Hindu Bhil adivasi from Pakistan who is now settled in Jaisalmer. “We chose to settle here because during the Partition, it was from this very place that our forefathers went across the border to Pakistan,” the 65-year-old tribal elder, told Gaon Connection.
Nathuram Bhil considers himself lucky that he got his Indian citizenship in 2005. He also came to Jaisalmer in 1988. Unlike Manaram, Nathuram’s pucca home still stands in another colony called Bhil Basti.
It was in 1988 that the first ‘Bhil Basti’ was set up in Jaisalmer, which has about 1,300 Bhil tribals, all of whom have come from Pakistan.
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Bhils from Pakistan
“The influx of Hindus from across the border began in the mid 60s, especially after the 1965 and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war,” Hindu Singh Sodha, founder of Seemant Log Sangathan, an organisation that works for the displaced Hindus from Pakistan, told Gaon Connection.
“In 1971, many from the Rajput, Brahmin, Maheshwari and Bhojak communities crossed over. It was only in 1988 that the Bhil community came here in large numbers,” he added. Sodha himself came over to Jaisalmer from Pakistan in 1971 when he was only 15 years old, and he has been working for the displaced communities from Pakistan for 30 years now.
“Bhil refugees have settled down in an area 15 kilometres in radius around Jaisalmer town. Bhil Basti, Gaffur Bhatta, Kishan Ghat, Santu Ram ki Dhandi, Bada Bagh, Babar Magra and Amar Sagar are some of the refugee settlements with about 5,000 people in all living here,” Bhurchand Bhil, a resident of Gaffur Bhatta, told Gaon Connection.
“Even now at least 15 to 20 Hindu Bhil families cross the border and head here to make their home with relatives who are already in this area,” he added.
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While they escaped persecution in Pakistan, things have not been that great for the Hindu Bhils this side of the border. Most of them are working as daily wage labourers, either in town or in the farms as farmhands.
While some of them like Nathuram Bhil have been given Indian citizenship, many of them are not ‘legally’ Indian citizens. So, they live in constant fear of being apprehended by authorities.
“We came here in 1988 hoping to live a persecution-free, fear-free life. There we led lives of deprivation. We hardly earned enough. We wanted to come back to our relatives here and provide an education for our children,” Manaram told Gaon Connection. He said he was confident he would get a better job to look after his family. “But they broke down my home,” he said.
“In Pakistan they called us kaafirs (infidels); here we are still branded as Pakistanis. All we ask for is to be allowed to remain here in peace,” said a Bhil adivasi, as he pulled out a piece of bread from his pocket and fed it to the waiting dog.
Along with Manaram’s house, bulldozers razed the homes of 139 Hindu Bhils in Amar Sagar panchayat on May 16. The dismantling of the Bhil settlement was done by the Urban Improvement Trust (UIT) under the direction of Tina Dabi, the district collector.
“We complained to the Collector because these people had built their homes over the catchment area of the panchayat’s waterbody,” Meghraj Parihar, husband of sarpanch Poonam Devi of Amar Sagar, told Gaon Connection.
After their homes were bulldozed on the morning of May 16, the tribal inhabitants of Amar Sagar basti took to the streets to protest and congregated at the collectorate.
As the intensity of the protest rose, the Jaisalmer district administration moved the now-homeless Bhil Hindus to a shelter in Jaisalmer and provided them with food and lodging. The collector announced that they would be allotted land at Moolsagar, a locality that falls about 15 kilometres away from Jaisalmer city. The land was handed over to them on May 25, at 5.30 pm by the collector.
Gaon Connection tried to contact Tina Dabi, the district collector, for her comments on the demolition of the Amar Sagar Bhil settlement, but she was not available.
Jagdish Singh Aasiya, the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) who is also holding the post of the secretary of UIT spoke to Gaon Connection. “UIT routinely clears illegal constructions, this is nothing new. We received a complaint about illegal constructions on a prime location in Amar Sagar panchayat, and therefore we acted on it,” he said.