Refugee plight

A Hindu refugee who migrated from Sindh province of Pakistan displays her passport as she along with others support the Citizenship Amendment Act in Ahmadabad, India, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019. India’s main opposition party staged a silent protest in the capital on Monday against the contentious new citizenship law, a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended the legislation and accused the opposition of pushing the country into a “fear psychosis.” (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)


The massive outpour of both support as well as opposition against the government's new Citizenship Amendment Act brings to mind images from classic films and television series such as Garam Hava, Buniyaad, Tamas and Maachis that have come to define the words' emigrant', refugee' and 'outsider' in the annals of popular culture of India. It's a little telling to note that despite a significant part of this country's population having suffered the horrors of partition and the displacement it caused, Indian cinema has not witnessed as many films on the plight of the immigrant or the refugee.  

The CAA passed by both houses of the Parliament of India in December 2019 enables minorities who faced religious persecution in three neighbouring theocratic states, namely, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, and entered India before 31 December 2014 citizenship. The Act has generated significant opposition as it's being labeled 'Anti-Muslim', for it only allows non-muslims who suffered religious persecution in the three Islamic nations. While this particular Act impacts approximately 31,000 people that include Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, it does not alter the already existing naturalizing laws of India. In other words, persecuted people of other religious groups and sects from the three countries are still free to apply for asylum and citizenship under the procedure that is still in place.  

A visit to the camps that house the Hindu refugees from Pakistan sheds light on the degree of religious persecution in our neighbouring country. This Act allows them the right to be Indian citizens, but more importantly, there is nothing in the CAA that jeopardizes the rights of any Indian minority chiefly, the Muslim community. However, the protests have been compared to a fight for the rights of the 'other' which is suddenly feeling threatened and targeted. 

In the film Garam Hava (1974), based on an unpublished story by Ismat Chugtai and written by Shama Zaidi and Kafi Azmi, who also penned the lyrics of the film, the plight of the Mirza family reveals the scenario when post-partition Muslims in India felt like the outcaste. Balraj Sahni, in a career-defining performance, portrayed the elderly patriarch, who has to take the call of migrating to Pakistan like the rest of his family or staying back. The film ends with the elder Mirza joining a protest rally alongside his son, played by Farooq Sheikh, that reiterates the family, and by extension, the community's will to participate in the efforts to integrate.

Today, looking back at a film like Garam Hava, one might attach a sense of presentism while talking about the conditions of an Indian Muslim on average being much better than those who migrated from India during the partition. But at the time M.S. Sathayu made Garam Hava Pakistan's stance towards both Muslims that left India to settle there in 1947, and later those who came from East Pakistan after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 was common knowledge. For decades, the 'local' or the 'native' in Pakistan never considered Muslims from India as equals and labeled them 'Muhajirs.' They were ill-treated as secondary citizens in what was said to be the promised land.

In the 1980s, Ramesh Sippy's Buniyaad (1986) first introduced an entire generation to the horrors of partition by following the story of Master Haveliram (Alok Nath), his wife, Lajwanti (Anita Kanwar) and their three sons, who start their lives in India. Written by Manohar Shyam Joshi, the series spanned between 1916-1978 where it depicted the trials of the emigrant and their journey from being 'outsiders' or 'displaced' to citizens. By the time the series ended its two-year run in 1988, another firsthand account of the partition and its aftermath debuted on national television that revealed more facets of the anguish. Directed by Govind Nihalani and written by Bhisham Sahni, who witnessed the horrors of the Partition firsthand, Tamas showed the evil that emanated from men on both sides in 1947. Sahni had been a refugee himself, and therefore, the pathos of the emigrant Sikh and Hindu families to India as a consequence of the partition was poignant and something that viewers had never seen in India. 

The refugee’s pain was best summed-up in an unlikely manner in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) through some hard-hitting dialogues and a couplet in the song Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyan — 

Ek chhotaa saa lamhaa hai, 

Jo khatm nahin hotaa, 

Main laakh jalaataa huun

Yeh bhasm nahiin hotaa

Intriguingly enough, J.P. Dutta's Refugee (2000), a film that centered around the plight of the 'refugee', hardly found an audience. While John Matthew Mathan's Sarfarosh (1999) that had a 'Muhajir' as a central character resonated much with the viewer. It was also probably the first mainstream Hindi film that directly referred to Pakistan's nefarious Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, which has a dedicated department to wreak havoc in India by exploiting faultiness. 

It's worth noting that Gulzar's lyrics in Maachis that encapsulate the migrant/refugee's plight could also somewhere express the suffering of the 'Muhajir.' By comparison, the minorities are thriving in India and the numbers are only healthy and growing. It stands to reason that if the Muslims were treated as such, then what hope or rights did the other religious minorities such as the Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Parsis have in the real sense of the word? One gets an idea of this in Sarfarosh, where Gulfam Hassan (Naseeruddin Shah), a Pakistani 'Mujhahir,' to get respectability plots against India to please his masters. There are numerous films depicting people who migrate from the villages to the cities or from smaller towns to metropolis.' However, Hindi films fall short when it comes to the emigrant. Perhaps it's not too late to tell a new story of the pain that is over seven decades old.