In Kerala’s Malappuram district, a hundred odd people have one eye on the Indo-Pak border, even though it is thousands of kilometres away. Any action at the Line of Control has a direct impact on their lives. If there is an incursion in Kargil, they wait for the sound of police boots at their doorsteps. These people are Malayalees who migrated illegally to Karachi in the late 1950s and 60s to earn a living. Most ran tea shops, worked as cooks and helpers at restaurants and hotels there. They went driven by abject poverty in Kerala and lured by the money they could earn in Karachi. When they wanted to visit their families back in India, agents offered them a solution—get a Pakistani passport and then apply for an Indian visa. This meant they had to register as Pakistanis once in Kerala. Concepts like citizenship being alien to them, they didn’t realise that they would effectively relinquish Indian citizenship this way. Their real problems, however, began when they decided to return permanently to India on their retirement. We met a few of them to understand what it’s like being an Indian ‘Pakistani’:
Now 68 years old, spent 19 years in Karachi
In 1969, I was working at a hotel, but it was not enough to feed my family. I left for Madras and worked six or seven years there. Many people were going to Pakistan, where they were paid better. I joined three or four others, and headed for Karachi. We reached Calcutta by train. From Calcutta, we travelled by bus, and then on foot. When we reached the border, we were arrested by the Karachi police and sent to prison. I was imprisoned for six months and also beaten up severely.
Some Malayalees working in Karachi helped get me released. I was sent back to India by the police. But it was pointless to go home, because there was literally nothing to eat. I spent a few days in Calcutta, and again left for Karachi. This time, I managed to reach a friend’s place. He worked at a hotel, and I joined it too. After a year, I wanted to return to Kerala to see my family. An agent asked me to get a Pakistani passport, in which they stamped a visa to visit India. I did not know that I was going to lose my ‘Indianness’ by holding that passport. For me, it was just a piece of paper to come home.
I was allowed to stay 20 days in Kerala. I was also asked to report at the nearby police station within 24 hours of my arrival. I did all these formalities and went back to Karachi. Over my 19 years in Pakistan, I made many more short visits to Kerala. In 1988, I came on a short-term visa as usual, but did not go back. My father was critically ill. I stayed back for three years. The police came in search of me a few times, but I managed to hide.
But then, after a theft in my locality, I was taken in by mistake. When they realised who I was, they deported me. The cops took me up to a desert in Rajasthan and asked me to walk towards the border. I walked for three days and nights. I had very little water and food. I saw a Pakistani military check post at the border, and went towards it. I was not scared to be caught by the Pakistan army because I thought I was going to die anyway. I was simply desperate to fall into the custody of human beings. They interrogated me, but I was so weak that I was unable to speak a word. I was beaten up and fainted. When I woke up, I was in a military camp. They gave me water. They had examined my bag and found the Pakistani passport. They permitted me to go to Karachi.
However, I returned to India in 1992 and continued my clandestine life. The frequency of police enquiries came down. But during the Kargil War, I was put under strict surveillance again. I was scared of being thrown out of the country. I kept away from home and survived the nights in paddy fields, on the streets and even the beach.
In 2007, I wrote a letter to the then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan. I received a reply in five days. He said he had given instructions to the Superintendent of Police to approve my stay in Kerala. Thus came an end to years of life in holes and corners. Now I do not face any police harassment. Every year, I have to apply for an extension of my stay, which is just a technicality. I dearly want citizenship of my country. I am aged, sick and have almost lost hope.
Was 18 when he migrated to Karachi. He returned at the age of 62
I migrated in 1954 at the age of 18. I was an agricultural labourer, but hardly had any work most of the month. We were paid 25 paise for a day’s work. At the age of 17, I went to Kudagu in Karnataka and became a security guard on an orange plantation. It was a risky job—in deep forests, where there were wild elephants. I quit and left for Bombay, which was then the dreamland of migrant Malayalees. From there, a few of us decided to go to Pakistan. We’d heard the pay was very high there.
We boarded a train to Ahmedabad, but had no money for another train journey, so we travelled to the border ticketless. From Kokhrapar station, a town close to Karachi, we walked on foot through the desert under the scorching sun. After two days, we got a vehicle to Karachi. There was a tea shop run by one Mohamed, who had migrated long ago. I started working with him. In those days, Karachi resembled Kerala, since there were Malayalees almost everywhere. An organisation called Malabar Jamaat Council had existed even in 1918 with around 30,000 members.
After one year, I wanted to visit my family in Kerala. We were asked to use a Pakistani passport to visit India. I made frequent visits to Kerala, but never stayed long. In 1998, I turned 62 and realised it was time to go back home for good. On each visit, I had to report at the local police station of my arrival as well as departure. On a 1998 visit, however, I went and reported my departure after a few days, but did not actually go back to Pakistan. Someone tipped the police off, and they came in search of me. I did not hide. I told them I am aged and sick, and did not want to go back. They had sympathy for me and went away.
Later, I was advised to submit a representation to the Union Home Ministry seeking permission to remain in Kerala. After a few months, I was summoned by the Ministry. I travelled to Delhi alone, submitted all my records—my school certificate, old ration card, etcetera. But they dismissed my plea, and the police were instructed to deport me. Three policemen came home. They said they were sad to do it but helpless. I was first taken to the office of the Superintendent of Police (SP), Malappuram. There was a clerk there whose job was to register my departure. He looked at me in silence for a moment. Then he got up from his chair, and I still remember the words he shouted, “Why is this country throwing this ailing old man out? I can’t do it. I will quit this job. I will make a better living selling peanuts on the beach than sinning like this.” Even the SP was shocked.
The cops then suggested I get admitted to a hospital and approach the High Court. It worked. I got a stay order. Every year, I have to renew my visa now. Every month, I have to sign [the register of foreigners] before the SP of Malappuram. I have applied for Indian citizenship, but am almost sure I will die a Pakistani citizen.
MAMMU ALIAS MOHAMED HAJI
went to Karachi at 18 and returned after more than half a century
I was born in 1932. My father was a school teacher who passed away when I was in class four. We were in debt and I had no option but to migrate. I landed in Karachi in 1950, and started working at a beedi unit, earning Rs 4 per day. I was able to send home Rs 100 every month. After some years, I wanted to come and see my family. I was told a Pakistani passport was needed for an Indian visa. I was not aware of the concept of citizenship. I got a visa for a very short 15-to-20 day stay. I was under surveillance when I came. Once, I requested a two-day extension of my stay to attend a cousin’s marriage, but was refused.
After three years of working in the beedi unit, I started a tea shop. The business grew, and in a few years, I turned to shipping. It started as an agency engaged in loading and unloading ships. Gradually, we developed expertise in repairing and making cargo boats. I got orders from shipping companies in India and Pakistan. Thus was Ahamed Trading Corp formed. We were able to capture orders from countries like Dubai. We also started exporting dry fruits, mainly dates. We exported 400-500 tonnes of dates every year. By the end of the 1990s, my company was getting orders for the construction and repair of 250-300 cargo boats a year.
My wife was originally from Malappuram district. We married in 1962, but she and our children have never been to Pakistan. It was me who would come home every year. Years passed, and she desperately wanted me to return for good. She tried to get approval for permanent residence in Kerala for me. To be honest, I had no immediate plans to return because my business was flourishing. In 2006, my wife submitted a request directly to the then President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, and he took a favourable decision.
It was unexpected, and I did not want to miss the opportunity. So I left all my fortune and said goodbye to Pakistan. I do not regret it; when I boarded the train back in 1950, I was a man steeped in poverty and debt. Now I am rich, but in fact I own nothing. Here I cannot hold land or even a bank account. All my wealth and property are in the name of my wife and children. Technically, now I am what I was when I left in 1950—bankrupt.
I am not asked to sign [the foreigners’ register] every month because I have a direct order from the President’s office. My situation is slightly better than that of other Pakistani citizens in Malappuram. We cannot vote or work for any political party. Though there is no ban on attending religious and spiritual gatherings, I keep off. I know I am under watch. Why should I invite trouble? I want to travel across India. I want to perform hajj. I have money but am not permitted to travel. I am 80 years old now. I know I will die a Pakistani citizen.
was barely out of his teens when he reached Karachi. He lived more than three decades there
My mother died when I was 11, and my father remarried. Poverty and my stepmother’s harassment made me run away from home at the age of 12. I boarded a train and reached Bangalore, where I washed dishes at restaurants. I heard of better job options in Gujarat. I set off there and did odd jobs in Kutch. It was better pay, Rs 10 per day. Meanwhile, I had heard stories of people migrating to Germany where there was a labour scarcity after World War II. Illegal migration by the sea was quite common. I too boarded a ship to Europe, but the agent cheated me. I reached Karachi instead. I managed to find some Malayalees there and got a job at a hotel.
After six years, I left for Germany again, and this time reached Dubai instead. There were around 10-15 people in the group. We reached Gwadar [in Baluchistan] near the Iranian border. From there, we took camels through the deserts of Iran and Iraq, hoping to reach Turkey and then Germany. It took days and days. We had taken raw wheat powder, water and firewood with us. Yet, we were thirsty for long stretches; some of us even drank camel urine found in desert holes, mistaking it for water. Finally, we reached Basra, only to find that recruitment agencies had stopped hiring labour for Germany. Disappointed, we turned back .The journey to Basra and back to Dubai was the most dreadful experience of my life. We boarded a vehicle carrying cattle to Dubai from Iran. On reaching Dubai, I destroyed my Pakistani passport. But it was of no use. On my first visit to Kerala after a year of arriving in Karachi, I had registered at the police station as a Pakistani citizen. I was already in their records as one.
Initially, it wasn’t a problem. In Dubai I worked as a helper at an eatery. The master chef was a Malayalee and he taught me how to cook. Meanwhile, I got an opportunity to work as a helper at an American club. There, I learnt American and British cuisines. Soon, I got a job on a British naval ship. Gradually, I learnt French, Chinese and Italian cuisines.
I returned to Kerala in 1985. I had turned 50 by then. The police came home looking for me many times. Once they told me that I would be deported and could get gunned down on the border by the Pakistan army. I was so scared. I never stayed home for long. We kept the lights turned off, pretending there was nobody home. I spent several such nights in the dark.
In 1986, I managed to get a stay order from the High Court that allowed me to stay in Kerala until a final decision. Now, every year, I have to extend my visa. There are both good and bad people in the police. I have had people calling me a ‘Pakistani’ when I’ve gone to the police station to sign. On the other hand, there are good men who’ve been kind enough to help me get legal advice.
Kerala’s many ‘Pakistani nationals’ tend to have the same pattern in their stories. Most of them are poor. Most have spent their earnings on the education and marriage of their sons and daughters. “Back in Kerala, they have nothing to do. They don’t have ration cards and no access to the Public Distribution System,” says Sankaran Kutty, junior superintendent at the office of the Superintendent of Police, Malappuram, who handles visa renewals and applications for citizenship. There are 67 applications on his table as of now, and he says it is almost impossible for any of them to go through.
“According to the Citizenship Act of 1955, they have to produce a valid passport (of Pakistan) along with a residential permit. Most of them have not renewed their Pakistani passports, which expired long back. We have written several times to the Union Home Ministry about the irrationality of asking them to furnish valid Pakistani passports, but unfortunately the Central Government has taken no positive step. The Kerala government has no role in this, apart from approving visa extensions,” he says. There are 40-odd people in the district who do not hold any documents at all. Many of them destroyed their Pakistani passport, scared of being caught by the police, and have not applied for citizenship either. They are in real danger of living the rest of their lives in legal limbo.