About a month ago, thirty-something-year-old Shanti stuffed one iron trunk with whatever she could fit in from her life-- her clothes and cooking utensils, picked up her passport and visa for 40 days and left Sindh, Pakistan to come to India. She was accompanied by her spouse and two children.
She wanted to visit Haridwar once in her lifetime-- that's the reason she gave to visa officials for wanting to visit India. But when Shanti reached Delhi, she decided to stay. In a dimly lit shanty, she sits stirring a pot over a wood-fire. The smoke has clouded her eyes, but Shanti's dreams remain clear.
Almost all the 170 families who live on a tiny piece of land in Aruna Nagar Colony in North Delhi have one shared dream: To be able to live in India, respectfully. Less than a kilometer from this stretch of land is the Tibetian Refugee Colony, bustling with home-owned stores, eateries and shops which sell the first-copy of designer brands.
At the other end of the dusty road that stretches towards's Delhi's Signature bridge, the other refugees are looked down upon. The locals constantly remind them that they are "Pakistani" and keep away from the 150 odd houses constructed from tin sheets, wood paneling and on rare occasions, a single concrete wall.
"Kaun hai Pakistani? Hum Indian hi hai (Who's Pakistani? I'm Indian)," says Dayal Das, who came from Hyderabad in Pakistan. Even as he utters the words, he realizes the threat of being deported at any time. The Indian flag, stuck on a pole in his house, wavers in the wind, mimicking the uncertainty in his life. Das's daughter gave birth to a child on December 9. Two-month-old 'Nagrikta' (Citizenship) sleeps soundly, as her father talks about his dreams. Nagrikta is a legitimate citizen, she was born in India. Her parents still face the threat of being deported.
Nagrikta's sound sleep seems to eerily spread over the entire settlement - everything is calm, there is no ruckus. The absence of noise is the first thing you notice. Every settlement usually has movement-- the noise of children playing, women talking, but here, there's a blanket of silence. The residents of the area are worried-- Citizenship has been promised to them multiple times since the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) came into place, but nobody has explained the process of getting that piece of paper. "After Delhi polls," politicians have told them. However, none of them know what the CAA will mean for them.
The promise of CAA is such that it is making people cross the border and move to India, in hopes that a change in soil will change their state of life.
Chandrama moved to India after hearing news of the CAA. "Modiji bolein hum Nagrik ban jayenge. Sab documents leke aye hai (Modi said we will become citizens. We've brought all the documents)," she explains excitedly, despite knowing the criteria for Hindus from Pakistan to get citizenship is six years of residency, and proof that you migrated to India before December 31, 2014.
But for the Pakistani refugees in this colony, the dreams are much bigger than just the stamp on paper.
"I have a high-school degree. I did well in my class 12 exams, but the only jobs I got in Pakistan was that of manual labour. I was not handed the same opportunities as my Muslim counterparts. I couldn't pursue higher education, and I wasn't involved in any vocational training, my Muslim friends were," explains Chandrama. "The only jobs I could get were washing clothes, cleaning roads and sometimes, manual scavenging," she said.
Escaping from the abject poverty was not the only reason she came to India. "We didn't know what festival it was. Diwali, Dusshera, Holi, none of them were celebrated." "I can live without festivals, but my children do not know the Hindi script. I can only speak broken Hindi, but I want my children to get education here, and speak Hindi and learn to read and write and be eligible for government jobs," she added.
Her husband, Kishan Kumar, explains it is not always poverty or persecution that pushes them out. It's hope. "Koi humein aakey nehi mara, koi jurm nehi huye hum pe. Bas, izzat nehi thi (Nobody came hurt us, no crimes were committed against us. We just didn't have respect)," he said.
The plot of encroached land lacks basic facilities: all houses are single rooms, there are plastic portable toilets set up in a row used as the common bathroom for the families. There are no kitchens, there's no roof, and just one single mandir, established by the 'pradhan' of the colony, Sona Das, a year after he moved there. There is no clean drinking water, no system of running water, no healthcare center.
Surendra Nath Singh, a worker who is associated with an NGO in Gurgaon, and was helping to set up a medical stall, explains why political parties barely even make tours to the neighborhood. "These people can't vote, they are not a voter bank. So, politicians have never bothered helping with anything," she said. "All the work is only done by different NGOs, the ones who can stop by on that particular day."
And yet, some houses have plastered posters of political parties on their walls.
For most of them, all political parties are the same - they all come with a promise of citizenship. But the residents here want much more: They want the government to give them jobs, homes, education and a right to live without being called "Pakistanis".
Biba's dreams are simple. "Every woman wants a roof over her head, her children's futures secured and enough to fill her stomach." As she stitches beads onto her daughter's dress, she explains how citizenship is only one step. "Maine jee li apni zindagi (I have lived my life)," she explains, aged only in her late 30s, "My children should live better now that we are here."
"The only thing separating people from getting equal opportunities in India isn't citizenship. People drew a border over a map and I happened to be in the land that was considered "other." Will just being a citizen guarantee I get everything I want? If I ask for a Bungalow, will the government give me it? No. But what I'm asking for isn't a bungalow. I'm only asking for the basic dignity one needs to live," she said.
Her wrist has a tattoo that reads: 'Om'. "I got it when I came here," she revealed. "Nobody knows any Devanagari there," she said, showing another tattoo, that of her name, written in Urdu. She got that one back in Pakistan.
Shanti, Biba, and many others like her who have moved in hopes of a better future, aren't as concerned about citizenship two months after the controversial law was passed. They know that a stamp on a paper doesn't change much. There is a much longer battle ahead of them to be fought: battles of identity, battles of equality, battles to be considered 'Indian.'