For Fatima Siyal Shah, a Pakistani Sindhi refugee in Delhi, her husband Zulfiqar Shah is the world. âOften, I wish I could go back to my land but then I look at him and think, what he would do without me,â she says. Sitting cross-legged on a borrowed bed and assembled bedding in a small dingy room in Delhiâs Sultanpuri, she talks about missing her family in Pakistan but cannot think of going back. âMy conscience doesnât allow me to leave him,â she says.
Fatima and Zulfiqar have been in a self-imposed exile since 2012. In 2013, they came to India on medical visas and have remained here ever since. âWhen we were coming here for his treatment, I thought it will be all over in a month. I didnât even bring enough clothes,â she smiles. Indicating her husband, she says, âSometimes I tell him I am suffering because of him but then I also understand the pain he is going through.â
Zulfiqar Shah is a human rights activist and journalist from Sindh who has also worked in several political and community rights organisations. After working in Sindhi language newspapers Daily Kawish and Ibrat, he joined Pakistanâs Fisherfolk Forum as Programme Manager. âOur organisation led a movement against Pakistani Rangers who had forcefully occupied the fishing water bodies from the fishing communities,â he says. The movement ended after the then president Pervez Musharraf tendered an apology on behalf of the Rangers.
However, when Shah started working with South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAPP) his conflict with the Pakistani establishment grew. One of his projects with SAPP was on disappearance of political activists in Sindh and Balochistan. âIn 2007, we reported 1,400 such disappearances from the two provinces that year alone,â he claims. Later, along with his wife and other friends, he founded the Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan.
By 2012, his well-wishers in and outside Pakistan convinced Shah that he wasnât safe in the country. He closed down the Institute and fled to Nepal, where he secured refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). âHowever, I was poisoned in Kathmandu,â he alleges. After initial treatment in Nepal, he returned to Pakistan and applied for an Indian medical visa.
On 11 February 2013, Zulfiqar and Fatima arrived in India. Soon, they realised he wasnât safe here either. âI am sure that I was being watched. I could recognise people even in the restaurants where I went to dine,â he claims. According to him, the Pakistan High Commission officials in New Delhi interfered in his treatment too. âI was âadvisedâ to go back to Pakistan through an AIIMS Â doctor,â he says, showing the âadviceâ written on the prescription.
When he lost all hope of obtaining assurance for his security in India, he wrote letters to the President, the Prime Minister, the National Human Rights Commission of India and numerous other Indian and international human rights organisations. He also filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court and held a sit-in at Jantar Mantar for nine months demanding resettlement. Later, the government of India granted him long term visa (LTV). âWithout LTP we could not open a bank account. We also lost Rs 50,000 in the protest at Jantar Mantar,â says Fatima.
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According to Shah, Sindhâs is the largest and oldest freedom movement in Asia. In March 2014, five million Sindhi people marched in Karachi demanding freedom. âHardly anybody knows about it. Except Afghan media, no other media has ever tried to highlight the situation in Sindh although Sindh and Balochistan have the largest military concentration in Asia after Iraq and Afghanistan. Does anybody know that after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007, Sindh attempted secession from Pakistan?â
Like other South Asian regions, Sindh has a multi-layered history, interpretation of which varies. Sindh became a part of British India after the first Anglo-Sindh War in 1843. Thereafter it remained a British protectorate until Independence, after which many wanted Sindh to return to its pre-1843 status. In the early 1970s, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz was formed and the movement for freedom gained momentum. It is still active.
When asked if Prime Minister Modiâs mention of Balochistan in the I-Day speech will help, Shah replies, âOf course it will, for Sindh and Balochistan are twins. If Balochistan bleeds, Sindh bleeds too. But it isnât enough. India should talk about Sindh along with Balochistan or Gilgit-Baltistan.â
Will it not weaken Indiaâs policy of non-intervention in internal matters of other countries? âNot at all,â responds Shah. âIf Pakistan is not hesitant about speaking on Kashmir, which is an artificial issue, why should India shy away from speaking on real issues like Balochistan or Sindh?â he asks. He believes that Sindhi people have been let down by the world, which needs to change its attitude. âThe world body has failed to understand Pakistan and its real state construct. It has a dubious and fallacious outlook,â he complains.
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Today, Fatima feels alone in Delhi. She has no friends to invite on Eid or visit on birthdays. âMine is a big family. We are six siblings. So, there was always something happening,â she recalls. Days pass without the phone ringing even once. From her glassless window, Delhi, looks endless like her own journey.
Fatima met Zulfiqar during an interview for a position at SAPP and they fell in love. She had already heard about him from friends in Sindh University. Fatima says that she has more work experience than Zulfiqar. âBut ours is a menâs world so he jumped the growth ladder fast,â she adds.
Does she relate with the kind of work her husband is into? âYes, I do,â she asserts. âSindhis have suffered a lot. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was our hero and when he was hanged, people of Sindh refused to cook or eat food for several days. After which we wholeheartedly participated in the movement for the restoration of democracy. During the movement, Sindhis were beaten up and even killed. My eight-year-old brother was arrested and kept in confinement for eight days,â she says as she wipes her tears.
âLater when I started working as a community coordinator I came into contact with people who had gone through similar experiences. With Agha Khan Universityâs Community Health Programme, I did a comparative study on children of different provinces and found that Baloch and Sindh children have nourishment level much lower than children in the rest of Pakistan.â
Fatima cannot hide her emotions, as she speaks. âRecently, when my elder sister died, I had a fight with him (Zulfiqar). I wanted to fly back home. I had lost my mother at a very young age and my sister was everything to me. I told Zulfiqar to leave me.â
When she thinks of the future, it seems blank. âI donât know anything about Delhi. I fear what will happen to me if he gets ill. I canât even go out to buy medicines. These days I just canât stop praying.â After a pause, she says that she doesnât fear Pakistani authorities any more. âWhat worse can they do to us? Kill us? But if they kill a human rights defender, what will remain of them?â
Do they ever intend to go back to Pakistan, and on what conditions? âWho would not want to return to the land of their forefathers?â responds Shah. âBut only on two conditions. One, there is an international guarantee for my life, and two, political reform takes place in Pakistan guaranteeing proportional representation of all ethnic sections. If the latter doesnât happen, soon Pakistan will either dismember into independent countries or there will be a deep anarchy which will engulf the whole of South Asia and afar.â