Teenager Madhu Kumari says she struggled for two years to get into a school in New Delhi and suspects this was because she came from Pakistan, India’s arch rival.
“All the schools I tried told me I needed to have an Indian identification card, a school-leaving certificate from my previous institute. I didn’t have any of those. But I knew these were just excuses. Their problem was that I am a Pakistani national,” Madhu, 16, told BenarNews about her experience of being turned away by one-half dozen public schools since she landed in India.
Acting on a suggestion from a human rights activist, Madhu early this month sent a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, in a last-ditch effort to resume her education.
Within days leaders of Delhi’s ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – who otherwise are at loggerheads – came together in a rare gesture to get the undocumented teenager enrolled in a government school near her makeshift home in southwest Delhi.
Madhu is one of about 120,000 Pakistani Hindus living in India after having escaped what they call religious persecution in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where just over 2 percent of its 180 million citizens are Hindu.
Although India’s Hindu nationalist-led government last year announced that Hindu refugees from Pakistan and Bangladesh who had entered India legally before Dec. 31, 2014, could stay on in the country even after their visas had lapsed, most are unable to get jobs or admission to educational institutes because they lack valid documents.
Madhu, who secured admission in the 9th grade of the Government Co-Educational Senior Secondary School in Sanjay Colony on Sept. 14, said she was indebted to the Indian government for letting her pursue her education so she could become a police officer one day.
“I could not have even thought of doing that in Pakistan. Hindus are treated like untouchables there. We are constantly harassed, forced to study Islamic literature. We aren’t even allowed to drink water from the same glasses that the Muslims use,” said Madhu, who hails from Pakistan’s Sindh province.
‘Language was also a problem’
In July 2014, while she was studying in an Urdu-language school in the Pakistani province of Sindh, Madhu made a tough decision to leave behind her widowed mother and four siblings and cross the border with her elder brother, Lakhmer, and maternal uncle, Jawahar, in hopes of a better future.
The trio found shelter in a makeshift settlement – made up of tin roofs and tarpaulin sheets – in Sanjay Colony, where nearly 100 other Pakistani Hindu families live.
In a few days, her brother began work as a daily wage laborer and her uncle started getting brick laying jobs. Madhu thought the hard part was over.
“But it was only the beginning of a heartbreaking struggle that lasted two years,” Madhu said.
“Language was also a problem. Since I studied in a strictly Urdu-medium school in Pakistan, I did not know Hindi or English. That was another reason some schools refused to admit me,” she said.
Letter causes chain reaction
Despite the meager income that Lakhmer and Jawahar made from their jobs, they paid a local language tutor to help Madhu improve her Hindi and English diction.
“After nearly two years of tuition she became fluent in Hindi and could get by in English. Even then, no school would grant her admission,” Jawahar, who only goes by his first name, told BenarNews.
“But I could see that Madhu was very keen to go back to school, so I started asking around for help. Someone suggested we write to the Indian government about it. With the help of Ashok Agarwal we sent a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, pleading him to intervene,” Jawahar said. Agarawal is an advocate and human rights activist.
The letter, which was also posted on Twitter, set off a chain reaction.
Indian Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj invited Madhu to her office for a chat, following which, Swaraj spoke to Kejriwal for help.
The next day, Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who is also Delhi’s education minister, wrote to the government school in Sanjay Colony: “She wants to study and on humanitarian grounds it is my considered opinion that we need to walk the extra mile to accommodate her desire [to pursue studies] in our school.”
He said the school should consider relaxing rules that come in the way of Madhu’s dream while adding that the required books and uniform will be provided by the Delhi government.
But Madhu’s brother, Lakhmer, told BenarNews that Kumari had yet to receive the books promised by the government.
“Up until now, she’s been sharing her classmates’ books. But I am sure [the government] will stand true to its word,” he said.
Madhu said she would manage even if that promise of books was broken.
“I am just grateful I am being allowed to study. My classmates are nice to me. They share their books and their food with me. I can’t really ask for more,” she said.