Pakistani activist Zulfikar Shah and wife Fatima in New Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Oct. 22: A Pakistani rights activist who says he angered the establishment by protesting military atrocities and championing peasant and minority rights has been living in New Delhi’s streets the past nine days, hoping for asylum.
Zulfikar Shah, 36, has been in India with wife and fellow activist Fatima since February on a medical visa, undergoing treatment for arsenic and lead poisoning. He claims he was poisoned by the ISI while living in exile in Nepal from May to December last year.
The couple had been staying at a guesthouse near JNU till the owner asked them to leave, apparently because they could not pay their bills for sometime. Shah alleges they were turned out under Pakistani high commission pressure. The guesthouse owner declined comment.
Now the couple spend their days outside the Press Club of India, dining at a nearly dhaba that serves them two free meals a day, and their nights at Jantar Mantar. They have neither money nor friends in the city.
“We appeal to the Indian government to grant us asylum as our visas will expire on October 27. Even my medical treatment is not complete. We shall be killed as soon as we land in Pakistan,” Shah told The Telegraph.
He says three Indian hospitals turned him down under pressure from the Pakistani mission and that he is undergoing chelation therapy at a private hospital whom he has paid in advance. “It’ll take a few more months.”
He says Pakistani mission officials intercepted him in Delhi several times. “Once, when we were eating at a restaurant, some men came and sat at our table and stared at us threateningly. I’d seen them before in a high commission car,” Shah said.
Government officials who didn’t wish to be quoted said India had in the past granted asylum to many Pakistanis (minorities) on the ground of religious persecution, but such a gesture on the ground of human rights can create diplomatic problems. Besides, they said, the government has to be sure the asylum seeker isn’t a spy.
Shah, a journalist, was once associated with Sindhi newspaper Daily Kawish and contributed to leading Pakistani English-language newspapers such as Dawn, The News, The Friday Times and Newsline.
While working as director of the Institute for Social Movements in Pakistan, he had protested the disappearance of civil rights activists, attacks on minorities and exploitation of minority girls by military personnel.
In February 2009, he had led a “long march” by thousands of Sindh peasants for land rights from Hyderabad to the Sindh Assembly in Karachi. This, he says, infuriated hardliners and the military.
“The ISI and military officials threatened me and asked me to stop my activities. I was regularly harassed. When the situation became unbearable, we fled to Nepal where the United Nations Human Rights Council granted us refugee status,” Shah said.
“I enrolled as a research scholar in Tribhuvan University and rented a small apartment. However, when the two of us fell sick and went to hospital, we were told we had high levels of poisonous substances in our body, which could have accumulated over a period of time through slow poisoning.”
He added: “With no money for treatment, we returned to Pakistan but there the ordeal began again and we applied for a medical visa to India.”
Shah, who has an MPhil from the University of Sindh, said he had written to India’s foreign and home ministries for asylum, and also sought the National Human Rights Commission’s intervention.
“For now, I am requesting permission to at least open a bank account so my relatives and friends in Pakistan can help me financially. I want to live and work here as a researcher if I’m allowed to.”