India’s Prodigal Daughter Still Without a Home?

23 December 2015
Bilquis Bano Edhi named the lost girl Geeta, since she appeared to be a devout Hindu.
Bilquis Bano Edhi named the lost girl Geeta, since she appeared to be a devout Hindu.

July 2015 saw the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a Bollywood potboiler directed by Kabir Khan that earned over Rs 6 billion worldwide. The film told the story of a six-year-old, mute Pakistani girl stranded in India, and the attempts of the titular character played by Salman Khan, to bring her home. Needless to say, the film had a happy ending: the girl reunited with her family and regained her power of speech, even as thousands of citizens flocked to the Indo-Pak border and cheered from their respective sides. Soon after in August, the uncannily similar story of Geeta captured the public imagination, receiving widespread media coverage.

According to a Firstpost article, Geeta, allegedly an Indian citizen, arrived in Pakistan in 2003 aboard the Samjhauta Express. She was spotted by Pakistani rangers in Lahore. Although she was believed to be around 11 years old at the time, there is no certainty regarding her age. Geeta was admitted to the Karachi-based Edhi foundation, a non-governmental organisation focusing on care, shelter and rehabilitation. Faisal Edhi, managing director of the foundation, and the son of its founders Abdul Sattar and Bilquis Bano Edhi—who named the lost girl Geeta, since she appeared to be a devout Hindu—admitted that the girl’s original file, which contained the date on which she was found as well as the name of the police officers who brought her to the foundation, had been misplaced. Due to her hearing and speech impediment, even the Indian state she belongs to is not known.

Faisal Edhi mentioned that they had tried several times to ascertain her antecedents and send her home. “The Indian embassy asked us for Geeta’s passport, or any documents to prove she was Indian, but we had nothing,” he told me. Many people suggested smuggling Geeta to India through Afghanistan, but Faisal dismissed the idea, saying it was “illegal, and would have created further problems.” Meanwhile, Faisal explained Geeta’s situation to numerous delegations that would arrive from India, such as journalists and activists. “They talked to her, took her photos, but nothing came of it,” he said. “Toh hum bhi dheere-dheere mayoos ho gaye”—after a while, we also gave up hope.

It was not until the release of Bajrangi Bhaijaan that Geeta’s story gained impetus. The External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj stepped in, responding to a tweet by Ansar Burney, a human rights activist in Pakistan and asked the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, TCA Raghavan, to visit Geeta. There were several visits from the Indian embassy. Faisal remarked, “Ek waqt aisa tha ki usey bilkul ehmiyat nahi di gayi, aur ab sar pe chhada kar le gaye”—there was a time when they hardly paid any attention to her, but now they are carrying her back on their shoulders.

Photographs of various families that claimed Geeta was their daughter were sent through the Indian high commissioner. Geeta identified Janardhan Mahato from Bihar as her father, and arrangements were made for her return in late October. Her story was the quintessential Bollywood plot come to life, and the government and the press diligently played the tune of bringing “India’s daughter” back home. The Indian prime minister Narendra Modi even announced a one crore rupee donation to the Edhi foundation for taking care of Geeta (Edhi refused the money).

Ishan Marvel is a reporter at Vantage, The Caravan.

Keywords: Sushma Swaraj Geeta ministry of external affairs