India’s Prodigal Daughter Still Without a Home?

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

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).

However, on 26 October 2015, when Geeta arrived in Delhi amid much fanfare, she refused to recognize the Mahato family at the airport. It was decided that the matter would be settled through DNA testing, and so, blood samples were sent to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Delhi. Meanwhile, Geeta was sent to an institution for the hearing and speech impaired in Indore, Madhya Pradesh. No progress in the matter was reported for the next three weeks.

On 19 November, the MEA released a statement saying that, according to the DNA test, Geeta and the Mahatos were unrelated. The statement also declared that fresh DNA testing would be conducted with regard to the other families claiming Geeta, and that until a match is found she was to remain at the Indore institution whose name was not released to the public.

On 13 December, I spoke to a senior official at AIIMS, who told me that the DNA test results had been submitted to the ministry three days after Geeta’s arrival, on 29 October. I asked the official about the accuracy of the test, and if there was any room for doubt. “There is no margin of error,” I was told. The official also stated that no further DNA tests were being conducted at AIIMS to match Geeta’s samples with other claimants. DK Sharma, the medical superintendent of AIIMS, confirmed this, on the same day.

I attempted to contact Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson for the MEA, for comments on the case. Despite multiple attempts, Swarup remained unreachable. On 11 December, I sent a questionnaire regarding Geeta’s case, the additional DNA testing, and the current status of her citizenship to his official email address. On 22 December, I received a call from Vikas Swarup’s secretary who conveyed the following message: “Whatever Mr Swarup had to say regarding Geeta, he has already said it in the concerned press briefings.” I compiled a list of all the Indore-based institutes for the hearing and speech impaired. The fifth on my list was the Indore Deaf Bilingual Academy (IDBA) run by the Mook Badhir Sangathan. The person who answered the phone confirmed that Geeta was indeed staying at the institute, and put me through to Monica Punjabi Verma, the director of the Indian sign language department at the IDBA. Citing the sensitivity of Geeta’s case and the public hype surrounding it, Verma asked me to obtain approval from the district collector (DC) of Indore, Parikipandla Narahari, before speaking to her.

Geeta had arrived at the IDBA on 27 October, and had been staying there ever since. PHOTO COURTESY IDBA

On 17 December, I spoke to Narahari over the phone. Although he refused to discuss the specific instructions he had received from the MEA regarding Geeta, he told me that no updates regarding her family or further DNA tests had been communicated to him, and that Geeta was to remain at IDBA as per the government’s discretion. Narahari also gave me the go-ahead to speak with Verma.

Later that day, I called Verma, and we spoke at length about the IDBA and Geeta’s time there. Identifying herself as a certified interpreter of sign language, Verma told me about the institute, originally registered as Mook Badhir Sangathan in 1974. Verma claimed that IDBA is one of the biggest centres in India dedicated to the hearing and speech impaired and that it is probably one of the few institutes that is run by people who themselves bear auditory impairment, such as her parents, Usha and Rajkumar Punjabi, who are also the founders.

Verma told me that Geeta had arrived at the institute on 27 October, and had been staying there ever since. “She is our guest, not student. So, she mostly follows her own routine,” she said. “We don’t enforce anything on her, but she is learning many things.” Apart from embroidery and basic computer training, along with English, Math and Hindi classes, Verma said that Geeta’s sign language skills, which were earlier limited due to the lack of fellow signers, were improving.

Verma revealed that Geeta’s actual name was in fact Guddi, and that she recalled attending a “general school in pink striped uniform, but couldn’t learn from normal hearing teachers. So, her writing is clear, but she can just copy.” I asked her if Geeta had adjusted well to life at IDBA, and whether she seemed nostalgic about Pakistan. “She respects the people from the Edhi foundation and talks fondly of them,” Verma replied. “But I don’t think she misses them. She seems happy here. She is among people of her age and who share the same handicap.”

Verma also explained that to ensure Geeta’s safety, special provisions had been adopted under the supervision of DC Narahari. One to three policemen are stationed at the institute round the clock, who also escort Geeta whenever she is taken out to the city, after prior permission from the local superintendent of police. Her visitors so far have consisted mostly of politicians such as the chief minister of the state, local MLAs, and Sushma Swaraj, who arrived at IDBA on 23 November with more photographs of people claiming Geeta as their daughter. Geeta, however, did not recognise any of them. On 18 December, Swaraj made a fresh attempt to find Geeta’s family. In a series of tweets she asked her followers to “Please help locate Geeta’s parents,” and shared information about her identification marks and memories of her home.

Verma then told me that Geeta had once lamented that if she had been better educated, she might have known her address in India. Right now, all she can recall of her home is that it was located near a canal, amid fields of paddy and sugarcane—possibly, somewhere around Bihar, Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra, Verma guessed. In all other respects, Verma told me, Geeta seemed like any other young girl who likes to dress up in bright suits, enjoys cold drinks, ice cream, milk and dry fruits, and jumps into a frenzy at the sight of fireworks. “Masti karna bahaut pasand hai usey (she is very mischievous),” Verma summarised, before adding that Geeta is also very religious. “She performs an aarti everyday. The first thing she did on arriving here was placing an idol in her room. Kehti hai ki Krishna ji ko samarpit hai”—she says she is devoted to the Hindu god Krishna. Geeta is also vegetarian and wears a Bajrangi Bhaijaan locket around her neck, Verma added. “She lives in a fantasy of her own. She talks of her parents, and she wants to meet Salman Khan. She is convinced that Salman will find her family like in the movie. How do we explain to her that he is a busy man?”

At that moment, Geeta was brought to Verma’s office. Verma asked me if I would like to hear her voice. I said yes. Verma passed the phone over, but I was unable to understand the sounds that followed. I remained silent. When Verma came back on, she translated: “Everyone is nice here, I like it…I’m learning a lot, but I’m a slow learner…I hope you are well. Thank you for helping me.”