Srinagar: It's a wintry evening in December 2013.
Labha Ram Gandhi, 53, sits on a mound of earth outside his home on the outskirts of Jammu and in a sullen voice, talks about the struggle faced by the members of his community.
Originally from Sialkot in Pakistan, Gandhi and his family migrated to Jammu in 1947 along with over 2,000 other families to escape religious persecution in Pakistan after communal riots broke out in the area.
Gandhi lives in Chack Zaffar, a tiny village some 10 kilometers from Jammu city, and home to 174 West Pakistan refugee families. He is the president of the association of refugees from West Pakistan, mostly Hindu and Sikh families, who have been demanding citizenship rights from the government of Jammu and Kashmir for the last 67 years.
"When we were heading towards Punjab after the communal riots erupted in Jammu, Sheikh Abdullah stopped us at Lakhanpur near the Punjab border and assured us that he would give us land and citizenship rights. But today his party, including his own son Farooq Abdullah is opposing our rights," Gandhi said.
“At that time, we were 5,764 families. Today, we have grown to 25,460 families, not more than one hundred fifty thousand people. We have been living here for over six decades now but we don’t have any rights. We are not citizens here. The future of our children will also be ruined like ours,” he says, choking back tears.
Recently a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) recommended the granting of citizenship and compensation to the West Pakistani Refugees, a promise the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had made in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The BJP included the resettlement of these refugees in its manifesto for the recently concluded state assembly elections, and also promised them citizenship.
But the issue has stoked fresh controversy in the politically charged Jammu and Kashmir, in a manner eerily similar to what the state experienced in 2008. The state government’s decision then, to transfer a patch of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board, triggered civil unrest and eventually a mass agitation which saw over 60 persons, mostly stone-throwing teenagers, killed in retaliatory action by forces.
The recommendations of the joint parliamentary committee have evoked similar fears of religious polarization in the state which might lead to a political crisis, pitting the Muslim majority Valley against the Hindu dominated Jammu.
Gandhi says the refugees came to Jammu from various districts of pre-partition West Punjab, bordering the state of Jammu and Kashmir. A majority of them settled in the border areas like Kathua and Samba in Jammu and have been living in the state for more than 65 years.
“Unlike the refugees from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir who migrated to the state and were given rights during the regime of Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, we were ignored,” Gandhi says.
The reason was that unlike the POK refugees, the West Pakistan refugees were not original residents of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The refugees from West Pakistan can vote in the Lok Sabha elections but not in the assembly elections. They cannot apply for a government job or buy property in the state. Although their numbers are not high, political parties have voiced fears that the granting of citizenship rights is a step towards changing the demography of the state.
“Why are the recommendations of one parliamentary committee implemented without delay and others like the one on revocation of AFSPA discarded unceremoniously? The BJP wants to create communal tensions and alter the regional balance of the state. Our party won’t allow that,” National Conference General Secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar told Firstpost.
The issue has also been taken up by separatist leaders, with the Hurriyats of Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq working to chalk out a joint strategy to counter the move. Geelani has warned that he will launch a pan-Kashmir agitation, if the West Pakistan refugees are given citizenship rights.
But former minister of state and senior Congress leader, Manjit Singh says that Valley-based politicians and Hurriyat leaders are “misleading” people on the issue of West Pakistani refugees.
Singh, who is himself a refugee, says that his people have been suffering on many counts for the last six decades due to the opposition of Kashmir-centric leaders and political parties.
“We will launch a mass movement against such parties and leaders if we are not given citizenship rights. We will not sit silently,” he said.
Constitutional expert and senior Kashmir-based lawyer, Zaffar Shah, told Firstpost on Thursday that the letter sent by the government of India to the state government on granting state subject certificate needs approval of the legislature as Jammu & Kashmir has its own constitution.
“If it (letter on grant of state subject certificates) is acted upon, it will result in the violation of the constitution and the laws relating to permanent residency in the state. It would also mean that the population will increase and its fallout will be in Jammu province which will then see a higher demand for more seats in the legislative assembly. It will lead to concentration of power in Jammu and the Valley will be isolated,” Shah said.
And while the proposal to resettle the refugees is being vehemently opposed by the political mainstream as well as Hurriyat in Kashmir valley, the issue has created a critical situation in in Jammu, home to all these refugees. It has also exposed the congenial fault lines occupied by the two religiously divided regions of the state.
However, Gandhi is hopeful that better sense will prevail among the politicians who are opposing the decision to resettle his community.
“When people from Punjab can set up industries and become citizens of Jammu, why not us? We have been living here for 67 years. Are the laws only meant for poor, not for the rich?” he asks.
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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2015 15:09:34 IST