Srinagar: As a deceptive calm hangs over Kashmir following the five-month long civilian uprising, another controversy is brewing in the Valley – over an alleged government decision to grant domicile status to West Pakistan refugees (WPRs) who migrated to Jammu at the time of Partition.
This isn’t the first time the issue is in the headlines, occupying Kashmir’s political centre-stage. But the open stand taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party – which is ruling at the Centre and is a coalition partner in the People’s Democratic Party-led Jammu & Kashmir government – that the refugees can’t be held to ransom and that the government will “initiate steps to fulfil their long pending demands” has helped stir up controversy.
On Friday, December 23, on the call of separatists, the Valley witnessed a complete shutdown, after local media reported that the government had started issuing domicile certificates to the refugees – reports the government denied. The separatists, led by moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, termed the move a ploy by the government to change the demography of the state and warned that they would agitate if the authorities didn’t roll back the decision.
Who are WPRs?
The refugees who migrated from Sialkot in West Punjab, Pakistan to J&K and other states of India in August 1947 are all Hindus and are known as West Pakistan refugees or WPRs. In J&K, they were settled in three districts along the international border. Another category of refugees also migrated from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) between October and November, 1947. These were Hindus and Sikhs who belonged to the erstwhile J&K across the Line of Control. While most of them live in different districts of Jammu, a small population has settled in some districts of Kashmir, including Baramulla. The third category of refugees in the state consists of people who came from Mirpur in the Chamb region during the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan and are, again, all Hindus.
As per the official figures, a total of 5,764 West Pakistan Refugee families, 31,619 PoK refugee families and 1065 Chamb refugee families are living in the Jammu region.
Speaking to the Wire, the president of the West Pakistan Refugee Action Committee, Labha Ram Gandhi, said: “We have been living a hellish life here for the past 70 years, without citizenship and voting rights. Every party that came to power made promises to give us all rights but nothing has changed… Nobody listens to our plight… Our issues should be treated on humanitarian grounds and we demand the rights that we deserve.”
Contesting the government figures, Gandhi, an ex-serviceman, said that the number of West Pakistan refugee families was 2,272 at the time they entered Jammu, according to the number registered with the state government, but that number has now grown to 20,000. “We are not more than two lakh people in all, and that too scattered across different districts of Jammu. How will granting state subject rights to us change the demography of the state?” Gandhi asked, claiming also that he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi thrice this year in connection with the issuance of citizenship rights to his community.
Why state domicile rights matter
The J&K state subject law, under which a permanent resident of J&K is entitled to get a domicile or Permanent Residence Certificate (PRC), was in force in the state much before partition. This law, which also prohibits people from other states from purchasing land in J&K, was enacted by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927. A state subject law notification followed in the same year and another notification was issued in 1931.
“Since the maharaja had executive, judicial and legislative powers vested onto himself, he came up with the Act, which debarred people from other states from becoming state subjects of J&K, owning land and getting jobs,” explains former state advocate general M.I. Qadri.
According to the Act, two sets of people are entitled to PRCs: those living in the state (i.e. undivided J&K, including areas across the Line of Control) and the descendants of those who had been born in the state but had migrated to other parts of country. “This law later became a permanent feature of the J&K constitution,” says Qadri.
It is this Act that prevents non-state subjects, including West Pakistan refugees, from becoming permanent residents of the state, since they were never residents of undivided J&K. These refugees are neither entitled to jobs with the state government nor do they have voting rights in state elections. Besides this, being non-state subjects, they cannot own immovable property, including land. However, they have voting rights for parliamentary elections, and can get jobs in the Central government, being citizens of India. Their counterparts throughout India – those who fled Pakistan at the time of partition – already enjoy full citizenship rights.
In contrast to West Pakistan refugees, the PoK refugees, who were residents of undivided J&K, enjoy permanent residency rights in J&K. The president of the PoK Refugees Association, Rajiv Chunni, told the Wire that a total of 31,690 families had migrated from PoK to Jammu in 1947. “At present our total population in J&K is 10 lakh,” he said.
“We are not against them [West Pakistan Refugees], but they were not part of [undivided] J&K and hence are not entitled to the rights of state subjects,” said Farooq. “The plans to issue domicile certificates to the WPRs and settle them permanently in Jammu and Kashmir is part of a long-drawn plan by the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and BJP to change the Muslim majority character of the state. We will not allow any such move to be translated into reality.” Farooq led a protest following Friday prayers in Srinagar last week.
The Valley-based mainstream opposition parties including National Conference and the Congress have joined the chorus. warning the government against any plan to ‘erode’ Article 370, which guarantees special status to J&K. “Granting of domicile certificates to the refugees is an attack on Jammu and Kashmir’s special position. They can’t become state subjects as they are foreigners,” said Ali Muhammad Sagar, the general secretary of the National Conference. Independent MLA, Er Rashid, who was part of a night-long protest outside the residence of chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in Srinagar last week said issuing domicile certificates to West Pakistan refugees was “unacceptable.” “Entire Kashmir will hit the road if the government doesn’t rescind its decision,” Rashid told The Wire.
Fearing the controversy could engulf the politically volatile Valley, the government rushed to clarify that the WPRs were only issued “identity certificates” to facilitate their recruitment in Central government services. “It seems an orchestrated and misleading campaign has been launched to create an impression that the government is changing the status of the WPRs and they are being provided domicile certificates,” said Naeem Akhtar, government spokesman and a senior minister. “Being non-state subjects, West Pakistan refugees are not entitled to permanent residence certificates. However, to facilitate them to get jobs in Central government the government has issued them identity certificates.”
The Civil Society Forum of Kashmir countered Akhtar, however, stating that in January this year the state government had already ordered that Aadhaar cards be treated as proof of identity by government departments for all individuals living in J&K. A circular issued by the J&K government reads: “…the state government has decided to officially recognize Aadhaar numbers being given to the residents as valid Proof of Identity (POI) as well as Proof of Address (POA) for availing various services. It is, accordingly, enjoined upon all the departments to ensure that the aadhaar number is adopted as a valid document for Proof of Identity (POI) and Proof of Address (POA).”
Responding to the circular, forum member Fayaz Ahmad said, “This proves that the government’s intentions are not sincere. Under pressure from the BJP at the Centre, the state government has started issuing domicile certificates to the West Pakistan refugees.”
A controversy far from over
The BJP, which has been supporting the West Pakistan refugees, has termed the issuance of the “identity certificate” as “just the beginning” for fulfilling their “genuine demands,” including citizenship rights. BJP state president Sat Sharma told the media, “The party is vigorously pursuing all the genuine issues of West Pak refugees which would be resolved stage by stage.”
During his campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in Jammu in 2014, Modi advocated resolving issues including the citizenship and voting rights of WPRs on humanitarian grounds. And when the PDP and BJP formed their coalition in March 2015, they agreed, in their Agenda for Alliance, a roadmap for governing the state, to take “measures for sustenance and livelihood of West Pakistan refugees”.
Caught between the exaggerated promises and fears of the BJP and Valley-based organisations, the West Pakistan refugees are not sure what the future holds for them.
“Ours is the biggest human tragedy in the world,” says Gandhi. “Granting rights to us won’t alter the political landscape of Jammu and Kashmir.”