Srinagar: Devender Pal, 64, could not hold back his tears when Jammu and Kashmir government announced granting voting rights to West Pakistan Refugees in the Assembly and Panchayat polls.
Pal, who was born in Jammu after his parents migrated from Pakistan in 1947, has seen two generations fighting for equal rights in Jammu and Kashmir. Even his parents died with an unfulfilled wish of becoming equal citizens of Jammu and Kashmir.
“It is an early Diwali for us. My parents had a dream that one day we will become the citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. They waited for decades but to no avail. Ultimately they passed away without seeing their dream being realized. Had they been alive today, they would have been the happiest persons on this earth,” Pal told The Kashmir Monitor.
Pal’s life has been full of struggle. He completed his matriculation in 1974 and then pursued Diploma with the hope that it will land him a government job. Since he was not a permanent resident of Jammu and Kashmir, he was not eligible for the government job.
“I was denied a government job because I was a refugee from Pakistan. All our fellow people who migrated from Pakistan and settled in other parts of the country enjoyed equal rights. But we continued to face step-motherly treatment,” he said.
Such was the irony that his three children too were denied jobs despite being born and brought up in Jammu and Kashmir. “My elder son left studies after 10+2 since he had lost hope of getting a government job. My second son completed Post Graduation but he too could not land a job. My daughter was lucky to get a job in a private school after she completed an MA and M.Ed,” he said.
Pal is not an isolated case. More than 5,764 West Pakistan Refugee (WPR) families had been suffering in silence since 1947.
Under the state subject law enacted by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927, outsiders were barred from becoming permanent residents of J&K. There were two notifications issued in 1927 and 1932 for strict implementation of the Act and issuance of the PRC.
The state subject law became a permanent feature of the constitution after its incorporation in Article 35A. However, on August 5, 2019, both laws became infructuous when parliament abrogated Article 370.
Post abrogation of Article 370, more than one lakh WPRs have been granted equal rights by the Centre. Come November 28, they will also be able to vote in Panchayat elections which will be held in eight phases.
State Election Commissioner KK Sharma said that West Pakistan Refugees (WPRs), who are Indian citizens and are eligible to vote in Parliamentary elections will also be entitled to exercise their right to franchise for the first time.
Over 13000 Panch and Sarpanch seats are lying vacant due to various reasons ranging from resignations to election of sarpanch as BDC chairpersons.
“It is the first time that we have been treated as equal citizens. We are going to celebrate. We are beating drums. We had the right to vote in parliament but not in Assembly or Panchayat elections. The irony is that we were treated Indian citizens but not J&K citizens,” said Labha Ram Gandhi, president of the West Pakistan Refugee Action Committee (WPRAC).
According to Gandhi, there are 22000 WPR families comprising around one lakh souls living in different parts of the Jammu division.
“When partition happened, Hindus from Sialkot district fled because communal riots had broken out. Like others, we too fled our homes at Sailkote. Since marauders were roaming, we crossed into Jammu and Kashmir because it was close by. We tried to go to other parts of the country but were stopped by Jawahar Lal Nehru and Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. They promised equal rights, but to no avail,” Gandhi said.
For the last 72 years, WPR were denied state government jobs and other facilities. “We had no jobs. Our educated youth were applying for jobs in the armed forces and paramilitaries. But the state government did not come to our rescue,” he said.
Earlier in June 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) conveyed its approval to the proposal for providing one-time financial assistance of Rs. 5.50 lakh to each of the 5764 families of West Pakistan Refugees.
Later in September 2018, State Administrative Council (SAC), led by the then Governor Satya Pal Malik, gave its nod for the proposal.
Under the scheme, Rs. 5.50 lakh was to be disbursed to each family. The disbursements were to be transferred to their Bank Accounts based on the authentication by the State Government. Divisional Commissioner Jammu has been designated as Nodal Officer for the smooth implementation of the scheme after proper verification of families of West Pakistan Refugees.
“Not even a kilo of aata was given to us. We built houses without ownership rights. Now for the first time, our community is happy,” said Gandhi.
The icing on the cake is that the government has decided to hold first-ever District Development Council (DDC) in 20 districts of the J&K Union Territory
This follows the Center’s decision to implement 73rd Constitutional Amendment 1992 to J&K which was pending for 28 years. It was a long pending demand of the Panches and Sarpanches to implement the constitutional amendment in Jammu and Kashmir
“We will contest all 280 District Development Council seats as independent candidates. Political parties had boycotted the first and the second tier of Panchayat elections held in 2018 and 2019 respectively. They are feeling sidelined and jobless. Now they eye this institution. But we will not allow them to succeed,” said Shafiq Mir, chairman, All J&K Panchayat Conference.