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India's oldest refugees in J&K get Rs 2,000 cr package from Centre

Catch Team | Updated on: 3 December 2016, 16:01 IST

After seven decades, there is finally some good news for India's oldest refugee families living in Jammu and Kashmir. On 30 November, 2016, the Centre approved a Rs 2,000-crore package for those who came to the state from Pakistan in 1947.

But there contentious demand for permanent residency in the state still awaits approval. It has been denied to them since they came from Pakistan during Partition and subsequent wars over Kashmir.

"Prime Minister Narendra Modi has approved central assistance of Rs 2,000 crore as one-time settlement of 36,384 displaced families from Pakistan's side of Jammu & Kashmir and Chhamb, following an announcement of the PM's development package for Jammu & Kashmir in November 2015," according to a government statement.

The fund is part of a Rs 80,000-crore economic package for the state that Modi announced in Srinagar in November 2015. The aid package will provide about Rs 5.5 lakh per family - far short of the Rs 30 lakh per family recommended by a Parliamentary committee.

Senior Congress leader and former revenue minister Raman Bhalla called the reduction in aid a betrayal: "The one-time settlement package of Rs 25 lakh per family, amounting to over Rs 9,000 crore, along with several other concessions, was recommended by the previous Congress-National Conference government to the Centre," he said. "But the BJP, for all its fiery rhetoric on refugees, provided only Rs 2,000 crore."

Three sets of refugees

Three set of refugees entered Jammu and Kashmir, post-Partition.

1. Those who migrated to India during Partition in August 1947 (West Pakistan refugees).

2. Refugees from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), who came in October 1947, when tribals aided by Pakistan Army attacked Kashmir.

3. Those evacuated from the villages in the Chhamb region during the 1965 and 1971 wars between India and Pakistan.

In 2007, the GD Wadhwa Committee, formed by the state government to carry out a census of the refugees, reported that around 5,764 refugee families had arrived in the state in 1947, comprising a population of 47,215. But the committee didn't estimate their current population.

A 2012 study by the West Pakistan Refugees Action Committee (WPRAC) claimed that the number of families has gone up to 18,428, comprising a population of around 1.5 lakh.

The citizenship question

The J&K government has made a clear-cut distinction in granting citizenship rights to the refugees. Those who came from PoK were allowed to settle down in the state with full citizenship rights, while the same rights were denied to those who came from Pakistan. As a result, the latter enjoy Indian citizenship and can vote in Lok Sabha elections, but have no J&K citizenship and hence cannot vote in Assembly elections.

Over the years, the issue has become only more complicated and entangled with the politics of conflict in the state. The state government argues that as per the provisions of Article 370, which confers special status on J&K within the Indian Union, it cannot give citizenship rights to anybody who is not a permanent resident of the state, and this includes people both from the rest of India and from Pakistan.

Successive state governments also argue that they are constitutionally barred from granting them citizenship rights. According to Section 6 of the J&K Constitution, comprising the state subject notifications issued by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927 and 1932, the West Pakistan Refugees are not covered under any category of permanent residents.

Article 370 only reinforces these provisions, and denies citizenship to anyone who is not a permanent resident, ostensibly to protect the state's demographic character.

Hindus vs Muslims again

However, Article 370 is not the sole justification. To understand the refugee problem in J&K, it is necessary to understand the context under which these migrations took place in 1947 and the years thereafter.

While communal riots in Pakistan brought Hindus from the country to India, including the Indian part of J&K, the simultaneous violence in Jammu forced Muslims to migrate to Pakistan and PoK.

Now, it is the demographics of these migrations that has made the issue politically very sensitive in the state.

The majority Muslim population in the state fears that granting citizenship rights to Hindu refugees from Pakistan will alter the demographic balance in favour of the minority community in the state, which makes it a fraught proposition for any state government if it chooses to do so.

On the other hand, the minority community vehemently opposes the Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act, which grants the right of return to state subjects who fled to Pakistan or PoK after the Partition riots, among them hundreds of families who migrated to other side from the Kashmir Valley.

The Sangh Parivar, naturally, bats for granting full citizenship to the Hindu refugees. But in the Kashmir Valley, parties across mainstream-separatist divide, including the ruling PDP and the National Conference, are dead against it, alleging that according to Article 370, no outsider can be granted citizenship of J&K.

Separatists, on the other hand, see the citizenship question as one designed to "change the demography of the state and dilute its Muslim majority character".

This is why when, in 2015, a Joint Parliamentary Committee recommended the grant of state citizenship and voting rights to these refugees, it touched off a political storm in J&K. The PDP and the National Conference closed ranks against the Centre's 'unilateral move'.

Separatist leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik threatened to launch an agitation, as did the independent legislator Engineer Rashid, should the process go ahead.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 3 December 2016, 16:01 IST
 
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