The contentious issue of "West Pakistan" refugees returns to Kashmir's political centrestage intermittently, and fizzles out only after vitiating the scene. It may not, on its own, plunge the valley into turmoil but it does catalyse the movement towards such a situation.
In its latest recrudescence, the issue is about the state government's alleged decision to grant "domicile certificate" to the refugees. The news about this was carried by a section of the local press on Tuesday and it soon triggered a wave of protest from separatist and civil society groups.
A tired protest script unfolded: separatists reiterated that the move was an attempt to change the demography of the state, so did civil society groups. Not to be left behind, the valley-based mainstream opposition parties joined the chorus. The veteran National Conference leader Ali Mohammad Sagar echoed the Hurriyat by warning that the move was aimed at changing the demography of Jammu and Kashmir.
"The BJP wants to reduce the Muslim majority of the state to a minority," Sagar said. "The party's candid admission that the move to grant domicile certificates to West Pakistan refugees will pave the way to granting state subject rights to them exposes the nefarious designs behind the move."
The separatists raised the stakes further by calling for mass protests on Friday. Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq led a protest following Friday prayers at the Srinagar's Grand Mosque.
Fearing relapse of the valley into turmoil, the Mehbooba Mufti regime clarified that it had only issued "identity certificates" to the refugees to facilitate their recruitment in central government services, not domicile certificates.
"It seems an orchestrated and misleading campaign has been launched to create an impression that the government is changing the status of the WPR and they are being provided domicile certificates," the government's spokesperson and Minister for Education Naeem Akhtar said. "West Pakistan refugees are not entitled to permanent residence as they are not the domiciles of Jammu and Kashmir."
Further, Akhtar assured that the grant of identity certificates does in no way change the status of the refugees and that they continued to be the non-state subjects.
But the issue is far from settled. More so with the PDP's ally BJP seeing the issuance of the certificates "as just the beginning".
"It has been done for the livelihood of the refugees," BJP state president Sat Sharma told the media. "The party is vigorously pursuing all the genuine issues of West Pak refugees, including citizenship rights which would be resolved stage by stage."
People without a country
The issue of West Pakistan refugees has complex legal and political dimensions. Whenever the issue returns to the political discourse, it invariably gets enmeshed with the lingering politics of conflict in the state. Successive state governments have argued that as per Section 6 of the J&K Constitution, comprising the state subject notifications issued by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927 and 1932, West Pakistan refugees are not covered under any category of the Permanent Residents.
The section was strengthened by the provisions of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which confers special status on J&K within the Indian Union. According to Article 370, the state cannot give citizenship rights to anyone who is not a permanent resident of the state. And this includes people from the rest of India as well as from Pakistan.
"There is a clear distinction in granting citizenship rights to different types of refugees in the state. Those who came from Pakistan Administered Kashmir were allowed to settle down in the state with full citizenship rights while the same rights were denied to those who came from Pakistan," says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. "So, while the latter enjoy Indian citizenship and can vote in Lok Sabha elections, they have no J&K citizenship and, hence, cannot vote in assembly elections or be recruited in state services."
There's a parallel issue that's similarly a bone of political contention in the state: the Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act, which grants the right of return to state subjects, almost all Muslim, who fled to Pakistan or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir during the Partition riots in Jammu.
The two issues are inter-connected and it is evidently polarising to push the case of one set of refugees to the exclusion of the other. While a majority in Jammu opposes the Resettlement Act - which benefits Muslim refugees the most - it supports citizenship for West Pakistan Refugees - mostly Hindu - and vice versa in the Kashmir valley.
This messy legal and political condition of his people upsets Labbha Ram Gandhi, the leader of the Pakistan Refugees Action Committee. "I don't understand what this politics is all about. We are just nineteen thousand families. We won't make a huge demographic difference and our votes will not change the political equations between Kashmir and Jammu," insists Gandhi, a former J&K Light Infantry officer. "We have been waiting for our citizenship for 70 years. How much longer shall we have to wait."