Labha Ram Gandhi still remembers the stories of the hardship his parents had to bear while on their journey from Sialkot in Pakistan to Samba in Jammu amidst the bloodshed after partition. Gandhi’s family entered Jammu and was asked to settle in the border areas from where Muslim families had fled to Pakistan.
A total of 5,764 families of Hindus and Sikhs — termed as West Pakistani Refugees (WPR) — had entered India soon after the partition in 1947 but were never considered to be residents of Jammu and Kashmir till Tuesday (6 August 2019) when the discriminatory Article 370 was abrogated by the Indian parliament.
There are many stories of hardships and the criminal attitude of the successive state governments of J&K who were reluctant to grant Permanent Resident status to these people who were displaced after partition. So much so, these refugees were not allowed to purchase land and were settled along the International Border belt in the Jammu region that comprises Kathua, Samba and Jammu district.
Labha Ram Gandhi, the president of the West Pakistani Refugees Action Committee says that Article 370 was a draconian law that did not allow Hindus to claim rights over J&K. “After settling in border areas of Jammu, the WPR could neither take up government service not can they buy land in the state as they were not the permanent residents of J&K.”
Ram remembers how his father started a mini timber saw mill in Bishnah near the border after shifting from Samba. “There was no other profession that the WPRs could choose as a result they started small businesses to sustain their families. I was born in 1963 and completed my schooling from Jammu after which I joined army,” he says.
Ram says that it was a conspiracy of Kashmir-led successive state governments not to let the Hindu refugees to enter inside the Jammu city.
“This is the reason why they did not allow us and let the Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar not only to enter Jammu city but also to establish shops and small businesses,” Ram stresses.
Interestingly, illegal Rohingya settlers — who left their homes after action by army in Myanmar against their community in 2017 — were allowed to settle in Jammu city, more than 3000 km from their homes. These illegal settlers have started businesses including small shops and are even employed by many contractors as cheap labour. A majority of them stay in Bathindi, a predominantly Muslim locality, of Jammu.
Many of them have illegal mobile connections, and the proximity of their colony to Sunjuwan military station that has come under terrorist attack twice had set alarm bells ringing among the security establishment in the past. The then speaker of the J&K legislative assembly, Kevinder Gupta, had said in the House that Rohingyas had had a hand in the February 2018 attack on Sunjuwan camp, inviting sharp criticism from Kashmir-based politicians.
While a total of 5,764 families of refugees had come to Jammu during partition, the community leaders say that the number has now increased to 20,000 families and 3.5 lakh persons.
In 2017, RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, had called for abrogation of Article 370 to give rights to West Pakistan Refugees. The chairman of the West Pakistani Refugee Front, Madan Lal Dubgotra, said that Article 370 and 35A were brought in only to make J&K a Muslim-majority state.
“Neither the police nor Kashmiris stopped or kept a check on the Muslim Rohingyas illegally infiltrating into Hindu Jammu. This was done only to change the demography of the region. It was the strategy of Kashmiri rulers to make J&K a completely Muslim state, and Hindu refugees from Pakistan, if granted permanent resident rights, could have endangered their game plan,” said Dubgotra.
Dubgotra lamented that the WPR have been left behind in the development story of the country as their children could not acquire technical education in J&K and were left with the only option of joining the paramilitary forces and the army.
“As per the discriminatory Article 35A, children of those who were not the permanent residents of J&K could not take admission in government technical institutions in J&K due to which most of our youth could not go for higher studies,” he said.
He demanded from the central government that members of the community must be given some kind of reservation in education and jobs so that they come on par with the others.
The refugees built small mud houses in 1947 after settling in the border areas in Jammu; these were replaced by concrete houses later. The area along the border is also subject to unprovoked ceasefire violation by Pakistan almost every week that even claims lives many a times. In 2019 so far, at least 1299 ceasefire violations have taken place along the Indo-Pak border.
WPR were also not allowed to vote in the state assembly or the Panchayat polls but could exercise their franchise only in the parliamentary polls thus making them a non-political entity in many respects.
Apart from WPR, the Valmikis (Dalits) — who were brought into J&K in 1957 by the then state government from Punjab — will also get their due rights. While these Dalits were given Permanent Resident certificates they had to abide by the condition that their future generations could stay in the state only if they continued to be scavengers and safai karamcharis.
Even as the earlier generations of Valmikis were content with the jobs they got as scavengers, the youth from the community now desire other occupations but were stuck due to the discriminatory Article 35A.
Ramesh Kumar, 42, who works as a safai karamchari in the Jammu Municipal Corporation (JMC) says that the youth from the community were stuck in a vicious circle of getting only menial jobs in the civic body. “However we are hopeful that our children will now be able to change from the occupation their forefathers were forced to do due to Article 370 and 35A,” said Kumar.
Jammu-based prominent lawyer, A K Sawney, said that refugees, Valmikis and other communities who were living in J&K since long but were not granted permanent resident rights can now avail all opportunities that were earlier closed for them.
“All the laws that are applicable in other parts of the country will now be extended even to J&K thus giving everyone the scope of equal opportunity,” said Sawney.
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