A simmering discord

On West Pakistan refugees and other displacements in Jammu and Kashmir

A simmering discord
A simmering discord on the communal lines is threatening the unity of India's Jammu and Kashmir state again, similar to what we saw in 2008 when the Amarnath land row hit the fragile relations between two regions of Kashmir and Jammu.

The issue is limited to the rights of a few hundred thousand people known as refugees from West Pakistan though, and may not attract overwhelming attention from all the people of Jammu, keeping in view their experience of business losses in 2008. However, the political atmosphere is charged and this time the public opinion seems to be synergizing among many sections of people in Kashmir, who see it as a machination to change the demography of the state.

A simple recommendation by Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) suggesting voting and other rights for these refugees has stirred a storm, that too at a time when the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) are negotiating government formation. The two parties have divergent ideologies and this issue is part of that discourse. The refugees, who have been settled in Jammu since 1947, are facing problems that need to be addressed, help is destined to come at a high cost of the unity of the state. This not only has opened up a genuine debate in Kashmir in the backdrop of Sangh Parivar’s divisive agendas such as “Ghar Wapsi” (reconverting Muslims and Christians) in India but it must be looked into the context of overall displacements in the state that have taken place since 1947.

West Pakistan Refugee Organisation (WPRO) president Labha Ram Gandhi claims that there were only 5,764 families who migrated in 1947 and they have now grown to 25,460 (roughly to 150,000 individuals). Those who have worked on the issue disagree. According to a scholar who has worked on Jammu Muslims, the number of families at that time was nearly 12,000 and that must have grown to 50,000 roughly, making it a population of about 300,000. “There are many families who had not registered with the organization,” he says. Whatever the actual figure, granting them rights is seen more as a political move than a humanitarian one. With BJP making it an election issue and Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking about it in election rallies, the recommendations of JPC are seen as a move that could be implemented. As of now the recommendations are hanging between Delhi and Jammu as no government is in office. One of the most contentious issue is granting assembly voting rights to the refugees. It will, in the longer run, help those forces who want to see Jammu at par with Kashmir in terms of number of seats to pave way for power in the state without being dependent of voters in Kashmir. Though the delimitation of assembly constituencies is frozen till 2026, this move could work towards realizing the goal of those parties who have been thriving on the bogey of discrimination and “Kashmir domination”.

With this issue occupying much space in public discourse there is no word on other displacements. A pertinent question, which merits an answer, is why these refugees were pushed to Jammu in 1947 and not to any other part of India. As things unfolded, it was clear that it was aimed at changing the demography of the state. Jammu region had a Muslim majority and besides massacring more than 300,000 Muslims, this could be one way to fill that gap. The shaking Dogra monarchy’s parting gift to its subjects who had been faithful to them for more than a century was the massacre. For example, the Muslim population in Jammu district is five percent as against 39 percent in 1947 and similarly against 30 percent in Kathua district it is eight percent.

In order to facilitate the return of the Jammu and Kashmir refugees living in Pakistan, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had brought the Resettlement Bill, also known as Bill No 9, in 1977. It was aimed at opening the doors for those state subjects who had migrated till 1954. The bill is still undecided in the Supreme Court.

Around 1.2 million refugees from Jammu and Kashmir live in mainland Pakistan. Of them, nearly 1.1 millon hailed from the erstwhile Jammu and Kathua districts. The way they were massacred and hounded out of their homes is narrated by distinguished journalist Ved Bhasin. In a chilling account he told Srinagar based Kashmir Life in an interview on October 9, 2003 that it was all planned by Mahraja’s government and RSS. “Once Mir Chand Mahajan (PM) came to Jammu, when communal riots were taking place. He invited some minority leaders, including from communal parties and National Conference. Trilok Chand Dutt was there, Girdhari Lal Dogra was there, and Om Saraf was there. I was also there as a student representative. At the Maharaja’s Palace, he said the power is being transferred to the people of J&K state so why don’t you Hindus and Sikhs demand parity. Parity means equal representation to Hindus and Muslims, as the Muslim League at some time in India had said. No one replied except Om Saraf. How can we demand parity, he asked. There is so much difference in the population of Hindus and Muslims. Muslims are a vast majority, Hindus are a small minority. How is it practical and possible? At this Mir Chand Mahajan pointed to a forest area down the Maharaja Palace, where there were bodies of some Gujjars who had been recently killed. He said that the population could also change,” Bhasin said. These refugees do not have complete rights, except that they have eight seats reserved in the AJK Assembly.

On the 25th anniversary of migration by Kashmiri Pandits on January 19, noted journalist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar wrote in Times of India that what happened to Jammu Muslims in 1947 must not be forgotten. “Although our media pride themselves on free and bold speech, they maintain a conspiracy of silence on some issues relating to the supposed 'national interest'. This includes the mass killing and expulsion of lakhs of Muslims from Jammu in 1947. That story should be recalled on this somber anniversary,” he wrote.

While there is much cry about the WP refugees, no one talks about those who migrated to Pakistan not only till 1954 but after 1990 when they could not stand cross border shelling and firing along the Line of Control. Numbering more than 35,000, they are living a tough life in Pakistan administered Kashmir. Both the issues of return of Kashmiri Pandits and those who were forced to migrate to Pakistani Kashmir must be dealt with uniformly. Moreover, the issue of WP refugees having potential of putting an already communally divided state at the brink of disintegration must be addressed outside the purview of voting and state subject rights. One wonders that when Justice Jeevan Committee report and Prime Minister's Working Group reports are ignored in case of revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), how these can be sacrosanct in such cases.