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Refugee problem in Jammu and Kashmir

Balraj Puri

A fierce controversy is raging in J&K state over the issue of refugees/ migrants in the state, often taking a regional or a communal form. Does any body engaged in this controversy know what is the number of refugees and migrants in the state. Bulk of these refugees reside in Jammu region of the state.What are the categories to which they belong? What precisely are their respective problems and solutions thereof. The issue was raised in the report of the working group on "confidence building measures across segments of society" in J&K state presented at the third roundtable conference in New Delhi on April 24, 2007. It just mentioned problems of some of them without suggesting their solution.

For instance the group recommended that the rights of Kashmiri Pandit migrants to return to the places of their original residence should be recognized and a comprehensive package devised in consultation with their representatives . The Pandit representatives in the conference protested against this recommendation. They asked why should their right to return need recognition and why did not the working group consult their representatives to devise a package.

Kashmiri Pandits are very vocal community and have raised their problems at international fora. Moreover there is no controversy about their right to return. Nor they lack sympathy of their Muslim brethren in Kashmir valley. But the same cannot be said about refugees in Jammu from other areas. The working group has not shown much awareness about the range of refugee problems much less discuss their solution.

It has taken notice of the refugees who came from West Pakistan and recommends that the problem of their state subject status should be settled once for all. But it avoids any discussion on how to settle this issue and their other problems.

Similarly it mentions in passing the problems of full rehabilitation of refugees after the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. But it did not examine the nature of their problems and their solution.

But most glaring omission in the report is total ignorance of the refugees from Pak administered part of the state who are by far largest in number. 42,000 families were official registered. Their number has obviously multiplied by now. They are state subjects like any other class of citizens of the state. Unlike refugees in Punjab, their claims for the properties left behind were not registered and they received no compensation for them, on the specious plea that PAK was a part of India and they would be rehabilitated there when it would be liberated. But after sixty years this plea has hardly of any meaning. There is absolutely no justification for not treating them at par with the refugees from Pakistan in other parts of the country.

Some of them, belonging to rural areas have been settled temporarily on the land of Muslim evacuees. Under the Evacuee Property Act, the evacuees who return could claim their property. But the limitation period is 12 years. As this period is long over, no such claims can be entertained. Moreover, most of the evacuees have acquired Pakistan citizenship hence no more entitled to be the state subjects. In any case, I had made a suggestion to Sheikh Abdullah which he had accepted that all the evacuee property should be disposed off and the price thus received be deposited in the bank in the name of the evacuees. Which may be given to them if and when final decision is taken on the whole issue. This would safeguard their rights in a far better way than the present arrangement. The lands thus acquired could be used for permanent rehabilitation of the rural refugees.

As far as registering the claims of refugees from the West Pakistan, there is absolutely no justification for treating them differently from refugees from Pakistan settled elsewhere in India. Whether they should be given permanent citizen rights can be decided when tempers cool down. It may, however, be mentioned that total number of their families was 3000 and they are scheduled castes. Even making allowance for increase in their number, their number is too insignificant to affect the demographic composition of the state.

I remember when some of their representatives raised the issue at a convention of the National Conference at Bishnah under my presidentship, Sheikh Abdullah replied that it was a humanitarian issue and should be considered sympathetically. It is obvious that if it could not be resolved during his time, the smaller men at the helm can hardly be expected to do it now. However, one concession can be considered with a consensus of support .It pertains to their right to vote in local panchayat elections. They had this right till the J&K Panchayati Raj Act was passed in 1989 by the National Conference--Congress coalition government. The small number of West Pakistani refugees would not, in any way, affect the poltics of the state if they vote in elections to panchayats where they have been living for sixty years.

While discussing the problem of refugees, their other categories should also be considered. A large number of people migrated from villages on the border and Line of Control during firing from the other side till a cease fire was announced in 2003. Some of them were advised to vacate their lands by the army to enable it to lay mines on the border. According to a statement of the Divisional Commissioner, Jammu, their number totaled 1.50 lakhs. Even if they go back, they cannot enter mined areas and an area of 16,000 acres of land occupied by the army. Of course there has been movement in the contrary direction also. 350 families are reported to have migrated in recent years to join their co-religionists across the LoC. Then AICC incharge of J&K state, Satyajit Gaekward called it a matter of shame and condemned the state government for its apathetic attitude towards these migrants.

Then there are migrants from militancy affected parts of Jammu region who are putting up in temporary shelters around Jammu city. They were not registered as migrants and given much relief as the government felt that it might encourage more migration from those areas. As the violence has considerably come down in districts of Doda, Rajouri and Poonch as compared to the valley, the government should consider the case for their return in stages with adequate compensation and means to resettle there.

Finally, while the case of Kashmiri Pandit migrants with 33,000 registered families is widely debated, the case of 1600 Muslim and 1656 Sikh registered families who had to migrate from Kashmir valley in 1990 due to insecurity has been completely ignored. The Muslim migrants felt threatened on account of their political beliefs. They are not vocal in raising their problems as they apprehend reprisals on their relatives left behind.

Each category of migrants have its specific problems which call for different solutions. But first of all a thorough study is needed to know the exact situation. If the government is not interested or is unable to do that, some NGOs and research scholars should undertake the task in an objective and impartial manner as is possible. After all it relates to a population which almost equals permanently settled persons in Jammu and is one of the major cause of regional discontent. It would not be an exaggeration to call Jammu,a land of migrants .

Above all, the political leaders should be able to rise above partisan and regional or religious considerations and treat a human problem which essentially it is. It does not speak good of the political health of the state that almost all parties of Kashmir, whether mainstream or separatist, are on one side of the fence while all Jammu based leaders are on the other side on this issue.

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