In the immediate vicinity of Vijaypur, near Jammu, is a 12x12 room outside which scores of people make a beeline every day. The sparse room has a wooden table laden with piles of files, a few plastic chairs, a couple of cabinets and a squeaky ceiling, fan spinning slowly. This is the office of Labha Ram Gandhi, president, West Pakistani Refugee Action Committee, a virtually invisible, singular effort fighting for the rights of the refugees living in wretched conditions for sixty five years now.
After attaining superannuation from Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry as Hawaldar, septuagenarian Labha Ram Gandhi devoted himself to fight for the cause of west Pakistani refugees who migrated to Jammu during the melee of 1947. Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. Since I myself am a refugee I can best understand their agony and misfortune. Although I am no power- wielding man, I am working to get at least their small issues resolved by making frequent pleas to the authorities, says Labha Ram. About twenty one thousand families, 90 percent Hindus and 10 percent Sikhs, mostly belonging to a category ubiquitously called disadvantaged, migrated en masse from west Pakistan in the wake of the 1947 violence and have been living in deplorable conditions across the Jammu region since.
After more than 65 years of migration, they are still bereft of the civil and political rights exacerbating their living conditions.
This large chunk of refugee population is denied their basic rights in a plethora of matters including elections to state assembly and panchayats; recruitment in the state government services and acquisition of immovable property, all because of the special constitutional status granted to the state of Jammu & Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Section 6 of this Article recognises only those people as permanent citizens of state whose ancestors lived in the state of Jammu and Kashmir for a minimum period of 10 years, uptil the cutoff date 14 May 1954.
Because we are not recognised as state subjects of J&K, the Permanent Residence Certificate (PRC) - an important document making a person eligible for getting a government job or owning immovable property and availing other benefits in the state - is not issued to us, says Labha Ram.
Since west Pakistani refugees cannot acquire immovable property, they are deprived of the absolute rights on the land allotted to them by the government under Cabinet order No 578-C of 1954 in the wake of their migration and thus they cannot sell it or mortgage it for the purpose of loan.
For them, seeking admission in government technical colleges or making a ration card is quite an uphill task as in both the cases, Permanent Residence Certificate(PRC) is a must produce document.
Every day, scores of people from different refugee localities visit my office with issues like denial of admission to students in technical colleges, reluctance of authorities in issuing ration cards and so on, says Labha Ram.
Although the ministry of human resource development has issued directions to the state government vide letter no F21-68/2008-TS dated August 27, 2008 to make necessary provisions for granting certain concessions including waiver of domicile requirements in providing admission to the children of west Pakistani refugees settled in Jammu and Kashmir, the concerned authorities, as per complaints Labha Ram receives, are rather contemptuous of such directions.
Eighty-year-old Dev Raj is dewy eyed as he recalls Bhishan Singh, the protagonist of Saadat Hassan Manto's much acclaimed Toba Tek Singh when asked about his national identity, I was just 15 when we fled our native town Shakarpur (now in Pakistan) in 1947. Sixty five years have passed since, but I am still searching for the identity I had in Shakarpur. We are the lost and right-less citizens of the world's largest democracy, says Dev Raj.
Echoing the same views, eighty-year old Daya Ram, another west Pakistani refugee, adds that before his death, he wants to see his fore finger stained with the indelible election ink at least once during the assembly elections.
It is worth mentioning here that west Pakistani refugees have approximately fifty thousand votes divided among fifteen assembly constituencies which are not being polled during the state legislative elections owing to their non-voting right.
Most of the west Pakistani youth are unemployed, idling at home, inflicting a deleterious effect on their psychological well being and triggering a feeling of alienation amongst them.
Sapna K Sangra, assistant professor, department of sociology, Jammu University says, It has been seen that the problem of unemployment among displaced persons is affecting their psychological health. Alcoholism is common among them and, since they know they can't get employment in state government, they have lost interest in education.
A few refugee families, offering kickbacks to revenue officials, have managed to get PRCs but they too are dogged by constant fear as a mere complain could land them in trouble.
A west Pakistani refugee woman, who managed to become a graduate, concedes, pleading anonymity, that after going through a cumbersome process she managed to obtain a PRC with the hope of getting a government job in future; else the years of toil spent on her studies will go waste.
In 2007, Ghulam Nabi Azad, the then chief minister of the state, constituted a committee under GD Wadhwa to look into the problems concerning refugees. The committee made several recommendations in their favor but were, predictably, barely implemented.
A writ petition vide no 7698 of 1982 was filed by advocate Bachan Lal in the Supreme Court on behalf of west Pakistani refugees seeking redressal of the grievances they face. The apex court in its verdict on 20 February 1987 expressed helplessness in providing any relief; however, it observed that it was up to the state assembly to take action to amend certain legislations like Jammu and Kashmir
Representation of Peoples Act, the Land Alienation Act, and the Village Panchayat Act, among others.
From the legal point of view, amendments in the existing legislations are quite possible but only if our legislators think beyond their party lines says advocate Bachan Lal Kalgotra.
Whatever said and done - Acts, legalities, amendments, boundaries nothing is above humanity. Time is high when we should look at refugees as humans first and take care of their development issues. Everything else will follow.