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On the border, a 60-year battle of the invisibles

1 lakh Hindus who fled Pakistan during Partition are trapped in a strange impasse in Jammu — they are citizens, but remain refugees. They can vote, but they can’t own property. This time, they plan to put up a candidate. But can they win? Arun Joshi reports.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2009 01:11 IST
Arun Joshi
Arun Joshi
Hindustan Times

Forgive Bishan Dass, the pakora seller near the India-Pakistan border.

He thinks he is invisible for five years — until each election.

That’s when politicians rush to the 1 lakh people living along the international border in the Jammu region, whose Hindu parents and grandparents fled east for safety in the chaos of Partition in 1947.

They are technically citizens of India and have the right to vote in Parliamentary elections — but few other privileges that residents of Jammu and Kashmir have.

Sixty-two years — and three generations — later, they are still classified as West Pakistan refugees. They cannot own property or apply for government jobs and their children, increasingly, are being turned away from government schools.

“Every five years, politicians visit us and remind us to vote in the Lok Sabha election. That’s the only time we become citizens — when it’s time to vote,” says Dass, a 53-year-old pakora seller and father of seven in Mandal Pallian village, 15 kilometres from the border.

Behind him, Punjabi music blares out of the only music shop in the tiny village and buffaloes strolling confidently down the middle of the main road.

Dass’s father Ram Lal walked across the border from Sialkot during Partition, to settle in the village, 15 kilometres west of Jammu city.

“Our relatives here said we had nothing to fear because the state had ceded to India,” says Lal. “They said we would get all the rights of citizens of the state and the nation.”

It’s a decision he and his son have come to regret.

“Had we shifted to Punjab, we would have at least got citizenship rights,” says Dass. “I was born here. So were all my children. But we can never be full citizens.”

The impasse began as one of the clauses in the special status accorded to Jammu & Kashmir and its “state subjects” under the Indian Constitution.

Jammu and Kashmir is also the only Indian state to have its separate constitution and flag, part of the pact under which it acceded to India in 1947.

The legal tangle has since been used by political parties to oppose the inclusion of the West Pakistan refugees as residents of the state.

“Our constitution forbids citizenship rights to outsiders. It's as simple as that,” says National Conference leader and Rural Development Minister Ali Mohammad Sagar.

“This situation dates back to the days of (20th century Kashmir ruler) Maharaja Partap Singh, who barred outsiders from becoming permanent residents of the state,” says Peoples Democratic Party leader Nizam-ud-Din Bhat. “It is a law we have inherited and a very good tradition. It should not be fiddled with.”

Bhat goes on to admit that a change in the norms would “affect a demographic change and affect political equations, which again is unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, over 1 lakh ‘refugees’ continue to survive on odd jobs and a few years of private schooling in a 100-kilometre border strip across Jammu, from the border with Punjab to the Line of Control.

Only one of Bishan's seven children is studying — at a local private school. Even the government schools now demand proof of permanent residency at the time of admission.

“In any case, what's the use of educating our children,” says Bishan. “They will end up jobless anyway. That has become our destiny.”

This time around, though, the West Pakistan refugees are using the one weapon they have to try and get their due — they plan to field their own candidate in the upcoming general election.

Labbha Ram, a longtime protest leader, will contest as an Independent.

“Maybe if Ram gets elected and we have a voice in Parliament, things will start to change,” says Bishan.

First Published: Mar 31, 2009 01:06 IST