Kash­mir’s Hindu refugees look to Prime Min­is­ter Modi for sal­va­tion


Seven decades af­ter flee­ing the car­nage of par­ti­tion, Mangu Ram is still re­garded as a sec­ond class cit­i­zen in In­dian Kash­mir un­able to own prop­erty or vote in state elec­tions.

But, now aged 82, Ram is dar­ing to hope he will fi­nally be able to shed his refugee sta­tus af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s Hindu na­tion­al­ist party won a share of power in In­dia’s only Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity state.

“If some­thing can be done, then maybe I will fi­nally have some en­joy­ment in this life,” says the tra­di­tional healer, speak­ing in a slum home on the out­skirts of Jammu, Kash­mir’s win­ter cap­i­tal.

“If only the gods could show us some mercy.”

A Hindu, Ram was born in prein­de­pen­dence In­dia in an area of Pun­jab prov­ince which be­came part of Pak­istan.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of fam­i­lies fled across both sides of the bor­der dur­ing the 1947 par­ti­tion of the sub­con­ti­nent, when around one mil­lion peo­ple were killed in communal vi­o­lence.

Most of those refugees were quickly ab­sorbed in towns and cities of the newly-in­de­pen­dent na­tions.

How­ever the fate of the WPRs (West Pak­istan Refugees) who de­camped to Jammu and Kash­mir state be­came mired in the dis­pute with Pak­istan over the ter­ri­tory, prompt­ing its rulers to hold off grant­ing them res­i­den­tial rights, in­clud­ing the right to buy land or vote in state polls.

Around 100,000 peo­ple are clas­si­fied as WPRs, most living in the Jammu re­gion. Hardly any of them have ever set foot in Pak­istan.

Their plight has been ef­fec­tively ig­nored by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in Delhi and suc­ces­sive state ad­min­is­tra­tions, cit­ing legal bar­ri­ers.

Three Gen­er­a­tions

But, in its man­i­festo for De­cem­ber’s state elec­tions, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party pledged to nor­mal­ize the WPRs’ sta­tus.

Although the BJP came sec­ond, they have joined a Kash­mir gov­ern­ing coali­tion for the first time and are ex­pected to cham­pion the WPRs’ cause.

“We have been living here like this for three gen­er­a­tions now,” said vet­eran ac­tivist Labha Ram Gandhi. “Grant­ing us state-sub­ject rights is the only way to im­prove our con­di­tion.”

De­spite pre­vail­ing un­rest, Kash­mir is one of In­dia’s more pros­per­ous states.

The es­ti­mated 18,000 WPR fam­i­lies how­ever live in ab­ject poverty, mostly mar­ry­ing among them­selves be­cause of their low eco­nomic sta­tus.

“I spend what­ever money I earn to send my chil­dren to school,” said Ramesh Ku­mar, a part-time driver.

“My fear is their fate is go­ing to be the same as mine,” added Ku­mar, who lives with his wife, two chil­dren and mother in a two-room hovel.

The fam­ily’s only per­ma­nent in­come is the US$100 monthly pen­sion his mother re­ceives af­ter her hus­band died serv­ing in the army.

Like many WPRs, Ku­mar hopes the BJP’s pres­ence in the state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments will yield a change in for­tunes.

As well as the man­i­festo pledge, hopes of a break­through were also raised in Jan­uary when a com­mit­tee of law­mak­ers in the BJP-dom­i­nated na­tional par­lia­ment rec­om­mended the WPRs be granted per­ma­nent res­i­dent sta­tus.

But the WPRs have been dis­ap­pointed by the ab­sence of a sim­i­lar com­mit­ment in the re­cent agree­ment signed by the BJP and its re­gional part­ner in Kash­mir’s coali­tion.

“We were ex­pect­ing some­thing to hap­pen about our rights af­ter the BJP came into gov­ern­ment. We are still hope­ful,” said Ku­mar.

“At least our sit­u­a­tion is be­ing dis­cussed in the as­sem­bly but we ex­pect the BJP and Modi Ji to do more than just im­prove our liveli­hoods,” he said, us­ing a term of re­spect.

Ob­servers say the re­luc­tance of suc­ces­sive state gov­ern­ments to grant full rights to the over­whelm- in­gly Hindu WPRs stems from fears of up­set­ting the de­mo­graphic bal­ance in In­dia’s only Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity state which has spe­cial au­ton­omy en­shrined in the con­sti­tu­tion.

The WPRs, whose fam­i­lies mainly orig­i­nate from Pun­jab, have fallen foul of a pre-in­de­pen­dence law that only grants cit­i­zen­ship to peo­ple born — or descen­dants of those born — in the old un­di­vided king­dom of Kash­mir.

The same leg­is­la­tion has al­lowed around 35,000 Hin­dus who have fled Pak­istan-con­trolled Kash­mir since par­ti­tion to be granted cit­i­zen­ship.

‘I was born here’

Ku­mar says the law is ridicu­lous. “I was born here (in In­dia). My roots are here. What else do I and my chil­dren need to be cit­i­zens of this place?”

As things stand, Ku­mar’s chil­dren can­not be ad­mit­ted to state-run train­ing col­leges or be em­ployed in the state gov­ern­ment, although they can work for the fed­eral one.

The WPRs are widely seen as vic­tims of the broader dis­pute over Kash­mir, a cap­ti­vat­ing Hi­malayan re­gion be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan and claimed in full by both.

Suc­ces­sive state gov­ern­ments have ig­nored re­quests by their fed­eral coun­ter­parts for a “one-time” set­tle­ment of the Hindu refugees, fear­ing a back­lash from Mus­lims whose num­bers have fallen 6 per­cent since 1947. Kash­mir’s Hindu pop­u­la­tion has risen by 5 per­cent in the same pe­riod.

The Rashtriya Swayam­sawak Sang (RSS), an in­flu­en­tial Hindu group whose alumni in­clude Modi, has ad­vo­cated set­tling “Hindu pa­tri­ots” in Kash­mir.

Sep­a­ratists op­posed to In­dian rule in­sist the WPRs must set­tle in states where Hin­dus are in a ma­jor­ity.

Gandhi how­ever said the WPRs’ pa­tience is ex­hausted and they are ready to take mat­ters into their own hands if their hopes are dashed again.

“We will spill our blood on the streets for our rights,” he said.

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