Thousands of people caught in poverty because successive governments refuse to change their refugee status
- Laws mean that the West Pakistan Refugees living in Jammur and Kashmir cannot vote in elections or own property
- Hopes that election of Hindu nationalist party as a coalition partner could herald historic change for the community
As healer Mangu Ram rests with a threadbare blanket over his creaking knees, the 82-year-old looks to the future. It is almost 70 years since he fled the violence that followed the partition of India, and he is still regarded as a second class citizen in Indian Kashmir – unable to own property or vote in state elections. But now Ram and thousands like him are daring to hope they will finally be able to shed the refugee status that has plagued them for decades, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party won a share of power in India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Mangu Ram was 14 when he fled to Kashmir as a refugee – now an old man, for the past 70 years he has been denied citizenship rights
A Hindu, traditional healer Ram lives a slum house within India’s only Muslim-majority state. Its rulers have refused to give the West Pakistan Refugees (WPRs) the right to own property or vote in state elections – meaning three generations are caught in abject poverty
‘If something can be done, then maybe I will finally have some enjoyment in this life,’ the traditional healer said from his slum home on the outskirts of Jammu, Kashmir’s winter capital.
‘If only the gods could show us some mercy.’ Ram, a Hindu, was born in an area of Punjab province, part of modern-day Pakistan but within India’s boundaries before the country became independent in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of families fled across both sides of the border during the conflict which led to the partition of the sub-continent. Around one million people were killed in the bloody war between the two countries
Ram, aged 82, with the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party at a recent state vote, he says he is hopeful change will come for the West Pakistan Refugees: ‘If something can be done, then maybe I will finally have some enjoyment in this life’
Most of those refugees were quickly absorbed in towns and cities of the newly-independent nations. However the fate of the West Pakistan Refugees (WPRs) like Ram who decamped to Jammu and Kashmir state became mired in the dispute with Pakistan over the territory.
Because of this, its rulers held off granting the refugees residential rights, including the right to buy land, vote in state polls or work in the state government..Observers say the reluctance of successive state governments to grant full rights to the overwhelmingly 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.
A Hindu refugee washes pots at a communal hand pump in Surej Chak, on the outskirts of Jammu. The area has evolved into one of the many slum settlements in Hind-dominated areas of the city region of Jammu, within India’s only Muslim-majority state
Generations of families have become stuck in poverty because of their continuing refugee status. Successive governments have failed to act to due, say commentators, to a fear of upsetting the demographic balance of the state between the Muslim and HIndu populations
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.There are around 100,000 people classified as WPRs, most living in the Jammu region. Hardly any of them have ever set foot in Pakistan.
With a Hindu nationalist party winning a share of power in Kashmir, there is hope. Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to champion the refugees’ cause. But a veteran activist Labha Ram Ghandi warned the community is not afraid to take matters into their own hands Yet 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 who lives with his wife, two children and mother in a two-room hovel.
He says he thinks the law is ‘ridiculous’, adding: ‘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.
But the tide may soon turn on the rights given to refugees, after a pledge by the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party to normalise the WPRs’ status.
Although the BJP came second in the December hustings, 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.’
But he warned the community is 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 says.
The daughter of a Hindu refugee studies in her slum home in Surej Chak. Under the current laws she is not allowed to enrolled at a state-run training college or be employed by the state government. Such laws, argue opponents, make these families ‘second class citizens’