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End of Article 370 was also to grant rights to West Pak refugees, but not one claimant is stepping forward

According to estimates provided by refugee leaders, the number of WPR families settled in J&K has swelled to nearly 20,000. They mainly reside in the border districts of Jammu, Samba and Kathua.

Labha Ram Gandhi, a refugee leader, admits that the process for disbursement of financial assistance has been a non-starter. (File Photo)

From Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah to BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir, one of the reasons they gave to justify the abrogation of Article 370 was to give Partition refugees from West Pakistan voting rights in assembly and local body polls, and entry to state government jobs and colleges.

However, a central government scheme launched in 2018 to provide one-time financial assistance of Rs 5.5 lakh each to 5,764 such families settled in J&K has failed to attract a single applicant.

The reason: Officials and refugee leaders told The Indian Express that over a period of time, members of almost all of these refugee families managed to get their names included in voter lists for J&K elections and procure permanent residency certificates.

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“A number of WPRs (West Pakistan Refugees) have even managed to get jobs in the J&K government,” a senior official said.

Sources said hardly any of these refugee families now possess documents to prove that their original native place was in areas of West Pakistan, or that they were listed as Non-Permanent Residents (NPR) in voter lists of 1971 or 1976 — a key requirement to avail the benefit, apart from Aadhaar and bank details, and an affidavit signed by a judicial officer.

According to estimates provided by refugee leaders, the number of WPR families settled in J&K has swelled to nearly 20,000. They mainly reside in the border districts of Jammu, Samba and Kathua.

“They appear to be wary of seeking financial assistance as it might land them in trouble for illegally obtaining permanent resident certificates and government jobs,” said a senior official.

“The refugee leaders are saying that permanent residency has become irrelevant after the abrogation of Article 370. But the fact that most of them had acquired the status of permanent residents of (the erstwhile) J&K state means the government scheme for financial assistance to non-permanent resident WPRs has failed,” said the official.

Labha Ram Gandhi, a refugee leader, admits that the process for disbursement of financial assistance has been a non-starter. “During Partition, the priority of migrating families was to reach a safe place, not taking along revenue papers or other documents relating to their native place,’’ he said.

Asked about the delay in disbursement of money under the central scheme, Sanjeev Verma, Divisional Commissioner Jammu, told The Indian Express: “They are themselves not coming forward despite the administration having organised special camps and issued instructions to Deputy Commissioners to facilitate processing of these cases.’’

Verma says he is not aware of the reasons behind the non-submission of applications. “Even those who filed applications returned after some days to take back their files,” he said.

Simrandeep Singh, Secretary, Disaster Management, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (DMRRR), too, denied having received even a single application under the scheme. “I am surprised by the absence of any response from WPRs, especially when the government had laid down very little conditions to be fulfilled for direct transfer of relief amounts to bank accounts,” he said.

According to Verma, the Jammu Divisional Commissioner, after the 370 move, WPRs in J&K will become permanent residents of the UT and eligible to contest and vote in the proposed Assembly and local body elections. They will be able to own immoveable property, and obtain government jobs and admissions to professional colleges, too.

Before August 5, 2019, when the government announced its J&K move, WPRs were Indian citizens who were eligible to vote in Parliamentary polls, but not considered permanent residents of the erstwhile J&K state and hence unable to vote in local elections.

On August 8, 2019, in his address to the nation on the J&K decision, Modi said: “Our democracy is very strong, but you will shocked to know that thousands and lakhs of people who have been living in Jammu and Kashmir since decades had the right to vote in Lok Sabha elections, but not in the Legislative Assembly, local panchayat and municipal council or municipal corporation. Neither could they contest these elections. These are the people who came to India from Pakistan after the Partition in 1947.”

On September 22, 2019, addressing a rally at Goregaon in Mumbai, Home Minister Amit Shah pointed out that two of the refugees who came from West Pakistan and settled elsewhere in India — Manmohan Singh and I K Gujral — went on to become Prime Ministers and another, L K Advani, became a Deputy Prime Minister.

Shah said: “Refugees from Pakistan, Hindu brethren from West Pakistan, who stayed there, none got permanent resident status. The refugees who went to the rest of the country, two of them became Prime Ministers, Manmohan Singh and Inder Kumar Gujral. One of them, Lal Krishan Advani, also became Deputy Prime Minister. However, those settling in Kashmir… what to speak of becoming a municipal councillor, they were not even given the right to cast vote… When Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed Article 35A and 370, all these Hindu brethren are living honourably there.”

Asked about the non-listing of WPRs as NPR in voter lists of Parliamentary elections, refugee leader Labha Ram Gandhi said: “These elections were first held in Jammu and Kashmir in 1967. Over a period of time, many members of these refugee families, having never gone to school, did not get their names listed as NPR. Also, local politicians with an eye on their vote bank in assembly elections got some registered as voters in the category of permanent residents.”

However, Gandhi admits that children of some of these refugee families “may also have managed to procure permanent residents certificate and jobs in the Jammu and Kashmir government”. “This was possible only with the connivance of local revenue officials as no one had then imagined that government will ever give anything to these WPRs,” he alleged.

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