Communal designs

Print edition : December 08, 2001

THEIR backs to the wall, both the National Conference (N.C.) and the Bharatiya Janata Party were in desperate search for a deus ex machina that would salvage their position before next year's Assembly elections. Now, the Supreme Court may have provided them with just such a miracle.

In October, the Supreme Court returned without comment a 1982 reference by the President seeking its opinion on the validity of the Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act. The President had asked the court to decide whether the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly was competent to pass the Act, which grants the right of return to State subjects who fled to Pakistan after the Partition riots of 1947. Almost all of the people were from the Jammu region, which unlike Kashmir, saw bitter violence during the days of Partition. Ever since the Supreme Court chose to reopen the two-decade-old issue, both the BJP and the N.C. have been busy cashing in on it by fuelling communal anxieties.

Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah brought forward the Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act towards the end of his life, when he was seeking to reinvent the N.C. as a party of the Islamic Right. The Act allowed the refugees created by Partition to return to Jammu and Kashmir and reclaim their properties. However, it provoked criticism from the Left. Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders such as B.T. Ranadive and Jyoti Basu argued that the Act was part of an imperialist project to fuel secessionist groupings in Jammu and Kashmir. The furore compelled the President to refer the issue to the Supreme Court.

Two decades on, the political climate that drove the Left Opposition to the Resettlement Act has changed. However, the basic issues remain. While the idea of the Act is to offer an opportunity for communal reconciliation, its realisation could bring about exactly the opposite result. The reasons are not hard to see. Jammu and Kashmir continues to refuse to grant full State subject rights to the many Hindu and Sikh refugees who came from what is now Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Legally, their children cannot seek admission in government-run institutions or employment. Although almost all such refugees have found ways to bypass the law, the obvious discrimination still rankles.

Hindu chauvinist groups in Jammu have been quick to make use of this volatile situation. For example, the BJP Member of the Legislative Assembly for the Hiranagar constituency, Prem Lal, has claimed that the State government is "hell bent on changing the demography of the Jammu region". In a petition filed before the Supreme Court on November 28, the Panthers Party has argued that the Act will allow in even the "Taliban, with fraudulent certificates as descendents of anyone". This kind of rhetoric is falling on receptive ears. "Will the Pakistan government give us back the land and the homes we left in 1947?" asks Mohinder Bakshi, whose family arrived in Kathua shortly after Partition.

Predictably, Hindu reaction has fuelled Muslim chauvinism. An N.C. politician from Rajouri, Tazeem Dar, made the typical, but bizarre claim that the Act will unite Muslims on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) and thus end the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, for his part, has flatly refused to listen to criticism of his decision to make the Act applicable to Muslims in the State. "Leaving aside the Act itself," says CPI(M) State secretary Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, "its implementation has nothing to do with communal reconciliation and everything to do with the worst kind of communal opportunism. The BJP and the N.C. are showing themselves to be two sides of the same coin."

No one is quite certain just how many refugees left the Jammu province in the wake of the riots of 1947. Along with their legal heirs, the figure could be as high as 200,000. Nor is it clear just how the Resettlement Act would actually work. Ironically, the refugees' property has all been leased out by the State government for periods of up to 99 years. More important, the Act itself will not automatically allow refugees from India to return, since the visa restrictions of the Union government will still apply. People's Democratic Party leader Mehbooba Mufti said: "No one in their right minds will want to come to the State, when everyone who can afford to get out is doing so."

Under other circumstances, the Resettlement Act would have enabled many people to return to the homes and lands they left under the most painful circumstances. Many families in Jammu have relatives across the border who may wish to return to spend their last years in the country where they grew up, surrounded by the kin from whom they were sundered. But the Act, sadly, is not about healing the wounds of 1947; it is about exploiting that tragedy. The anger caused by the Act will allow the N.C. and the BJP to carve up neatly the votes of their respective communal constituencies. For the real victims of 1947, it will most likely do nothing at all.

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