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Published in the 1-15 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Resettlement issue rattles J&K

By Wajahat Nazki

The Milli Gazette Online

Srinagar: In the wake of the opening of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road and the free access to the people living across the dividing line, a fresh controversy has arisen in the state regarding the evacuee property with the applicability of states Resettlement Act itself coming under question. The Resettlement Act which was passed by the state legislature in 1980 and later assented by then governor of J&K, BK Nehru in 1982,enables the people who migrated to Pakistan in 1947,to return, settle and retain their properties, in letter and spirit. With the aim of safeguarding these migrant properties, the state government has all along kept a separate department namely 'custodian' to look after them.
The issue arose after some people who crossed the line of control through recently opened bus route, allegedly applied for the restoration of their properties in the state, which they had left behind at the time of Partition. The evacuee property issue has since led to a war of words between different political parties in the state with the affected people also voicing their concern.

When British India was divided in 1947, while Kashmir remained mostly unaffected, Jammu witnessed terrible communal riots forcing thousands of Muslim families from Jammu to migrate to Pakistan leaving their properties behind. Therefore, this issue is considered to be more Jammu-centric than Valley-centric, though Muslim migrants also left some property in the Kashmir valley. Since then, it has been alleged by various quarters that most of these properties particularly in the Hindu-dominated Jammu areas have been given on lifetime lease to influential persons. Hence the negative reactions to the implementation of the Resettlement Act.

Political parties which had long forgotten the existence of the Act have suddenly found a new topic to talk about. Spearheading the tirade in support of the Resettlement Act, leader of the opposition in the state assembly Abdul Rahim Rather of National Conference said that the implementation of the act could be the most important confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan as it is directly associated with the interests of the Kashmiri people across the border. Saying that confusion has been created about the act, Rather mentioned that deputy chief minister Mangat Ram Sharma of the Congress Party was misleading people by saying that this is not an act but a bill. This is not correct, Rather said. According to him, after having been signed by the governor in 1982, Government of India had sent it to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion to check the constitutional status of the Act. In 2001, he said, after 19 years the Supreme Court returned the Act without any modifications.

Clarifying that the Act was in 'no ways anti-constitutional' or even a threat to national integrity, Rather defined the act in legal terms saying that the Constitution of J&K, under section 6(2), defines the permanent residents of J&K which includes those citizens who had migrated to the part which is under Pakistani control and who wish to return permanently to their native places. He further said, that some vested interests were making a hue and cry over the Act by terming it 'anti-national'. 

The state chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, however, tried to put at rest any speculation regarding the dispossession of the current owners of the evacuee properties. He categorically asserted that there was no question of dispossessing people of land or property legally allotted to them. He further said that so far nobody from Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PAK) has claimed property in the state and the reports about one Farida Gani of Muzaffarabad claiming her ancestral property in Srinagar are not true. He said that the lady had only made a statement to the press and has not filed any claim. Clearing the position of his government, Sayeed said even if somebody from the other side would claim rights over a property in the state, he or she would have to first establish credentials as a citizen of India and the union home ministry alone would verify such claims.

Asking people who have been allotted the evacuee property under the relevant law not to pay any heed to rumours and misinformation, Mufti Sayeed said that the evacuee property act actually defends the rights of the refugees in possession of the evacuee property and assured them that no power would dispossess them of this property. Referring to the Resettlement Act, he also disclosed that the Supreme Court in 2001, soon after returning the Act, 'stayed its implementation'. Given the stay from the highest court in the country, there is no question of the Act being implemented.

Bolstered by the chief minister’s statement that evacuee property holders will not be dispossessed, migrants from PAK are saying that they should be compensated for properties they left behind by regularizing the properties they are holding here. "We were left with nothing when we came over here. The government then gave us four marlas of land. Even his small land is evacuee property and after 54 years we have not been given ownership rights," says Chuni Lal, a farmer in Jammu.

Commenting on the issue, the state unit of BJP has criticized the state government for considering the implementation of the act on what it termed as 'unequal terms'. BJP state president Nirmal Singh said raking up the issue of resettlement act and the announcement of the state government to offer compensation to people coming from Pakistan could lead to massive disturbances in the state. Stating that when the rights of the people in other parts of Kashmir or those who migrated from Pakistan to J&K are not secured, how could the government compensate people who emigrated from this part of the state? There has to be reciprocity for any agreement and it's not the same here, he added.

Apprehending that the shelving of resettlement issue would hit the peace process in the state, separatist leader and Democratic Freedom Party (DFP) president Shabir Ahmad Shah while favoring the Resettlement Act said that the fledgling peace process would suffer if the Act was not implemented in the state. DFP president said that he supports the step as reassuring for the separated families on either side of LoC keeping in view that the move would lead to psychological integration of the state. Threatening a statewide agitation to reinforce the importance of the Act, Shah reiterated that his party will launch a peaceful agitation against what he called as 'clandestine efforts aimed at ethnic cleansing of Kashmiris'. 

Meanwhile in a related development the Supreme Court has almost restrained the state government from dealing with the applications made by visitors from PaK. Asking them to file responses to an application on the issue by J&K national panthers party led by Bhim Singh, a bench comprising Justice N Santosh Hegde and Justice S B Sinha reminded the state government about an apex court order staying the resettlement act allowing residents from PaK to resettle in the state. The bench observed, "How can those who take the bus route and come on a tourist permit stake claim for the evacuee properties?"

"Now that the people from PaK have started visiting this place, they have also rightfully started talking about their properties. They want them back and if there are some technical difficulties in it, they should be given proper compensation", opines Nissar Bhat, a journalist. Another person, Bilal Ahmad who has relatives settled in PaK, says, "The so called 'nationalistic groups' should be reminded that Indian parliament has a standing resolution saying the areas of J&K under Pakistan too are integral parts of India. If the resolution means anything, how can those who migrated in 1947 be denied their right to property in this part of J&K"? This is a view echoed by many others.

Whatever the pros and cons of the issue, one thing that is clear is the fact that this new development, for the present, is giving sleepless nights to those who are in possession of evacuee property. 

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