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Monday, 8 December 2014

J & K Diary-2 : Life of a refugee.

From prime minister Narendra Modi to chief minister Omar Abdulla, all the politicians who were campaigning for ongoing Jammu & Kashmir assembly elections didn't miss to talk about refugees. They sympathised with their plight and promised them governmental support for a better life. They also blamed each other for the miseries of refugees. However, this has not been new to the people concerned. They have listened to similar speeches and promises by politicians since past six decades. Instead of their life getting better, their problems have aggravated over the years. During my visit to Poonch district for the election coverage, I got an opportunity to meet many refugees and closely observe their life. I was overwhelmed with the stories of cruelty, atrocities, greed, survival and bravery.

Refugees are those people who fled to escape from being massacred from Pakistan or Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) at the time of partition in 1947. Those who came from PoK are called PoK refugees and those who came from Pakistan are called West Pakistan refugees. Presently, the estimated population of PoK refugees is around 10 lakhs & West Pakistan refugees is 2 lakhs. Most of these 12 lakhs refugees are settled in districts adjoining frontiers of PoK or West Pakistan. In Poonch town I met a 77 years old Sikh man named Rajinder Singh Josh. He briefly narrated to me his saga of fleeing PoK and settling in Poonch as a refugee –

“My father died when I was a child & my father’s younger brother (Chacha) raised me. We were living in an area near Poonch which now falls under Pakistan occupied Kashmir. At the time of partition in 1947 Hindus & Sikhs living in our locality were being massacred. My father’s younger brother and two elder brothers (Tau) took me with them and left our house with only the clothes which we were wearing. There was no time to carry anything else as the violent crowd was heading towards us to burn us alive. We walked towards India continuously for 5 days with hardly any food and water. However, death chased us enroute also. Pakistani soldiers randomly fired at people who were fleeing towards India. They used a rifle infamously known as “Tuckdum” due to the sound it generated when it was fired. In one such firing by tuckdums both elder brothers of my father died. Somehow I and my younger uncle escaped the bullet.

We reached Poonch, but life here too was no better than hell. We didn’t have anything to eat. Brigadier Pritam Singh who rescued Poonch from Pakistani tribals allowed us to eat anything we find except cows. We even ate horses to survive. There was no cloth to shroud the dead. Little children who died due to hunger or sickness were covered with leaves and were disposed off in the river.

We didn’t have any shelter to protect ourselves from the harsh weather so we started staying in houses which were abandoned by Muslims who fled to Pakistan. Today such houses are known as “Evacuee Property”. Many refugees have been living in such evacuee properties since they came here but they don’t have any ownership rights. We cannot sell them. Instead of supporting them, the government charged rent from the occupants of such properties. It is a very tough task to repair such houses as one has to go through a very arduous clerical process. You will see large families living in such houses with one or two rooms. To add salt to our injuries Farooq Abdulla government implemented Jammu and Kashmir Resttlement Act in the past decade. This act allows a person from Pakistan who fled Jammu & Kashmir during partition to come back and claim his property which he had left behind. His ownership rights get restored and he is allowed to sell that property. Any refugee who has occupied such property has to vacate it whenever somebody from Pakistan comes and claims it. This is totally unfair. Pakistan has not passed any such act which allows us similar liberty to claim and sell our properties in Pakistan. So far around a dozen Pakistanis have come and claimed their properties in Poonch district itself.

Till very recently we were not treated as state subjects also. Several promises have been made but we haven’t got any monetary assistance from the government.”

There are several senior citizens in Poonch town who have similar stories to tell. One can see people living in old dilapidated buildings labelled as “evacuee property”. Many refugees have come together to form associations and organisations which ventilate their grievances. West Pakistan refugees don’t have right to vote, but refugees from PoK which form the larger chunk have got voting rights and this is the reason why all political parties try to woo them.

(In third and last part of this series read how people are living under the shadow of death at Indo-PoK border.)

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