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5th August: Day of deliverance for West Pakistan Refugees
8/2/2020 11:25:33 PM

JAMMU, Aug 2: Sitting in his modest office on a Sunday afternoon, Labha Ram Gandhi, President of the West Pakistan Refuges (WPR) Action Committee, is carrying on with his work dedicatedly.
After the abrogation of Article-370 by the Union Government, decades old struggle of the members of the WPR’s finally came to a fruitful conclusion.
He took charge as president of the West Pakistan Refugees (WPR) Action Committee in 2004. “The situation was very bad at the time when I became President. My predecessors had dedicated their entire lives to the cause of WPRs but they had been duped by the successive governments at the center and the state”, admits Gandhi.
Curious Case of the WPRs
The partition saw the emergence of two nations India and Pakistan accompanied by series of communal riots, immense destruction, loss of lives and displacement of millions of people from either side of the international border.
Those who came to the Indian side, mainly Hindus and Sikhs settled, in the course of time, in different parts of the country. However, for those who came to the State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) from West Pakistan, the situation was different owing to the disputed and unsettled nature of the Kashmir issue and promulgation of Article 370 and 35 A of the Indian Constitution in the state.
The displacement in Jammu and Kashmir is as old as the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Millions of people fled from the adjoining area of Pakistan, mostly from Sialkot district. These people settled in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in 1947 but were not considered as the citizens of the erstwhile state.
Gandhi maintains, “Our forefathers while sensing the blatant discrimination meted out to the people of our community decided to leave J&K and get settled in different parts of the country, but were stopped midway by Pandit Nehru & Sheikh Abdullah who assured us of providing us all the rights that a citizen of free India possessed”. “But”, admits Gandhi, “all the promises and assurances of the two leaders proved to be a sham and a ploy to deter us from leaving the state and get settled in other parts of the country”.
Blatant Discrimination
The main cause of the marginalization of the people from the WPRs community was the denial of the Permanent Resident Citizenship (PRC) of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir. This single action perpetuated their isolation and deprived them from being a part of the mainstream society. Labha Ram Gandhi maintains, “As the WPR’s were denied the PRC of the erstwhile state, they were ineligible to vote in the assembly and the Panchayat elections of the state, thus denying them the basic right provided by the Indian Constitution”. Denial of the citizenship meant that they couldn’t purchase any property in the state, thus further perpetuating their discrimination.
Intensification of the Movement
In 2004, when Labha Ram Gandhi took over the reins of the movement, he decided to intensify the struggle of the community against the discrimination meted out to them since generations.
“I along with the elders of the community decided to expand our reach among the community members and to make them ready for a struggle”, says Gandhi.
After consultations with the members of the community, Gandhi decided to protest outside the Parliament in New Delhi to make the “deaf hear”.
A few months after assuming the reins of the movement in 2006, members of WPR’s under his leadership started a sit-in protest in the national capital. While no prominent political leader took any serious note of their sit-in protest in New Delhi, a curious development took place back in Jammu.
Gandhi recalls, “Oscar Fernandes, a close confidant of UPA chairperson Mrs Sonia Gandhi was on an official visit to Jammu University when a journalist asked him about the sit-in protest of the members of the WPRs.
To the utter surprise of the journalist, Oscar Fernandes denied any knowledge of such a protest but promised to enquire about the same. On his return back to New Delhi, Mr Fernandes paid a visit to us and enquired about our demands.
After giving a sympathetic hearing to our case, he assured of us of an audience with Mrs Sonia Gandhi”. Labbha Ram Gandhi adds, “Though Mrs Sonia Gandhi gave a sympathetic hearing to our case; nothing fruitful came out of the meeting.
We then decided to meet with other prominent leaders and personalities in New Delhi to present our case”. Recalling once such encounter with then Home Minister of India, Shivraj Patil, Mr Labha Ram Gandhi notes, ”Like other leaders we met in the National capital, he also gave us a patient hearing. We then requested him about seeking an appointment with Farooq Abdullah, who was a Union Minister back then in the UPA cabinet while his son Omar Abdullah, was the Chief Minister of the J&K.” Labbha Ram Gandhi’s face turns serious when asked about his meeting with Farooq Abdullah.
“He turned aggressive on hearing us out and announced in a loud voice that he won’t give the citizenship of the state to us as this would upset his constituency in Kashmir”, recalls a now serious Gandhi.
Labbha Ram Gandhi turned and remarked, “You see! It’s all about the vote bank and political power. Nobody cares about humanity. If anybody cared, we wouldn’t be wandering from door to door asking for the rights for last 60 years, which have been provided to us by the Indian Constitution”.
Article-370: Curse for WPRs
On being asked the reason for the blatant discrimination against the WPR, Labha Ram Gandhi answers without wasting a moment, “Article-370 which provided special status to erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir. It was the root cause of the blatant and unabated discrimination of different sections of the society in J&K, including ours”.
Employment in Defense forces and Paramilitary Forces
Till 2005, the youth from the WPR’s community were eligible to participate in the recruitment process for armed forces and central paramilitary forces.
But in 2005, the Union Government amended the rules to make the PRC mandatory for applying in the recruitment process. This ruled out all the, otherwise eligible, candidates from WPRs community from applying for these jobs.
“This was like adding salt to our wounds”, exclaims a now livid Labha Ram Gandhi.
“How could the politicians show so much insensitivity to a community which has been deprived of even the basic rights since generations”, he argues. “With this development”, claims Labha Ram Gandhi, “It became clear that we would not be provided our constitutional rights by simply following the policy of petitions and prayers.
We needed to explore some more active constitutional means to make our voice heard to the corridors of power both in New Delhi and the state”.
It was only after years of efforts by Labha Ram Gandhi and the leaders of the WPR’s community that finally they were allowed to apply for jobs in the defense forces and paramilitary forces.
“I want to thank Late Manohar Parrikar, the then defence minister of India for undoing the wrong and allowing the children of our community to apply for the employment in the forces”, says an emotional Labha Ram.
Finally, the Moment of Victory Arrives
Finally on 5th August, with the abrogation of Article-370 (and with it 35-A), the decades long struggles of the members of the WPRs community came to a fruitful conclusion.
“India got independence on 15th August, but the members of our community got freedom on 5th August 2019”, exclaims a teary eyed Labha Ram Gandhi. He continues, “Now the children won’t have to bear the humiliation of being called a Pakistani, just because our ancestors, several generations earlier, migrated from Pakistan to India”.
Labha Ram Gandhi rues that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the members of the community won’t be able to celebrate “their day of deliverance” (5th August) as was planned by them. “Nevertheless”, he maintains, “Sweets shall be distributed by the members of the community while the National Flag shall be hoisted on the homes of all the members of their community”.
“We want to remember 5th August as the day when all the penance and struggles of our ancestors finally bore the fruit”, claims a joyous Labha Ram Gandhi. Thanking the current government at the center, Labha Ram Gandhi maintains, “It was only due to the strong willed government, that our decade’s old issue was finally resolved.”
Future Ahead
Labha Ram Gandhi accepts that with the abrogation of the Article-370, they have finally attained what they have always struggled for, yet he maintains that decades of marginalization have deeply affected the community. He maintains that the process of re-absorption in the mainstream will take some time.
“We have to mentally accept the fact that our days of subjugation and deprivation are over. Time has come for us to be a part of the mainstream society”.
Labha Ram Gandhi maintains, “We don’t have any legal barriers imposed by the state anymore. It’s only the mental barriers that we need to fight now. But we won’t stop till we win that battle also, like we have won the earlier ones”.
The abrogation of Article-370 has ushered in an era of new possibilities and opportunities for the refugees from West Pakistan. For the first time since their displa
cement, they are made to believe themselves as being equal citizens of the land on which they live and work. “Sky is the limit” for the new generation youth of the community as the chains of bondages have finally been unshackled and their wings set free to live the life of their dreams.
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