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'For us, only the camp is home'

By Vineetha Mokkil

Sixty years after Partition, 40% of the refugees who fled Pakistan Occupied Kashmir continue to live in camps scattered across Jammu. Entire generations have grown up here on ad hoc relief packages, minus quality education and employment. Lacking the official status of refugees because PoK is not considered foreign soil, they have been deprived of compensation and all the benefits accorded to refugees under national and international law

When Partition ripped apart the subcontinent's psyche in 1947, there was an exodus of refugees who fled from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to India. Our collective memory may have conveniently confined their flight to the annals of history, but the wounds of those who were uprooted by the cataclysm continue to fester. A large chunk of PoK refugees in India are subsisting in sub-human conditions in camps scattered across the province of Jammu. The assurances they received from the Indian government remain unfulfilled even after 60 years.

Of the 1.2 million PoK refugees living in India, 40% live in camps in the Jammu region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. They fled to India in 1947, leaving behind their homes in Muzafarabad and Mirpur. More refugees from the region poured into India in the wake of the Indo-Pak wars in 1965 and 1971.

The refugees were housed in temporary camps when they arrived in India. When the camps were set up, the authorities had assured them of their return home. But that promise was never fulfilled. Over the years, hopes of returning to their abandoned homes in PoK have dwindled.

The official status of PoK refugees in India is peculiar. Since India considers PoK a legal part of its territory, PoK refugees in India are not accorded official refugee status. The Indian government maintains that, according to the rulebook, only people who migrate from foreign territory can be classified as refugees.

PoK refugees have had to pay a high price for this official stance. Since they lack official status they are deprived of all the benefits accorded to refugees under national and international law. The Indian government also falls back on the official position when it comes to compensating them for property they left behind in PoK. For the same legal reasons, the Indian government has not pursued the compensation that is due to people from Mirpur whose property was submerged in construction of the Mangla dam funded by the World Bank.

PoK refugees in Jammu and Kashmir are housed in camps scattered across the Jammu, Kathua, Rajouri, Poonch and Udhampur districts. These camps consist of cramped, one-room units that offer their inhabitants very little protection and security. Sanitation and drainage is poor. Residents also lack access to basic healthcare services.

Camp residents say they have been ghettoised for three generations. Most schools in localities where children from camps enrol are understaffed and lack adequate infrastructure. Deprived of quality education, youngsters from the camps find it impossible to get employment in a competitive work environment.

Members of SOS International, an NGO that works with PoK refugees in India, say that drug addiction and aggressive behaviour are on the rise among frustrated youth in the camps.

The government sporadically hands out temporary relief packages to camp residents. Nominal ex-gratia payments have also been made to them. But there has been no attempt on the part of the government to launch schemes that can help the younger generation hone vocational or technical skills and achieve a sustainable livelihood. This glaring gap in policy initiative has plunged the community into hopelessness.

Tales of misery and abject poverty abound in the camps. Mishro Devi, a resident of Gadigarh camp, Jammu, migrated from Mirpur to India in 1947. Her children were born and raised at the camp. Trapped in debt and with no prospect of employment, two of her sons committed suicide. Charan Kaur lives in a one-room hut in Bhour camp. Her family fled to India in 1965. "I don't have any source of income and there is no family member to support me," says Kaur. "Back home, my father owned several orchards. I never thought I would be forced to live on charity," she adds.

Most first-generation camp residents are aged now. They have taken refuge in nostalgia and cling to the hope that they will be able to return to their homes in PoK. But third-generation residents, born and brought up in the camps, have no such illusions. "I hear about sprawling homes and orchards that our families owned. My parents talk about them," says 24-year-old Sanjay, a school dropout. "But for me, the camp has always been home." Sandeep (18) and Pammy (28) agree. Both are unemployed and have no college degree.

"We have nowhere else to call home," say an entire generation of PoK camp residents.

Their demands are loud and clear: "Give us decent schools and jobs so that we can take care of our families. The authorities have ignored us for too long." PoK refugees in India seem fated to exclusion. Though the Indo-Pak dialogue process has gained significant momentum in recent years, the status of PoK refugees has never made it to the agenda of the talks.

Three round-table conferences on Kashmir were held in 2006-07. Though they were attended by representatives of prominent political parties from the state, members of the PoK refugee community or leaders of organisations representing them were not invited to participate. At the conclusion of the second round-table conference in Srinagar in May 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh set up five working groups to broaden the scope of the dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir. The groups were set up to deal with confidence-building measures within the state, improve relations across the Line of Control (LoC), monitor good governance, further economic development, and iron out wrinkles in Centre-state relations. Surprisingly, the status, return and rehabilitation of PoK refugees were not on the working groups' agenda. Nor were representatives of PoK refugee organisations invited to be part of the working groups.

"The violence in the valley has hijacked the dialogue process, relegating the question of PoK refugees to the background," says Dr Suba Chandran, Assistant Director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. "What is the logic behind excluding this critical issue which affects the lives of millions of refugees in India?"

PoK refugees have advanced several demands. Some of them are:

The Indian government must take up the issue of return and rehabilitation of PoK refugees with its Pakistani counterpart. It must make it a matter of priority to include representatives from the PoK refugee community in the dialogue process on Jammu and Kashmir, at all levels.

If the Government of India accords official refugee status to PoK refugees, they will be able to avail of benefits provided to refugees under national and international law. This will be a lifesaving move for many members of the PoK refugee community who are struggling to earn a living.

Twenty-four seats are reserved in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly for PoK. The Refugee United Front (RUF), an umbrella organisation of several groups representing PoK refugees in Jammu and Kashmir, has suggested that PoK refugees in India be allowed to contest at least some of these seats. This can be facilitated by creating floating constituencies or constituencies in exile. RUF leaders argue that once PoK refugees have political representation they will be able to exercise some degree of control over policy matters that concern their status in India.

Other demands put forward by the refugee community include constitution of an autonomous PoK Refugees Development Board which can provide financial aid to PoK refugees living in camps. They are also demanding that the houses and land on which PoK refugees currently live as tenants should be allotted to them on a permanent basis. The central Act of 1954 (Displaced Persons Compensation and Rehabilitation Act) must be made applicable to PoK refugees. Displaced persons from west Punjab and east Bengal were settled permanently in India according to the provisions of this Act. The community is frustrated by the official apathy.

In April 2007, RUF galvanised members of the refugee committee in Jammu to march towards the international border. The rally was scheduled to cross the border and enter PoK as a gesture of protest. The third round-table conference on Kashmir was being held in New Delhi at the time. Though the state police stopped protestors from crossing the border, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad met representatives of the community and assured them that measures would be taken to chalk out an official relief policy. He ordered an all-party committee set up to look into the demands of the refugees.

The committee, which comprised members of prominent political parties in the state including the Congress, National Conference and PDP, was asked to look into two issues -- the comprehensive settlement of PoK refugees and the question of delimitation. Though members of all political parties agreed on the humanitarian issue of refugee rehabilitation, they differed on the issue of delimitation. The committee was disbanded as members could not see eye-to-eye on delimitation due to political differences. The demands of PoK refugees as well as their status became the casualty of yet another political gimmick. And the crisis continues to rest in its cul-de-sac.

Vineetha Mokkil is a journalist based in New Delhi.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008