Denied official refugee status, PoK refugees who continue to live in camps in Jammu with limited livelihood options recount their anguish

Sitting on a charpoy in the small room of his dilapidated house, Sham Lal Sharma, an octogenarian, watches the TV; his pensive eyes glued to a high-pitched special programme on the recently held elections in Pakistan. He switches it off as soon as the programme ends. Shaking his head, he murmurs in a voice tinged with regret, “Our problems will never ever find a place in the election manifestos of political parties of either side.”

Meet Sham Lal, a PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) refugee, who has, for six decades, been a resident of Bhour Camp — a locality in the periphery of the Jammu city. He was a teenager when his family fled their native village in Pallandri town (now in PoK) in 1947 following the tribal invasion, leaving behind everything they owned.

Narrating the tales of mass exodus and massacres, he recalls how his family, along with scores of other families, was pushed into a large building by the tribal militia in the wee hours of October 24, 1947, after which the building was set on fire. Barring a few, all those trapped inside were burnt alive.

“More than six decades passed since, but sometimes I can still smell that acrid odour of the burning human bodies pervading the air.” Escaping death at many places Sham Lal’s family managed to reach Jammu but, he says, only to live a life fraught with afflictions.

This is not an isolated case but the saga of nearly 41,000 families who fled their homes when tribals raided Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and Poonch areas of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir on October 22, 1947.

The number of those displaced has shot up manifold over the past 65 years and has reached more than 1.25 million. Nearly five lakh people are ghettoised in 39 camps in and around Jammu, while others are settled in the Kathua, Udhampur, RS Pura and Poonch areas of Jammu in dismal living conditions, with State apathy towards their plight becoming an accepted reality.

Of the 41,000 families that migrated initially, 9,000 are not registered with the government and have not been provided any reprieve. “Only those families were registered who had migrated along with the heads of families and had a monthly income not more than Rs 300,” says Sham Lal.

Most of the PoK refugees settled in rural areas are living off the land as agriculture is their only livelihood, but they, too, are forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence because of insufficient land.

The government, as part of its rehabilitation policy, issued orders vide Cabinet order No. 578-C of 1956 that every family putting up in rural areas would be provided four acres of irrigated and six acres of non-irrigated land. But around 84,094 families have not got sufficient land owing to shortage of land or so the State claims. “The land has not been allotted free of cost, as claimed by the government time and again. The then State government deducted Rs. 2,500 as cost of land out of the ex-gratia relief provided by the then Central government,” said R.C. Sharma, a local journalist and PoK refugee settled in Bhour camp.

Sharma also pointed out that, on the one hand, the government claimed that they were short of land, but on the other hand, thousand kanals of land had been grabbed by land mafia in Jammu province. It is pertinent to mention here that in the last session of J &K assembly, Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation, Ajaz Ahmed Khan, in reply to a question, appraised the House that Jammu figures at the top of the land-grabbing list, with an astounding sixteen lakh kanals under illegal occupation.

The Pok refugees have other vulnerabilities, too, compared, for example, to Kashmiri Pandit migrants who also left their homeland after turmoil broke out in the Kashmir Valley in the early 90s, migrating to Jammu in large numbers. “We can feel their pain and understand the ordeal they underwent; but at the same time, we must admit that, in sharp contrast, they have been provided every facility by the government — monthly stipend, ex-gratia relief, special job packages and reservations in professional colleges among others,” says Dr. Narindra, convener of PoK Refugee Sangharsh Morcha.

According to official statistics, currently Rs. 6,600 is provided to each Kashmiri migrant family as monthly cash relief, in addition to ration. A rough estimate indicates that approximately Rs. 22,665 crore have been paid to 38,119 migrant families registered with the Government of Jammu and Kashmir Relief Organization (Migrants), Jammu, till March, 2012, while 1.25 million PoK refugees have been provided a paltry sum of Rs. 83 crore over the last 65 years.

Above all, the Government of India does not deem them as refugees as it considers PoK as an integral part of the country and therefore, PoK refugees in India are not accorded official refugee status.

(The article has been generated under the Sanjoy Ghose Media Fellowship)

(Charkha Features)