Women in Kashmir Citizens at Last

Until now, the women of Jammu and Kashmir were living under an archaic law that denied them equality and justice. Overturning this, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court recently pronounced a historic verdict - after 25 years of argument - that women marrying outsiders did not stand to lose their right to resident status, work, education and inheritance.

The impugned law that governed 'permanent resident status' in J&K stated that a woman ceased to be a subject of the state if she married a non-J&K resident. What this meant was that she would then lose her right to obtain or continue in a government job, own land and property, pursue higher education, contest or vote in municipal and state elections.

However, non-J&K resident wives of J&K men automatically became state subjects. But there was a condition even for this: "A wife or a widow of a state subject of any class shall acquire the status of her husband as state subject of the same class as her husband, so long as she resides in the state and does not leave the state for permanent residence outside the state."

Henna, daughter of former Chief Minister, Faroukh Abdullah, ceased to be a state subject when she married a South African settled in London. (Ironically, the non-J&K residents whom her father and brother married became entitled to resident status.)

Some of the other prominent women who suffered because of this discriminatory law include Dogri poetess Padma Sachdev; former Maharaja Karan Singh's daughter Jyoti Singh; former state prime minister Bakshi Gulam Mohd's granddaughter, Dr Ruby; Rashmi Singh, daughter of late Om Mehta, a former union minister; and Dr Posh Charak, daughter of the first Member of Parliament from J&K, Thakur Lachhman Singh Charak.

This law concerning 'state subjects' was enforced in J&K on April 20, 1927, when Kashmir's then ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, first promulgated it to prevent rich foreigners from purchasing land, and to protect the interests of the peasantry. The law was later adopted by the state's democratically
elected government.

The law continued till 1957, when the new constitution of J&K was introduced and 'state subject' was changed to 'permanent resident'. Permanent Resident Status (PRS) was accorded to those who had been living in the state for at least 10 years before 14 May 1954. This PRS was permanent and non-discriminatory.

However, on March 25, 1969, the government issued a circular of instructions to all state deputy commissioners, asking them to issue permanent resident certificates to unmarried girls. These would be valid only up to their weddings "so that her status (could be) re-examined and defined on the basis of the status of her husband".

Thus, women residents of J&K had to apply for a fresh certificate at the time of their wedding, explaining the status of their husbands. While marriage could strip women of their citizenship rights, the regulation not only allowed men to retain the benefits of residency even if they migrated to a foreign land but conferred such benefits to their children even if they were born abroad. Some members of the State Legislative Assembly did make several unsuccessful attempts to seek abolition of this discriminatory law but those of the political class who supported it largely outnumbered them.

The various reasons trotted out in support were - "to safeguard our state from going the way of Assam, where the original residents are now in a minority"; "the legislation is in the best interests of the special status of the state"; and "because it is very important to ensure the purity of our progeny"!

Imrana Siddiqui, editor of an Urdu daily, said, "Women's groups have for long ridiculed such claims and are conscious of the fact that there is a deliberate campaign by the men in power to link a women's issue with sensitive ones like `special status of Jammu and Kashmir'." She also maintained that women's groups across the country empathized with the cause but were prevented from taking up the issue, as it was sub-judice.

The legal battle started in 1978 when Amarjeet Kaur of Chogal village in Kupwara district sought to acquire her share of property. Amarjeet and her sister were married in Punjab to non-J&K residents, and their brother claimed that they were no longer residents and therefore could not get  possession of the property. Amarjeet went on to win the case and inspired many more similarly affected women. Rubina Nasarrullah (daughter-in-law of former Punjab Governor Surinder Nath) challenged the law when she was denied admission to pursue post-graduate studies in medicine after marrying an 'outsider'.

The October 2002 judgement - by a full bench of the High Court - is the result of the concerted effort of 12 petitioners. Overruling an earlier judgement that referred to a case in which a woman of the state, on marrying an outsider, acquired the domicile of her husband, the judge concluded, "The judgement no longer holds the field and is overruled because it relied on section 10 of the British Law which had itself been amended."

The judgement has wider implications. Apart from women, celebrating this historic judgement are over 200,000 refugees who came to J&K from the Pakistani side at the time of Partition in 1947. They had been demanding PRS since then and it is now that they have achieved their goal.    


More by :  Pamela Bhagat

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