Pitting Kashmiri Identity Against Women’s Rights

While the rest of the world was celebrating the 100th year of Women’s Day on March 8, 2010, a process of disempowering the women in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was initiated, with the introduction of the J&K Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2010. Introduced as a Private Member Bill, it laid down that a woman who marries outside the state would lose the status of being a Permanent Resident of the state. By implication such a woman would also lose the privileges associated with the status of being a Permanent Resident, including that of holding property in the state, securing jobs in state services, voting for the Legislative Assembly, or contesting elections.

While introducing the Bill, Murtaza Khan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) stated that a female Permanent Resident acquires the status of her husband and ceases to be a Permanent Resident on her marriage to a person who is not a Permanent Resident of the state. The Bill was later dropped, but not because of the unacceptable position it embodied. It was dropped on ‘technical’ grounds since it required an amendment to the Constitution, which could not be introduced in the Upper House of the Legislature.

It is important to note that this was not a 'freak' Bill, introduced just by an 'odd' member. It has a certain politics and a history. The Permanent Resident status follows the State notification of 1927 and 1932 that classified the residents of the state in various categories and provided them with special rights. However, this notification nowhere made a distinction between men and women. Through some administrative fiat, however, a practice was started of stamping on the Permanent Resident certificate issued to women the words: 'Valid till marriage'. As a consequence, a woman had to procure an altogether new certificate of being a Permanent Resident after her marriage. In case she married outside the state, she automatically lost that status.

In 2004, the High Court of the state, in the case of ‘State of J&K versus Sheela Sawhney’, declared that there is no provision in the existing law dealing with the status of a Female Permanent Resident who marries a non-resident person. The provision of women losing their status of permanent resident after marrying outside the state, therefore, did not have any legal basis. This decision was declared as historic because it corrected an administrative anomaly and brought relief to women who married outside the state. They were no more to lose their status as Permanent Residents of the state.

However, the PDP-led government sought to undo the relief given by the High Court by introducing the ‘Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2004’, which clearly laid down that a woman marrying outside the state would lose her Permanent Resident Status. The PDP’s viewpoint was revealed in a statement given by Muzaffar Beg, who was the Law Minister at that time. He argued that it was “universally accepted that the woman follows the domicile of her husband”. The Bill was supported by the National Conference and was passed in the Lower House of the State Legislature. Ultimately, it could not be passed.

It was a similar kind of Bill that was sought to be passed in March 2010. As in 2004, the logic put forth in defence of the resurrected Bill was that it was necessitated to preserve the ‘Kashmiri identity’ facing an onslaught from exterior sources. The right of women to marry outside the state and retain their status of Permanent Resident was seen as going against the ‘autonomy’ and ‘special status’ of the state. There is an on-going campaign that maintains that such a right given to women would ultimately lead to demographic change in the state.

The issue as it has been raised so far, by implication at least, seeks to pit the equal rights and dignity of women against the ‘Kashmiri identity’. The whole debate smacks of a patriarchal mindset. If demographic change is the issue, then it is men rather than women who need to be debarred from marrying outside the state because unlike women who exit the state and cannot pass on this right to be a Permanent Resident to their husbands or children, the men can. In any case, Kashmiri identity is defined in a very exclusive manner that automatically places women at a very disadvantageous position as they are required to subordinate their rights to the larger Kashmiri identity.

There are many in Kashmir who genuinely believe that the Bill is needed in order to buttress the larger political cause for which Kashmiris are fighting and who believe that raising the issue of the rights of women amounts to an unnecessary diversion that could fragment the movement. There are also many who argue that while women are entitled to equal rights and their claim is legitimate, they should postpone demanding these rights for the sake of the movement. In other words, Kashmiri identity would have to be redeemed before women can be granted equal rights.

But there are women in the state who decry this hierarchical ordering of rights. They argue that Kashmiri identity is inclusive and a woman is as much a part of this identity as a man is. When the Bill came up this time, they questioned its patriarchal bias which renders women as secondary members in society. They demanded to know how there could be a full empowerment of the Kashmiri ‘people’ without the empowerment of women? And, most importantly, how can the Kashmiris as ‘people in movement’ negate the issues raised by the women’s movements and deny women their rights. Isn’t the empowerment of Kashmiri women very much part of the ‘greater cause’ of ‘empowerment of Kashmiris’, they ask. Although their arguments are forceful, the voices of these women have been drowned out in the passions aroused on the issue of Kashmiri identity.

The Bill has been dropped for the moment. But in the absence of a women’s movement in the state and given, in particular, gender insensitivity within the political class, politicians in search of emotive issues can at any point rally once again around this biased and retrograde Bill.


More by :  Rekha Chowdhary

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