Tuesday, July 22, 2008

THE PERMANENT RESIDENT (Disqualification) Bill, 2004, which was unanimously adopted by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, is a patently discriminatory and obnoxious piece of legislation. Even though the country-wide outcry has forced a rethink on the People's Democratic Party-led Government, the Bill, aimed at denying women who married non-residents the status of permanent residents of the State, should never have been contemplated. Such a law would deeply damage the livelihood prospects of women. Under the special laws in force in the State, the legal right to Government employment, to admission in Government-administered professional colleges, and to purchase and retain property is a privilege available only to permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir. Following an executive order issued under the State Subjects Law of 1927, women who married non-residents of Jammu and Kashmir could no longer retain their status as permanent residents whereas men continued to enjoy the right when they married outsiders. In 2002, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court overturned this position on the ground that a female resident who inherited the status of a State subject by birth could not be put to a disadvantage that would not be visited upon a permanent male resident. Any move to go back to the pre-2002 situation would be in direct conflict with the idea of gender equality.
There is a history in the State of governments re-opening sensitive issues during the run-up to an election, ostensibly to buttress the constitutionally guaranteed special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Prior to the State Assembly elections of 2002, the National Conference Government led by Farooq Abdullah attempted to revive the controversial Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act of 1982. That opportunist move offered all those who migrated to Pakistan before 1954 the right to reclaim lost property. The 1982 law itself had been drafted to woo Muslim voters. Such short-sighted attempts at bolstering an incumbent Government's prospects in an election can provoke a chauvinist and communal backlash elsewhere in the country and work against fulfilling the real aspirations of the Kashmiri people. Political parties in this strife-torn State must show greater responsibility and statesmanship than they have done this far.
Matrimonial ties are one of the commonest ways for ordinary people to secure the right of passage into different countries and continents, overcoming the narrowness of national frontiers. Conversely, governments seeking to appease chauvinist and sometimes racist constituencies tend to whittle down this human right and play down the legal significance of marriage-conferred entitlements in order to check immigration in large numbers. In distinct cases, adherence to humanitarian norms and civil niceties become casualties of such measures. Malaysia, for instance, denies permanent residence to overseas spouses of its women while foreigners who marry Malaysian men may be granted citizenship. While the gender bias in this policy stands out like a sore thumb, the Malaysian law at least does not disown its own citizens. The Jammu and Kashmir Bill falls foul even in this respect. It is heartening that there is a national outcry over this crass move to appeal to the most backward sentiments in society for presumed electoral gain. Democratic women's organisations must be commended for taking a sensitively nuanced stand on this question: while it is necessary to respect and keep intact the demographic profile of the volatile State, the answer cannot possibly lie in making the already vulnerable situation of women in society worse through discriminatory legislation. It is imperative that J&K's special status is anchored in defensible democratic rights and sentiments


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