Kashmir Bus Sparks Fears Of Property Wrangles
13 May 2005
Srinagar: It was an emotional homecoming for Farida Gani, but also one that sparked a fierce desire to reclaim her ancestral property in Indian Kashmir left behind after her family moved to Pakistan. Despite being overwhelmed by emotion when she made the historic bus journey from Pakistani Kashmir to the Indian part of the Himalayan territory in April, 60-year-old Gani filed a claim for her father's property before returning to Pakistan. Gani's family left India in 1947 when she was three years old. 'I spent three precious years of my life here, I am emotionally attached to this (property). I am legally claiming what belongs to me,' Gani said before leaving for Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir. Although Gani is the only one to claim her property so far, the path-breaking bus service linking the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir has raised the likelihood of more legal wrangling over property in the troubled region. One of Gani's old homes is now a school and another the official residence of Kashmir University's vice-chancellor. Thousands of Kashmiris abandoned their houses and property when their homeland was partitioned after India and Pakistan plunged into war over Kashmir in 1947-48. Most of the land and buildings, called evacuee properties, were allotted to Hindus who migrated to Jammu, the winter capital of Kashmir, from Pakistani Kashmir after the bloody partition of the subcontinent in 1947. The properties include nearly 7,500 houses, 556 shops and more than 30,000 hectares of land in Indian Kashmir. 'It is a long legal battle but people who migrated to PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) or were stranded there after partition can claim their property. There is no legal bar,' said lawyer Bashir Ahmad. Gani's property claim after the cross- border bus journey, the most concrete gain so far in a stumbling peace process between the nuclear-armed neighbours, has caused panic among people in Indian Kashmir who fear being uprooted from their homes. 'Where will I go at this stage of life? I have been living in this house for 55 years the bus service has brought worries for us,' said 62-year-old Mohammad Syed. Bhim Singh, a Kashmiri lawmaker, told Reuters he had filed a petition in India's Supreme Court to restrain the Jammu and Kashmir government from agreeing to the appeals. 'Our ancestors also left huge property and business there (in Pakistani Kashmir) when they migrated, we did not claim that. I appeal to these people and government not to uproot us once again,' said 40-year-old Monohar Lal. Lal, whose father migrated to Jammu from the Pakistani side in 1948, now runs a shop which is evacuee property. The state's deputy chief minister, Mangat Ram Sharma, has been trying to scrap a 1982 resettlement act that provides for the rehabilitation of migrants who want to return from Pakistani Kashmir and settle in the Indian portion of the state. 'It is a do-or-die situation for us now. Our three generations have suffered and now we can go to any extent to protect our rights,' said Raju Chhani, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Joint Action Committee of Evacuee Property Occupants. Although the Supreme Court has halted the Jammu and Kashmir Resettlement Act of 1982, political analysts expect state chief minister Mufti Mohammad Syed to reintroduce the legislation in the next assembly session. 'Whoever comes from the other part of the state with the intention to stay here has to do so under the process of law that would take adequate care of the people in legal possession of the evacuee property,' Syed said. People in Pakistani Kashmir said they were determined to reclaim their homes in the Indian part of the region, which has been battered for more than 15 years by a rebellion against New Delhi's rule. 'We will claim what has been rightly ours and has always been ours,' said Khawaja Saif-ud-din, whose grandfather, Ahmad Joo, left behind four houses, shops and a lot of land when he moved to Pakistani Kashmir in 1947 from Uri in Indian Kashmir. Babar Iqbal Khawaja is equally determined to reclaim his grandfather's property in Indian Kashmir. His grandfather owned a petrol kiosk, a few shops, a house and land in Uri before he left for Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 1947. 'We've been waiting to get back our ancestral property for more than half a century,' he said. 'I'm sure one day we'll get it back and the bus link has brightened the chance.'