While rulers in Jammu and Kashmir appear to be showing interest in the debate on Article 370, a vital issue remains unaddressed. The state government is under a legal and moral obligation to contest the petition Bhim Singh has filed in the Supreme Court on the Re-settlement Act. The state government takes no pains to get the case listed regularly. The pace reflects its indifference to this vital issue and the Sher-e-Kashmir’s last wish.
Realising his mistake of externing dissidents since 1947, and his inaction during the Jammu massacre and the large-scale migration that followed, the Sher-e-Kashmir introduced the Re-Settlement Bill in the state legislature in 1980. When passed, it came to be known as the Re-Settlement Act. Sensing the gravity of the legislation, the Government of India referred it to the Supreme Court for opinion, which returned it after twenty years without any changes or comment. But communal forces expressed serious reservations and one among them approached the Supreme Court which stayed its implementation.
The petition has not come up for hearing for the past nine years, and the state government, which is duty-bound to defend the legislation, is watching like a mute spectator. When the Supreme Court returned the legislation in 2002, people holding evacuee property in Jammu took to the streets. The government had to assure them comfortable stay on properties they hold but do not own.
The legislation has far-reaching political consequences. As per the provisions of the Delhi Agreement of 1952, all who were permanent residents of the state prior to partition and migrated to areas which came under Pakistan would be considered state subjects if they wanted to return. This is reflected even in the Kashmir as well as the Indian Constitutions This means that people who choose to come back can not only claim their property but would also exercise their right to vote if at all a referendum is ever held for Kashmir resolution. It would also change the demographic complexion of the Jammu region – something vested interests do not want to happen at this crucial juncture of the state’s history.
The Act had evoked severe reactions from communal elements when the then Chief Minister, Dr Farooq Abdullah, announced that he would implement it. The state government also contested the petition in the Supreme Court, much to the annoyance of some quarters, who, through their advocate, urged the court to declare the law ultra vires of the constitution.
The state government has almost given up the legal fight. But the NC-led coalition has to bear in mind that the Sher-e-Kashmir wanted this legislation implemented in letter and spirit. Fulfilling his wish, therefore, is an obligation for Omar Abdullah.