Despite the chill infused by sub-zero temperatures in north Kashmir, 37-year old Somiya Sadaf is busy delivering motivational lectures to the progressive farmers of Dragmulla in Kupwara district but remains a mute spectator of the constituency’s District Development Council (DDC) poll scheduled for December 5. This is in stark contrast to the scenario just two years ago, when she herself was the candidate in the DDC poll in December 2020.
Ms. Sadaf, who originally hails from Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), is married to a local Kupwara resident. On counting day in December 22, 2020, the State Election Commissioner responded to a complaint that Ms. Sadaf and Shazia Begum, another similar PoK bride contesting the DDC poll from Hajin in Bandipora district, were not “bona fide India citizen(s)”, and stopped the results of the polls from being declared in both seats. In November 2022, the SEC announced that a repoll would be held in both those seats on December 5.
“I was sweeping the elections. That is why the counting was stopped in its last leg that day. If PoK is a part of India, what could be the possible problem with my citizenship? I understand any citizenship issues if someone was from Pakistan. I had produced all the documents, including ration card and even my passport but still my candidature has been rejected,” Ms. Sadaf, who has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the Muzaffarabad varsity and a post-graduation in Urdu from Kashmir, told The Hindu.
No man’s land
Ms. Sadaf has not only lost the right to contest polls, but the right to vote in them too, as her name has been deleted from the electoral rolls. In fact, at least 150 such PoK brides are stuck in no man’s land in the absence of any government policy on their citizenship and rights.
Kupwara resident Abdul Majeed Bhat had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) into PoK in 1990 to join an armed militant group. However, he stayed on and met and married Ms. Sadaf in Muzaffarabad in 2002, with the couple having four children and raising a family together. The Bhat family returned to Kupwara in 2010 under a rehabilitation policy for ex-Kashmiri militants held up in PoK, introduced by the J&K government under then-Chief Minister Omar Abdullah
After she moved to her husband’s hometown of Batargam, Ms. Sadaf took up an initiative under the UMEED programme, a Central government scheme, and set up a successful dairy farm with 10 cows. She also started Zamzam, a self-help for local women to set up enterprises, and shared her skills in animal husbandry, dairy farming, poly house farming and computers. “I found people of Kupwara very receptive, and unemployment was rampant. I thought I should share my knowledge and skills with them and bring a positive change in their lives. People really reposed faith in me despite being an outsider,” Ms. Sadaf said.
Participated in PM Modi event
Her successful farming venture saw J&K’s top officials, including advisers to the then-Governor, principal secretary and other secretaries, all visiting her unit in Batargam. “In 2018, I was nominated by the J&K government for a national award for promoting entrepreneurship. I participated in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s live interaction programme in July 2018,” Ms. Sadaf said.
Notwithstanding her past history, Ms. Sadaf’s name has been dropped from the electoral rolls now for “failing to provide substantial documents to support her citizenship”. She can’t return to PoK as the ties between India and Pakistan took a nose dive post August 5, 2019, with people’s movement being halted between the two parts of the erstwhile J&K.
She hasn’t given up though. “I will continue to work peacefully for positivity in Kashmir. I came under a policy during a particular regime and there is a new regime at the helm now. I am hopeful a regime will come in the future and deliver justice to us,” she added.
Sixty-three kilometres away from Dragmulla, Shazia Aslam, also from the PoK capital Muzaffarabad, is away from the election scene in Hajin. Her husband Muhammad Aslam is busy campaigning for another candidate these days. Ms. Aslam’s candidature was also cancelled in December 2020 “for making false declaration about her citizenship in India”.
“Out of around 10,000 votes, my wife had bagged around 7,000 votes when the results were held back. Shazia was popular because of her urbane approach and education. She was good at explaining and understanding issues. She was contesting against the bigger political force then, the People’s Alliance of Gupkar Alliance (PAGD), as an independent candidate,” Mr. Aslam told The Hindu. He had also crossed into PoK in 1990 and returned home in 2006 under the official rehabilitation programme.
Fighting to deepen democracy
Mr. Aslam said that his wife’s campaigning inspired awe among voters in 2020. “My wife fought the polls for deepening democracy in Kashmir. We believe that India’s policy in Kashmir is much better than Pakistan’s policy in PoK. I fail to understand why my wife’s ration card, Aadhar and domicile certificate meant nothing to the Election Commission. Why wasn’t her candidature rejected on the day she filed her nomination?” Mr. Aslam asked.
With Ms. Aslam’s name deleted from the electoral rolls now, her husband said that she has been confined to the four walls of their house. “Her dream to become an agent of change has been dashed in Kashmir,” he added.
Interestingly, in 2018, two women candidates from PoK had actually won panchayat polls in Kupwara district. But now, around 150 brides from PoK living in Kashmir are staring at a grim future, given the current uncertainty regarding their citizenship and rights. At least three such women have committed suicide.
No return allowed
“I divorced my husband and wanted to return to PoK. But I am not allowed. We are struggling on a daily basis to sustain here. We held protests and knocked on all doors. I have given up and left it to the Almighty,” said Kubra Geelani, who hails from PoK, but has been living in south Kashmir since 2014.
Relegated to citizens of nowhere, the decision to cancel their voting rights has further deepened their sense of insecurity in Kashmir. It has also posed a legal challenge to the government in the long run.
In fact, there has been a past judgement on such cases. In 1971, the J&K High Court, hearing the Mohsin Shah case, had observed that no deportation exercise could take place for such couples because “one person had merely travelled from one part of India to another”.