J-K Bill Becomes Political Landmine
8 March 2004
The Indian Express
Srinagar: Battlelines are being drawn between the Congress-PDP government and the Opposition National Conference-and within the ruling coalition itself-over the controversial Bill under which a J&K woman who is a permanent resident of the state loses that status if she marries a non-permanent resident. So far, only permanent residents in J&K have been entitled to political and property rights in the state and can claim preferential treatment in Government jobs and scholarships. Permanent residents alone can vote and contest in elections and have exclusive rights to hold, inherit and acquire immovable property in the state. Significantly, the Congress and the Panthers Party-the two partners in the ruling coalition-had supported the Jammu Kashmir Permanent Resident (Disqualification) Act in the Assembly on March 5. But now they want to stall its passage in the Legislative Council which meets on Thursday. With the screws tightening-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee spoke to Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed today and Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent him a 'anguished' letter-pressure is building on the state government to buy time by referring the Bill to a select committee of the council. In fact, this was formally proposed by senior Congress leader and Deputy Chief Minister Mangat Ram Sharma. Panthers' Party chief Bhim Singh took a more strident line: he has threatened to quit the ruling coalition if the Bill isn't withdrawn by Thursday. The Bill, introduced by Minister for Law & Parliamentary Affairs, Muzaffar Hussain Baig, came as a response to the High Court ruling that there was no provision in existing law dealing with the status of a woman permanent resident who marries a non-permanent resident. Baig, according to a government announcement, had said that although under the Bill, a woman permanent resident would lose her status after marrying an outsider, the Bill 'does not alter the legal position of female descendents of permanent residents in the matter of inheritance.' This, the government said, will continue to be in accordance with the personal law-Muslim or Hindu-applicable to them. For the National Conference, which has 15 members in the 30-member Legislative Council-plus the support of the lone CPI member-this is what it has been waiting for. It has announced support to the Bill hoping that not only will this help it regain lost ground in Valley but also divide the ruling coalition over a key issue on the eve of polls. 'The NC has issued a whip to all its Legislative Council members to attend the session and whole-heartedly reiterate the party's support to the Bill passed by the Legislative Assembly on March 5,' said NC's patron and ex-CM Farooq Abdullah. 'The National Conference has always stood for the preservation and protection of Article 370 and shall in future also not allow anybody to dilute it,' he said. PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti, too, isn't willing to let the NC run away with the issue. Supporting the Bill, she said: 'As a legislator, I have fulfilled my duty of safeguarding the interests of my people. My younger sister is married to a non-state subject and she will lose her status but my first priority is to see that the rights of our citizens are protected. We have just upheld a 75-year-old law passed by late Maharaja Hari Singh.' She said the issue was being 'blown up' by political parties with elections in mind. Claiming that passing of the bill doesn't mean that a woman marrying a non-state subject wouldn't inherit property, she said, 'Even after marrying outside the state, she will inherit property in accordance with the personal law of the religion she belongs to.' Besides Mehbooba, the other women in the state legislative assembly, Khemlata Wakhloo, criticised the decision as being discriminatory to women. What this means for the NC is anybody's guess: both the Abdullahs, father and son, would stand disqualified.