Chak Jaffar (Jammu):
Tears well up in the eyes of 87-year-old Lal Chand and his 82-year-old wife Trivita as they hold up their inked fingers after casting their votes in the third phase of District Development Council (DDC) elections at a polling station in Jammu on Friday.
“Today, our wish to vote once in our lifetime was fulfilled,” said the couple in unison.
Mr Chand and his wife are West Pakistan refugees who fled to India during the Partition in 1947. They, along with nearly 1.50 lakh others became eligible to vote in Jammu and Kashmir’s local elections after the Centre abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution on August 5 last year, paving the way for granting them domicile status.
“This is first time in my life that I have cast a vote,” said Mr Chand, who was just 14 years old when he fled from West Pakistan in 1947.
“Our last wish has been fulfilled,” he said.
Mr Chand and Ms Trivita weren’t the only ones ecstatic to have exercised their franchise.
Their village, Chak Jaffar, home to several other West Pakistan refugees, wore a festive look. People, old and young, danced to drum beats as they celebrated “independence” and shedding the “unwanted citizens” tag.
President of Pakistan Refugees Action Committee Laba Ram Gandhi led the celebrations and danced with other members of the community.
“We are very happy to have voted in these elections. It is a message to the entire country that justice has been done to us after seven decades. We got our independence today,” Mr Gandhi said.
The villagers thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah for giving them their rights.
“We thank Modi ji and Amit Shah ji. They have done justice with us. We were living as unwanted citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. We had no rights, from voting to getting jobs. Now we are proud citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. Now our children will get all the rights,” a villager, Sukh Ram, 80, said.
“It feels like a rebirth for us. It seems like we have started a new life. It is all because of the prime minister,” he said.
Another villager, Asha Devi, said, “Now our children will not live a miserable life as we did. They will have rights to vote, jobs, education and own property.”
Till August 5 last year, except for parliamentary elections, these refugees were barred from voting in Jammu and Kashmir’s assembly, panchayat and urban local body polls.
The refugees, who migrated from parts of west Punjab and Gujarat that are now in Pakistan, were also barred from government jobs, scholarships and admission in colleges, welfare schemes, and right to own land.
The refugee youths are mostly illiterate and earn their livelihood by working as labourers in agriculture fields in border belts of RS Pura, Samba, Hiranagar and Jammu, while the elderly work as domestic help.
After the scrapping of Article 370 last year, West Pakistan refugees can not only vote in local elections but also contest polls.