Press Trust of india

West Pakistan refugees outside booths in Jammu say ‘justice done after 70 yrs of struggle’

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Jammu: Enthusiasm was palpable among voters at polling booths here on Saturday as the maiden District Development Council (DDC) polls and Panchayat by-elections, the first democratic exercise in Jammu and Kashmir since it was reorganised as a union territory last year, was underway.

With the abrogation of Article 370, several communities like West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis and Gurkhas are now eligible to vote in local elections, purchase land and apply for jobs in Jammu and Kashmir, and besides these, they can also contest elections.

On August 05, 2019, the Centre revoked the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into UTs of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Since then, the government has introduced several laws, including those related to land and domicile status.

“We have heard the words equality, justice and liberty, and today we are feeling the true meaning of these words,” Sujati Bharti, a young voter from the West Pakistan refugee community, said standing in a queue outside a polling station at Kot Ghari in Akhnoor block in the outskirts of Jammu.

She thanked the Centre for its decision to do away with the special status, saying members of her community were exercising their right to vote in local elections after 70 years.

Bharti said she felt liberated as she stood in queue with permanent residents. “Justice has finally been granted after an over seven-decade-long struggle,” she added.

Except for parliamentary elections, these refugees, were, till last year, barred in Jammu and Kashmir from voting in assembly, panchayat and urban local body polls.

Bishan Dass (67), another voter from the community, said he did not want to remember the past and instead, pinned hopes on a bright future in which his grandchildren could get jobs without moving outside.

“We feel empowered. Earlier nobody used to come to our places to seek votes. Today, every candidate came thrice knocking our doors,” he said, flashing a victory sign.

Most of the West Pakistan refugees, after migrating from Pakistan during the Partition, settled in R S Pura, Akhnoor, Samba, Hiranagar and Jammu. Currently, there are over 1.5 lakh refugees in the Union territory.

In the first leg of the eight-phased DDC elections, 43 constituencies went to polls — 25 in Kashmir and 18 in Jammu. Voting began at 7 am and ended at 2 pm. Out of a total of 1,475 candidates, 296 are contesting the first phase — 172 in the Kashmir Valley and 124 in the Jammu region.

By-elections to 12,153 Panchayat constituencies also took place along with the DDC polls. Out of these, 11,814 are in the Kashmir Valley and the rest 339 in Jammu.

A total of 2,644 polling stations were set up and there were around 7 lakh electors for this phase — 3.72 lakh in Kashmir and 3.28 lakh in Jammu.

In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government had made special arrangements to ensure guidelines and standard operating procedures are adhered to.

Tight security arrangements were also made in and around the polling stations to ensure peaceful voting.

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