A terribly uncertain future stares generations of a 5,000-strong Dalit community residing in Jammu for more than 60 years now, thanks to Article 35A of the Constitution, even as the nation intensely debates the pros and cons of the controversial provision. They had been brought in from Punjab by the then state government, to save Jammu from an awkward situation, with the promise that they would be accorded the status of permanent residents of Jammu & Kashmir and given all the rights enjoyed by the people there.

Way back in 1957, the sweepers’ union in Jammu city went on an indefinite strike pressing for the fulfilment of their demands such as salary hike and regularisation of jobs. Sanitary work came to a standstill and the hygienic condition worsened in the winter capital of the state as the impasse between the state administration and the agitators went on for more than a month. The situation came to such a pass that the then state government, headed by the “Prime Minister” of J&K, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, decided to requisition sweepers from other states. The then Pratap Singh Kairon government in neighbouring Punjab was approached and negotiations were facilitated by the then J&K Health Secretary Dr Mody, originally a Punjabi himself.

As many as 272 sweeper families were shifted from Punjab and settled in colonies in Jammu city with the promise that they would be accorded the status of permanent residents of J&K and given all the rights enjoyed by the people there. Modifications were also made in the J&K Civil Services Rules to accommodate the families in the state. However, a clause was inserted in the rules that barred these sweepers from switching to any other profession.

Everything went well for the first generation of the community, as along with regular jobs, they were provided free housing, civic amenities, ration cards, schooling, etc. But when their families expanded and the new generation wanted to go for higher studies and build careers in different fields, they faced the daunting task of proving their domicile.

When they approached the authorities to get issued permanent resident certificates (PRCs) in their favour, their requests were summarily rejected on the basis of provisions such as Article 35A and  Section 6 of the J&K Constitution and the above-said clause in the State Service Rules. Many talented youngsters from the community are now facing an “existential crisis” as they simply do not know which place they belong to.

Radhika Gill’s is a case that speaks volumes about the harrowing experience her generation is going through because of the “fraud” committed on their forefathers and the “injustice” being inflicted upon them now by provisions like Article 35A. A top-ranking athlete from Jammu, 18-year-old Radhika has recently challenged the “Constitutional validity” of the provision in the Supreme Court.

Talking to The Sunday Guardian over phone, Radhika said she was determined to take her fight for the dignity and self-respect of her marginalised class to a logical end. “Let there be a debate whether this Article is good or bad. But for the people of our community, it’s a battle for the emancipation from the bondage of slavery,” thundered the young girl.

Radhika performed exceedingly well in the 14th state athletics meet held recently. She also qualified for all the tests of the Central forces during a recruitment rally in Jammu, but was denied a job as she could not produce a PRC. When she approached the authorities concerned, she was bluntly told that she was only eligible for the job of a sweeper as per the provisions of Article 35A.

She said she came to know about the discrimination and humiliation being meted out to her community only two years ago when the matter of domicile arose. “The authorities told me that we were eligible for getting only non-permanent resident certificates and we were eligible only for the job of sweepers in the state government sector,” Radhika told this correspondent.

Her co-petitioner Ekluvya is also facing a similar situation. After graduating, when he applied for a post-graduation course at the local university, he was asked to produce his domicile certificate. When he approached the authorities, they parroted the same reasons for not being able to issue one. Now, he is working as an office assistant in the Central University on contractual basis as even a Central agency cannot give him a permanent job there.

Ekluvya has a few valid questions to ask. “Should I go back to Punjab and ask the authorities to issue a domicile certificate now? If I manage to get one from there, I cannot come back here as they will not provide me with a job on the same grounds and I have to leave my parents to work somewhere outside Jammu and Kashmir. More importantly, why would the authorities in Punjab issue me their domicile when I have never stayed there and was not even born there? So, we have become ‘nowhere people’ now (hum ab kahinka nehi rahe).”

Speaking to this newspaper, Gharu Bhatti, who is the president of the Valmiki Samaj Trust there and also a co-petitioner in the case filed in the Supreme Court, lamented the fact that his third generation is facing utter slavery and explained how the future of the educated youth from his community was bleak. “This is precisely why we are forced to knock the door of the Supreme Court,” he explained.

Recounting the incidents during their initial days in Jammu, he said when they used to go around cleaning the city, they were being attacked by the local agitators. “We used to go out in groups of 10 or more and J&K Police used to escort us. When they were in need, they protected us. But the same people are now trying to suppress us,” he bemoaned.

Advocate Ravindra Kumar Raizada, the lawyer of the trio, told The Sunday Guardian that Article 35A was “draconian and inhuman” in nature as it negated the very basic rights of a citizen. He also dubbed Section 6 of the J&K Constitution as “racial” and said the petition sought the outright repeal of both. The matter will be taken up on 3 or 4 September by the court, he added.

As a country-wide debate rages over the very raison d’être of Article 35A, the Supreme Court has tentatively fixed 31 August for the next hearing of the set of petitions challenging the controversial provision that empowers the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution to define “permanent residents” of the state, provides special rights to them and bars outsiders from buying immovable property in the state.

During the last hearing on 5 August, the two-judge Bench of the Apex Court comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar ordered that the “matters be listed in the week commencing 27 August to test the preliminary arguments of the petitioner”. However, its official website on Friday put the pleas under miscellaneous category and not in the regular cause list. This means, knowledgeable sources told this newspaper, the case will mostly be taken up on 31 August.

A non-governmental organisation, We the Citizens, had filed a petition in the SC in 2014 to abolish the law on the grounds that it was “unconstitutional”. A number of other petitioners have since joined the organisation in its fight for scrapping the provision, social activist Ashwini Upadhyaya being the latest. His plea may be heard along with the main case or earlier as a supplementary, the sources added.

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