Jammu (WFS) -- While the rest of the world was celebrating the 100th year of Women’s Day on March 8, 2010, a process disempower the women in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was underway with the introduction of the J&K Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2010.

Introduced as a Private Member Bill, it laid down that a woman who marries outside the state would lose the permanent resident status. By implication, such a woman would also lose the privileges associated with the status -- holding property in the state, securing jobs in state services, voting for the Legislative Assembly, or contesting elections.

While introducing the Bill, Murtaza Khan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), stated that a female permanent resident acquires the status of her husband and ceases to be one on her marriage to a person outside of the state. The Bill was later dropped, but not because of the unacceptable position it embodied. It was dropped on ‘technical’ grounds since it required an amendment to the Constitution which could not be introduced in the Upper House of the Legislature.

Not just a ‘freak’ bill

It is important to note that this was not a 'freak' Bill introduced just by an 'odd' member. It has a certain politics and a history. The permanent resident status follows the state notification of 1927 and 1932 that classified the residents of the state in various categories and provided them with special rights. However, this notification nowhere made a distinction between men and women. Through some administrative fiat, however, a practice of stamping “'valid till marriage” on the permanent resident certificate issued to women began. As a consequence, after marriage, women had to procure a new certificate of being a permanent resident. In case they married outside the state, they automatically lost that status.

Historic HC ruling

In 2004, in the case of ‘State of J&K versus Sheela Sawhney’, the high court declared that there was no provision in the existing law dealing with the status of a female permanent resident who marries a non-resident person. The provision of women losing their status of permanent resident after marrying outside the state, therefore, did not have any legal basis. This decision was declared historic as it corrected an administrative anomaly and brought relief to women who married outside the state.

But there are women in the state who decry this hierarchical ordering of rights. They argue that Kashmiri identity is inclusive and a woman is as much a part of this identity as a man is.

 •  Storm in the vale

However, the PDP-led government sought to undo the relief given by the High Court by introducing the ‘Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2004’. The PDP’s viewpoint was revealed in a statement given by Muzaffar Beg, who was the law minister at that time. He argued that it was “universally accepted that the woman follows the domicile of her husband”. The Bill was supported by the National Conference and was passed in the Lower House of the State Legislature. Ultimately, it could not be passed.

‘Kashmiri identity’

In March 2010 too, the logic put forth in defense of the resurrected Bill was that it was necessitated to preserve the ‘Kashmiri identity’ facing an onslaught from exterior sources. It saw the right of women to marry outside the state while retaining their permanent resident status going against the ‘autonomy’ and ‘special status’. There is an ongoing campaign that maintains that such a right given to women would ultimately lead to demographic change in the state.

The issue, as it has been raised so far, by implication at least, seeks to pit the equal rights and dignity of women against the ‘Kashmiri identity’. The whole debate smacks of a patriarchal mindset. If demographic change is the issue, then it is men, not women, who need to be debarred from marrying outside the state. Women who exit the state cannot pass on this right to be a permanent resident to their husbands or children, but men can. In any case, Kashmiri identity is defined in an exclusive manner that automatically places women at a disadvantageous position as they are required to subordinate their rights to the larger Kashmiri identity.

Women’s rights, an ‘unnecessary diversion’

There are many in Kashmir who genuinely believe that the Bill is needed to buttress the larger political cause for which Kashmiris have been fighting. They believe that raising the issue of the rights of women amounts to “an unnecessary diversion” that could fragment the movement. There are also many who argue that while women are entitled to equal rights and their claim is legitimate, they should postpone demanding these rights for the sake of the movement. In other words, Kashmiri identity would have to be redeemed before women can be granted equal rights.

But there are women in the state who decry this hierarchical ordering of rights. They argue that Kashmiri identity is inclusive and a woman is as much a part of this identity as a man is. When the Bill came up this time, they questioned its patriarchal bias which renders women as secondary members in society. They demanded to know how could there be empowerment of the Kashmiri ‘people’ without the empowerment of women.

And, most importantly, how can the Kashmiris as ‘people in movement’ negate the issues raised by the women’s movements and deny women their rights. Isn’t the empowerment of Kashmiri women very much part of the ‘greater cause’ of ‘empowerment of Kashmiris’? Although their arguments are forceful, the voices of these women have been drowned out by the passions aroused on the issue of Kashmiri identity.

The Bill has been dropped for the moment. But in the absence of a women’s movement in the state and given, in particular, the gender insensitivity within the political class, politicians in search of emotive issues can at any point rally once again around this biased and retrograde Bill.