While the rest of the world was celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day in March, a process of disempowering women was initiated in Jammu & Kashmir with the introduction of the J&K Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2010. Introduced as a private member’s bill, it laid down that a woman who marries outside the state would lose the status of permanent resident (PR) — including the right to hold property, 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) said that a female PR acquires the status of her husband and ceases to be a permanent resident on marrying someone who is not a PR of the state. The bill was later dropped, but not because of the unacceptable position it embodied. It was dropped on ‘technical’ grounds because a bill which required a constitutional amendment could not be introduced in the upper house.
This was not a ‘freak’ bill introduced by an ‘odd’ member. It has a certain politics and a history behind it. The PR status follows the state’s notification of 1927 and 1932 that classified the residents of the state in various categories and provided them with special rights. However, this notification did not make a distinction between men and women. Through some administrative fiat, however, a practice was started of stamping the legend “Valid till marriage” on the PR certificates issued to women. As a consequence, a woman had to procure an altogether new certificate after her marriage. In case she married outside the state, she automatically lost that status.
In 2004, the state high court, in the case of State of J&K vs Sheela Sawhney, declared that there was no provision in the existing law dealing with the status of a female PR who married a non-resident. The provision of women losing their PR status after marrying outside the state, therefore, did not have any legal basis. This decision was historic because it corrected an administrative anomaly and brought relief to women who married outside the state.
However, the PDP-led government sought to undo the relief given by the high court by introducing the ‘Permanent Residents (Disqualification) Bill, 2004’, which clearly laid down that a woman marrying outside the state would lose her PR status. 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. But it could not ultimately be passed.
It was a similar kind of bill that was sought to be passed in March, 2010. As in 2004, the logic put forth was that it was needed to preserve the Kashmiri identity from exterior sources. The right of women to marry outside the state and retain their status of PR was seen as going against the ‘autonomy’ and ‘special status’ of the state. There is an ongoing campaign claiming that such a right given to women would ultimately lead to demographic change in the state.
The whole debate smacks of a patriarchal mindset. If demographic change is the issue, then it is men rather than women who need to be debarred from marrying outside the state because unlike women, who exit the state and cannot pass on this right to their husbands or children, the men can.
There are many in Kashmir who genuinely believe that the bill is needed in order to buttress the larger political cause for which Kashmiris are fighting and who believe that raising the issue of the women’s rights is an unnecessary diversion that could fragment the movement. There are also many who argue that 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 there could be full empowerment of the Kashmiri ‘people’ without the empowerment of women? Isn’t the empowerment of Kashmiri women very much a part of the ‘greater cause’ of Kashmiri empowerment?
The bill has been dropped for the moment. But in the absence of a women’s movement in the state and given, in particular, 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.