Return to a lost paradise?

Thu 16 Apr 2015

The debate over the moves by the Central and the Jammu and Kashmir governments to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir is one that will only bring pain to any well-wisher of the State. To understand this, one has to go back in time, when the second half of the 1980s saw Kashmir spiral out of control, gripped by violence, suspicion and dread. What had begun as an ethnic conflict was soon imparted a religious colour by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Pandits, a Hindu minority in the Kashmir Valley, were targeted by the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), even though the organisation had sought to build on the original secular foundations of the National Conference, and by the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, a secessionist outfit, which sparked their exodus. By 2008, their population, as assessed by the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), was reduced to 651 families from 75,343 families on January 1, 1990. Nearly 70,000 families fled in the turmoil of 1990-92, and even though the violence was brought under control, most of the remaining families left thereafter.

Years of turmoil

By 1990 — I was Special Commissioner, Anantnag, in South Kashmir then — the public had ceased to visit government offices. But in early March, several hundred people from the Nai Basti neighbourhood went to the Special Commissioner’s office in Khannabal demanding to see me. Because of the disturbed circumstances, I had set up office and residence in the rest house in the district headquarters. Mohammad Syed Shah, generally known as Syed Shah, the brother of the separatist leader, Shabbir Shah, and Muslim United Front (MUF) member of the dissolved State Assembly, demanded to know why Pandits were leaving en masse and in turn why the administration was doing nothing about it. Mr. Shah accused the administration of encouraging the migration so that the Army would be left free to unleash its heavy artillery on all habitations.

When I asked the delegation if it believed that I would be party to such a plan, this was their response: ‘I had been kept in the dark, while they were privy to “secret” information’.

That the Pandits were apprehensive was hardly surprising, I said. Places of worship, like the one in Anantnag, where the majority went, were being used to issue threats to them over loudspeakers. I learnt later that these inflammatory sermons, and their reverberating public applause, were audio recordings circulated to mosques to be played over loudspeakers at prayer time. Local Muslims needed to reassure the Pandits of their safety, I said. The administration would provide security whenever a threat to the Pandits was anticipated, but how effective it would all be would depend on unstinted public support, given that the residences of the Pandits were scattered. The gathering concurred and dispersed.

I requested State Governor Jagmohan that he appeal to the Pandits, in a telecast, that they stay on in Kashmir, and assure them of their safety on the basis of the assurances of the Anantnag residents. Unfortunately, the only announcement to this effect was that “refugee” camps were being set up in every district, and Pandits who felt threatened could move to them rather than leave the Valley. Pandits in service who felt threatened were free to leave their stations; they would continue to be paid their salaries. I relate this story because the present flurry of allegations brings a sense of déjà vu. The Pandits — more than 1,20,000 in the early 1980s — numbered about 7,000 in the Kashmir Valley, in 2005.

Talk of a return

There has been much talk of the return of Kashmiri “migrants” to their homes in the Valley ever since an elected government took office in the State in 1996. The separatist leaders, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Shabbir Shah, have repeatedly asked the Kashmiri migrants to return. But every time the issue would be raised at the national level, Pandits in the Valley would be attacked brutally and the issue would be put on the back burner.

Any talk, therefore, of their return will continue to be pointless unless those living in the Valley are secure, physically and economically. By 2003, the Pandits were scattered across 270 neighbourhoods in towns and villages. They soon formed a non-governmental organisation, the Hindu Welfare Society, which attempted to document the locations and requirements of their brethren. This body managed to stop another exodus after 23 Pandits were killed in Nadimarg village in early 2003. At the time, the demands of the Valley Pandits were simple: a house in a secure locality and jobs for 500 men and women. They were grateful for Muslim support and the main reason for their staying back was also the need to pursue a livelihood. Their only complaint: official apathy to their plight. Although the State Chief Secretary in 2005-2006, Vijay Bakaya, also a Pandit, was willing to lend them a ear, the State administration remained unresponsive.

Data and reality

On June 21, 2008, on a visit to Srinagar, I met three large groups of Pandits who had stayed on in the Valley; two were from two groups of the Hindu Welfare Society, Kashmir (which had split by this time), and the third, from the KPSS. I had called for the meeting to urge them to come together to place their requirements before the government rather than pursue separate road maps.

I was presented an interim census report by the KPSS, and financed by members of the Pandit diaspora, covering 62 mohallas of Anantnag, Bandipore, Baramulla, Budgam, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Kupwara, Pulwama, Shopian and Srinagar, as well as a consolidated survey of land. The conclusions, although subject to reverification, were alarming. The number of Pandits in the Valley was just 3,000. While there was some record of buildings having been occupied by the security forces — houses for which the owners were receiving rent — there was no consolidated record of land and property of this group, which was of justiciable “ munsif’ quality. There was no record of the properties attached to temples, those encroached upon, those leased out, or under occupation. The groups came up with varying data on unemployed youth, as their job prospects was a primary concern. On another occasion, they had spoken of children castigating parents for having stayed back in Kashmir. Sadly, I learnt that there were about 150 families in the outlying areas who faced penury. However, these numbers were not an unduly cumbersome figure as far as their employment potential in the State services in the Valley was concerned. I received a final list, of 200 young men and women, from the Hindu Welfare Society in April 2010.

Let’s get back to the present. In a reply to a question asked recently in Parliament, the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that the Centre had announced a package of Rs.1,618.40 crore in 2008 for the return and rehabilitation of migrant Kashmiri families, which included a grant for the purchase or construction of houses, renovation of damaged or dilapidated houses, construction of transit accommodation, and cash relief and employment. “The package is being implemented by the Jammu and Kashmir government and till now, one family has returned to the valley availing the benefit of Rs.7.5 lakh for construction of house,” Mr. Rijiju had said in a written reply.

Further, as many as 1,474 State government jobs had been provided to newly appointed migrant youths who stayed in newly constructed 1,010 transit accommodations in south, east and north Kashmir.

Central package

In reply to another question, Mr. Rijiju said that at present, 60,452 families of Kashmiri migrants were registered in the country, of whom 38,119 were in Jammu, 19,338 in Delhi and 1,995 families in other States. Migrants mainly comprised Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs.

This is the culmination of the Prime Minister’s successive packages for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, announced in 2004 and 2008. Along with ID cards being given to the migrants, these steps have brought them much needed recognition. In the first of these packages, 5,242 two-room tenements were constructed in Jammu, and 200 at Sheikhpora in Budgam district of the Valley. Of these 200 flats, initially constructed for migrants from the Valley, 31 have been allotted to local migrants within the Valley, including Pandits. But it didn’t meet with success as Sheikhpora is not near the town.

This was acknowledged by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in his last tenure as Chief Minister, when he said that there would no longer be communally exclusive townships. It doesn’t require much imagination to realise that apart from the danger of ghettoisation, such a step would render the Pandit community vulnerable. But the present initiative, while building on the earlier ones, seems to have been arrived at without consultation with the community.

Even in the unlikely event of the Pandits resolving to return, the numbers provided by Mr. Rijiju would scarcely overwhelm the Valley. However, what would those returning do? What does one do to earn a living? In 2012, as Chairman, National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, I had visited Jammu to request migrant teachers and staff to return to Srinagar, where the NIT had been headed by a Pandit. All of them rejected the idea.

Looking ahead

The answer lies in going much further. What I told my Kashmiri interlocutors from Nai Basti, Anantnag, in 1990, still holds true. The ground situation in the Valley may not reflect a threat to returning Pandits, but it is the responsibility of Kashmiris within the Valley to reassure those returning of their welcome. There can be no quibbling over this.

There has been a long-standing demand for a Minorities Commission in the State along the lines of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), and supported by at least two past Chairpersons of the NCM, including myself. The State government has been receptive but little has been done. This alone will not encourage the return of migrants.

In the long term, a meaningful plan for the State must include foreign direct investment and development in the form of the much-talked about smart cities, which can be the new townships. This will encourage young Kashmiris, many of whom have achieved excellence in their chosen fields, to invest and think of a new life in Kashmir, providing livelihoods and living space to others.

As peace returns in large measure to Kashmir, is it not time that it joins the rest of the country in marching ahead and in ushering in the economic revolution that all Indians look forward to?

(Wajahat Habibullah is the author of My Kashmir: The Dying of the Light. )


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