It was in this very month of 1990 that a group of militants fired into our home in a village of Bagat-i-Kanipora in Kashmir. We had till then braved threats of terrorists asking Kashmiri Pandits to leave, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When my family arrived in Jammu, the magnitude of our tragedy dawned on us. Kashmiri Pandits were living wherever they could find space, from ramshackle refugee camps to temple compounds, in extremely inhospitable conditions.
Twenty-six years later, the hope of returning home is alive, but so are the roadblocks. The people responsible for driving out Pandits are as powerful now as they were then. For the Pakistan-supported separatists, driving out Pandits was the first step towards creating ‘a Muslim state’. So it is only natural that they would oppose the return of Pandits. Though publicly almost all separatists—including the ones like JKLF, who were responsible for the majority of the Pandit killings—say Pandits are welcome, but not to “separate colonies”, it is a clever ploy to be seen as accommodative and yet ensure that not one Pandit could return. The common refrain is that Pandits should be settled where they lived before 1990, knowing well that these places do not exist anymore. Foot soldiers of separatists have in the last 25 years burnt almost 10,000 houses and encroached others, even as many Pandits have sold their properties as distress sales.
The separatists argue that “separate colonies” would bring demographic changes in the Valley and disturb the “time-tested ties of brotherhood”. It is a no-brainer that return of the Pandits, who are aborigines of the Valley, will alter the demography, whether they live in separate colonies or among the Muslim majority. The argument about disturbing the cultural mosaic is spurious not because there shouldn’t be brotherhood among communities but because those who are suddenly reminded of such glorious ideals were leading the mobs that threatened to rape Pandit women and kill the men.
Let’s look at what has been proposed. This government, like the previous ones, floats trial balloons to test the reaction of the mainstream and separatist groups to Pandits’ resettlement. First they announced a “separate colony”, then they said these would be “composite” where Pandits would live alongside Muslims. The moment it senses resistance, it immediately shelves the plan or tries to alter its nomenclature to make it look more acceptable to the separatists or the mainstream in the Valley.
The government, it seems, is only trying to create transit accommodations for Pandits who might be employed under the PM’s 2008 package, in which 6,000 Pandits were to be given jobs in the Valley. In eight years, only 1,614 have benefited. The existing transit accommodations, especially the prefabricated ones, are so bad that it would be better to improve them before making another “concentration camp”.
Much like the previous regimes, there is a huge gap between what the Pandits want and what the government believes they want. The issue of rehabilitation has to be treated differently from a populace which has been displaced by a natural calamity. Not one person has been convicted for killings of hundreds of Kashmiri Pandits. Most of the killers have been let off and are living happy lives. The question of justice has to be addressed alongside the question of rehabilitation, if not before it. There is near-unanimity among the Pandits that they want to be settled in a single enclave, which would be, to begin with, exclusively for Kashmiri Pandits.
The truth is, it is not just the separatists but many among the mainstream Kashmiri parties who do not want the Pandits to return. That is why there is little to choose between the two. Both are aware that Pandits can’t go back to their original residence, yet both will oppose the return to “separate colonies” by comparing them to Israel-style settlements in Palestine. There can’t be a greater lie because Kashmiri Pandits are the original inhabitants of the Valley, unlike Jews settled in Golan Heights or the Gaza Strip. But then the nature of Kashmir’s politics is such that even a nationalist party like BJP can do little when its ally puts down its foot on not allotting land for a Sainik Colony for jawans, who are bonafide state subjects.
rashneek kher Displaced Kashmiri Pandit activist and founder member of Roots in Kashmir
Though publicly almost all separatists say Pandits are welcome, but not to “separate colonies”, it is a ploy to be seen as accommodative and yet ensure that not one Pandit could return. The common refrain is that Pandits should be settled where they lived before 1990, knowing well that these places do not exist anymore.