24 April 2024 09:18 AM


Wajahat Habibullah | 17 APRIL, 2015

The Plight of Kashmiri Pandits Cannot be Resolved With Ghettoisation

Tears for a past gone by

NEW DELHI: The debate over the latest attempt of the Central and State governments to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir can only bring pain to any well wisher of Kashmir. The close of the ‘80s saw Kashmir spiral into a tailspin of violence, suspicion and dread. What had begun as an ethnic conflict was given a religious colour by Pakistan’s ISI. The Kashmiri Pandits, a minuscule minority of Hindus in Kashmir Valley, became targets of terrorists from both the JKLF-even though the party’s manifesto had sought to build on the original secular foundations of the National Conference- and the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, supporter of secession to Pakistan, sparking massive emigration. By 2008, the Pandit population in the Valley, assessed by their Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) as having numbered 75,343 families on 1 January 1990, was reduced to but 651 families. Nearly seventy thousand families had fled in the turmoil of 1990–92. But the bulk of the emigration thereafter—over three thousand families—left when violence had been brought increasingly under control.

By early 1990, when I was Special Commissioner Anantnag, in South Kashmir, the public had ceased visiting government offices. But in early March, a crowd of several hundred from Nai Basti neighbourhood gathered before the Special Commissioner’s office in Khannabal demanding to see me. I had set up office (and residence, due to the disturbed circumstances) in the rest house in the district headquarters. Mohammad Syed Shah, generally known as Syed Shah, brother of separatist leader Shabir Shah and MUF member of the dissolved State Assembly, demanded to know why Pandits were leaving and why the administration was doing nothing to stop the exodus. Shah accused the administration in all seriousness, 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 they believed that I, a Muslim like them, would actually be party to such a plan, their response was that I had been kept in the dark and that they were privy to ‘secret’ information. I told them quite clearly that it was hardly surprising that Pandits were apprehensive. Places of worship of the majority were continually used to blare strident threats to them over loudspeakers—as every mosque in Anantnag, where I could hear them, was being used at the time—and prominent members of their community had been murdered. (I learned 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. The administration would readily provide security whenever a threat to the Pandits was anticipated, but its effectiveness would be doubtful without public support, given that the residences of the Pandits were scattered. The gathering concurred and dispersed quietly.

I did request Governor Jagmohan that he telecast an appeal to Pandits that they stay in Kashmir, assuring their safety on the basis of the assurance of the Anantnag residents. Unfortunately, no such appeal came, only an announcement that to ensure the security of Pandits, ‘refugee’ camps were being set up in every district of the Valley, and Pandits who felt threatened could move to these camps rather than leave the Valley. Those Pandits in service who felt threatened were free to leave their stations; they would continue to be paid salary.. I relate this tale because the present flurry of allegations carries a strange déjà vu.

The Pandit community, which numbered more than 1, 20,000 at the opening of the 1980s, was by 2005 reduced to a tiny minority of about 7,000 in the Kashmir Valley, whence the community sprang. There has been much talk of the return of Kashmiri ‘migrants’ to their homes in the Valley since the elected government took office in the state in 1996. Leaders of the separatist movement, such as Mirwaiz Omar Farooq and Shabir Shah repeatedly called for the return of Kashmiri migrants. But every time the issue was raised at the national level, Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley were subjected to attack, even massacre, causing the issue to be dropped. Talk of the migrants’ return was then and continues to be pointless unless those living in the Valley are made physically and economically secure. By 2003 the community was scattered in 270 neighbourhoods in towns and villages of the Valley. They summoned the courage to form an NGO, the Hindu Welfare Society, which attempted to document information regarding the location and requirements of the community. This society successfully discouraged the exodus of Pandits from the Valley after the massacre of twenty three innocent Pandits in the village of Nadimarg earlier that year. A similar massacre in the village of Wandhama in 1998 had resulted in the emigration of 10,000 Pandits. The demands of the Valley’s Pandits at the time were simple: residence in a secure locality and jobs for 500 men and women. They did not complain of hostility from the Muslim public—in fact, they were grateful for Muslim support, the principal, and perhaps only, reason for their continued determination to stay, apart from the need to earn a living. But they complained about the indifference of government officials. Although the chief secretary of the state in 2005-2006, Vijay Bakaya, himself a Pandit, was willing to lend them a patient ear, the state administration remained unresponsive.

On a visit to Srinagar on 21 June 2008 I met. three large groups of Kashmiri Pandits who had stayed in the Valley, two of whom belonged to two groups of the Hindu Welfare Society, Kashmir, Society which had by this time splintered and the third from the KPSS. I had asked for the meeting to urge that instead of allowing themselves to pursue separate road maps, they come together to place their requirements before government. Although there had indeed been progress in the open exercise of their traditions like the restoration and normality of the annual Janmashtami procession, real difficulties persisted on material issues.

There was an interim census report prepared by the KPSS, financed by members of the KP Diaspora, covering sixty-two mohallas of Anantnag, Bandipore, Baramulla, Budgam, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Kupwara, Pulwama, Shopian and Srinagar. There was also a consolidated survey of land attempted by the KPSS. The conclusions arrived at—although subject to re-verification—were alarming. According to these the number of KPs residing in the Valley was reduced to merely 3,000. And although there was some record of buildings occupied by the security forces—mainly houses for which owners were receiving rent— there was then no consolidated record of land and property of this group, which was of justiciable ‘munsif’ quality. There was, besides, no record of the properties attached to temples, those encroached upon and those leased out, or under occupation. Different groups had different figures of unemployed youths. Their employment was an issue of the gravest common concern to the community. They had on another occasion, spoken of children bitterly castigating parents for having stayed back in Kashmir where they were left begging for a livelihood. Sadly, I learned that there were about 150 families in outlying areas reduced to destitution that lived on charity These numbers were not an unduly cumbersome figure for potential employment in the state services in the Valley. In fact, I received a final list of only 200 young men and women from the Hindu Welfare Society in April 2010.

And the situation today? In answer to a recent Parliament question Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju stated that a comprehensive package worth Rs 1,618.40 cr. was announced by the Centre in 2008 for return and rehabilitation of migrant Kashmiri families through grant of financial assistance for purchase or construction of houses, renovation of damaged or dilapidated houses, construction of transit accommodation, continuation of cash relief and employment, among others. "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," Rijiju said in a written reply.

Further, as many as 1,474 state government jobs had been provided to newly appointed migrant youths who have been kept in newly constructed 1,010 transit accommodations in south, east and north Kashmir. In reply to another question, he said that at present 60,452 families of Kashmiri migrants were registered in the country out of which 38,119 were in Jammu, 19,338 in Delhi and 1,995 families in other states. Migrants mainly comprised Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs.

This then is the culmination of the Prime Minister's successive packages for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, announced in 2004 and 2008, which, through the issue of ID cards had given the migrants much needed recognition. In the first of these 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. Located some distance from the town, Sheikhpora was not a success, and Mufti Saeed acknowledged as much in his last tenure as CM, when he announced that there will be no communally exclusive townships. In terms of their resettlement, it requires no imagination to realise that apart from the danger of ghettoisation that would result from separate townships, it would render the Pandit community vulnerable, given its history of assault and complaint of administrative indifference since the ‘90s. But the present initiative, while building on the previous, seems to have been arrived at without consultation with the community, a course that could readily have been undertaken in this age of information technology.

Even in the highly unlikely event of the Pandits resolving to return en masse to Kashmir, the numbers disclosed by Rijiju would scarcely overwhelm the valley. Besides, what would such returnees do? The beauty of Kashmir is a powerful allure to any visitor. But what of earning a livelihood? As Chairman National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, I visited Jammu in 2012, to request migrant teachers and staff to return to Srinagar, where the NIT had been headed by a Pandit, All of them refused to forgo their lives built in Jammu.

The answer then must lie in going much further. What I had advised my Kashmiri interlocutors from Nai Basti, Anantnag in 1990 still stands. The ground situation in the valley may not reflect a threat to returning KPs. But it is the responsibility of Kashmiris within the Valley to reassure those returning of their welcome, instead of contumacious quibbling, which will only raise misgivings in an already tremulous community.

There has been a long standing demand for a Minorities Commission in J&K along the lines of the National Commission for Minorities, supported by at least two past Chairpersons of the NCM, including myself. The State government has expressed sympathy but little else. But this alone will not encourage return of migrants settled elsewhere. The State must be opened up to FDI accompanied with the development of the much talked of smart cities, which can be the new townships. This will encourage young Kashmiris, Pandit, Muslim Sikh or Christian, many of whom have achieved excellence in their chosen technologies, to invest and return to settle in Kashmir, providing livelihood and living space to others. As peace returns increasingly to Kashmir, is it not time that it joins the rest of the country in marching ahead in bringing the economic revolution that all Indians look forward to?

(Wajahat Habibullah has served in Jammu and Kashmir. He was also Chief Information Commissioner and more recently as Chairman of the Minorities Commission, The views expressed in the article are his own)