'Kashmiri Pandits Remain Homeless'
9 December 2006
The Times of India
Mumbai: On the occasion of the World Human Rights Day today, it's utter embarrassment to India and human rights groups that the issue of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits of Jammu & Kashmir has not yet been resolved. It's unfortunate that the issue is not regarded as rights violation but rather, has been pushed to the realm of Hindu-Muslim subject, as pointed out by some rights watchers. Interactions with intellectuals and activists reveal that in actual fact neither the government nor the social organisations are sincerely trying to restore the dignity of the Pandits who are living as refugees in their own country. Mumbai-based- Kashmiri filmmaker Ashok Pandit, who made the film Sheen on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and Hindus rendered homeless by the insurgents, blames politicians and NGOs for turning a convenient blind eye to the problem. 'We do not constitute the vote bank, and so the political leaders will not bother about us. As for the activists, for them it's not 'fashionable' to talk about the Pandits. Such issues do not provide them tickets to the Rajya Sabha. But raising issues like Sikh and Gujarat riots is seen as a matter of mass interest.' Pandit is appalled when he hears the Members of Parliament debating on saving Md. Afzal (convicted for attack on Parliament) from the gallows and instead demanding a life- sentence for him. On the impact of terrorism on human rights, Pandit who is actively involved with Panun Kashmir and Roots in Kashmir fighting for the legitimate rights of the displaced say, 'I fear for Mumbai and Goa. I see a situation here, very similar to what I saw 20 years ago in Kashmir. These two cities will also experience an exodus the way it happened in the valley because of terrorism.' Drawing parallels between the plight of Kosovo refugees and the Kashmiri Pandits, Yogesh Kamdar, national vice president of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says, 'In the 1999 Kosovo conflict, roughly a million ethnic Albanians were displaced from their homeland. In 1989, total number of Kashmiri Pandits displaced from the state was over 300,000. But the Kosovo conflict was readily taken up by the UN and today efforts are being made for a permanent solution to the problem. But, neither our government nor the international community has seriously done anything about the Pandits, who live as refugees in their own homelands.' 'PUCL has not taken up the Pandits issue as forcefully as it should have,' admits Kamdar. He agrees with Ashok that most organisations have not raised the Pandits issue aggressively and consistently because it's 'politically incorrect.' According Kamdar, a terrorist has zero tolerance. In fact, intolerance is the beginning of the end of human rights. Hence, terrorism is the biggest threat to human rights in this age. Dr Asgar Ali Engineer of Centre for Study of Society and Secularism denies not having raised the issue of the Kashmiri Pandit. 'I have full sympathy with the Pandits and even raised their issue several times in my conversations with leaders in Kashmir. In fact, once I asked Syed Ali Shah Geelani (the separatist leader) that why did he never mention the Pandits in his talks, as they too were a part of 'Kashmiriyat' like any Kashmiri Muslim. Geelani had answered that the condition in the Valley was such that nobody was safe. He told me that he himself did not have the confidence whether his life would be spared. In this scenario how could he promise the safety of the Pandits whom militants had threatened with dire consequences.' Dr Engineer, instead, questions the Hindutva forces, 'What did the BJP government that talks about Hindutva do for the Pandits?' Dr Engineer said that the present Congress-PDP government built a separate colony for the Kashmiri Hindus to return and start living there. 'But no one can give a fool proof guarantee of saving lives,' utters the elderly activist. Another reason for the sorry state of the Pandits is that their own community failed to stand up for them. There are organisations like Panun Kashmir and Roots in Kashmir taking up the pandits issues. But observers feel that they lack the punch. And their success, like in the Priyadarshini Mattoo case, can only be termed as sporadic. Moreover, Pandits have moved on in life and prospered. They have either migrated abroad or are working at top posts in multi-national organisations. According to Dr Engineer, the ones remaining in the refugee camps are around 5000. But sources say that the figure is far more than this. About 200,000 Pandits and Hindus still live in the Valley, according to Dr Engineer. And there is an air of camaraderie with their Muslim neighbours. There is no malice among them. They live in peace and harmony. But terrorism is the blight. And the army and para military forces also indulge in human rights violations. 'That's because they believe that they are there to control a bad situation. And when they try to do that, excesses are bound to happen. One can't forget the US soldiers torturing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Kashmir problem can only be solved by political processes,' opines Dr Engineer. Ritu, the author of 'The Green Of The Valley Is Khaki' gives an emotive and vivid account of her experiences, recorded from her interactions with the ordinary citizens in the Valley. About the role of Army, she says, 'Army is slightly more disciplined and so the Kashmiris, at certain points and on certain issues, are not anti- army.' She says that even today the Muslim friends of the Pandits go to the refugee camps on occasions like Rakhi, stay with them in the camps, celebrate and return to the valley quietly. Gandhiji had once said that Kashmir was a shining example of Hindu-Muslim harmony because the state had not witnessed a single communal riot since 1947, barring the Chattisinghpura massacre in 2000 where 36 Sikhs were brutally murdered, in their own village, by terrorists.. In 2000, Ritu wrote a book called Demystifying Kashmir, which compiled a 25 years study, showing how tourism and horticulture had been adversely affected in the state. In 1989 all Hindus were forced to flee from the state due to 'ethnic cleansing' carried out by Muslim militant organisations. Experts say that it was not just the militants but even the government that wanted to see Hindus leave the valley. They wanted to keep the issue alive by plunging the valley in a state of perpetual turmoil. Since then the Pandits have lived in squalid camps with accelerated economic and health problems. And it's not that the people living in the valley are safe either. Reportedly - according to a government assessment - in the year 2000, 31,000 civilians were killed due to insurgency. Human rights groups and NGOs put the total figure at more than 84,000 in 2005. Sources say that though there is no immediate sign of providing succour to the Pandits, unofficial efforts are being made at local levels to broker peace in the Valley. The Pandits can take a leaf out of the Sikh community's book who did not leave the Valley despite the Chattisnghpura killings. It appears the Pandits will have to help themselves before others can garner enough resources and support to help them.