Time Is Running Out: Pandits Must Return To Kashmir Valley Now - Not Later

10 April 2015
R. Jagannathan

New Delhi: The issue of the return of the Pandits to Kashmir Valley more than 25 years after their ethnic cleansing by rabid fundamentalists has moved centrestage, with both Centre and state making positive noises about it.Actually, there is no time like the present for a return of the Pandits to their homeland, with a PDP-BJP government in place that represents both Muslims and Hindus. But the window of opportunity is narrow. Twenty-five years is a long time in exile. One generation - possibly one-and-a-half - has come into being, and possibly has no sentimental links to the Kashmir Valley that was their parents' home. So, if justice is not done now, it may never be done at all. Wait another decade, and there will be no older generation Pandit left to rehabilitate. This may be what Pakistan wants, and what the separatists may also not mind, but that is precisely why the Modi government should push ahead immediately with their rehabilitation on the basis of a workable compromise. Delay suits no one but the Pakistanis and the ISI. Representational image. AFP image Representational image. AFP image As things stand, despite the fact that no Kashmiri group opposes the return of the Pandits to the valley, consensus breaks down on the question of how: should they be invited back to live in (or near) their old homes with their Muslim neighbours, or in hermetically sealed clusters. No party actually wants a Pandits-only cluster - and with good reason. A purely Hindu enclave in a largely Muslim valley is like an open invitation to jihadi targeting even while reducing the Pandits to a ghetto-like existence estranged from their old neighbours. It is not worth returning to a communally-polarised Kashmir. The purpose of the Pandits' return should, apart from doing them justice, should be to make the valley secular again. This can't happen without the Pandits. It is interesting that all Kashmir-based parties made references to Israel and Palestine when opposing the Pandit cluster idea. The problem though is in their understanding of where the parallels lie. The Israelis have built settlements in Palestinian areas, and most separatists see this as the situation they want to avoid. They don't want Pandit settlements in their land. But the real point is this: the Pandits are the Palestinians of Kashmir Valley. They are the ones on whose land fundamentalist forces encroached and drove them out. It is the Muslims of the Valley who need to see themselves as aggressive Israelis in this case. It is worthwhile analysing the various players and what they may really want in this situation. One, Pakistan and the ISI would not want the Pandits to return for the simple reason that the secular character of Kashmir will work against their ideology of religion-based national identity The fewer the Pandits in the Valley, the more it is possible to paint India as an occuptation force in Kashmir. Also, the ISI can hope to prise a portion of Kashmir away from India only if it can maintain a constant insurgency there. So they will do everything to prevent the Pandits from returning. Two, the pro-Pakistani separatists, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who wants Kashmir to be an Islamic state, are the elements to watch. Their gameplan is similar to Pakistan's even though they want the Pandits to live like intimidated minorities among them - like Hindus in Pakistan. They would prefer the Pandits to live as Koranic 'dhimmies' (protected minorities in an Islamic state and, effectively, second class citizens), but without having to pay 'jiziya'. Three, the mainstream political parties want the Pandits to return and live in their old homes, but beyond opposing ghettoes they are not clear how they will actually facilitate the return of the Pandits in peace and amity. The mainstream parties - essentially National Conference and PDP - live in fear of both the separatists and Pakistan, and do not have the gumption to provide an acceptable solution to the Pandits. Or else they would have come up with ideas of their own by now. Four, the BJP wants the Pandit vote and will not mind having a Hindu cluster in the Valley. But with the party now in alliance with the PDP in a coalition government, it may accept the idea of mixed Pandit-Muslim clusters. The BJP's actual position is confused and still evolving. Five, the Pandit-based political outfits like Panun Kashmir would like an autonomous Hindu enclave - which is not going to happen. Ordinary Pandits are not sure they want to live like prisoners in a Hindu ghetto. Is there a compromise possible? The way ahead could lie in developing Pandit-based clusters right in the places where they lived earlier - next to their Muslim neighbours - with Muslims also being allowed to take up flats or residence in these hybrid clusters. Young Muslims moving out of ancestral homes nearby may like this option, but how this is to be done should be an individual choice. Unobtrusive security will be critical in the initial phases of this resettlement, and this security will have to come from the local police and residents themselves, with the army or CRPF providing only covert support from a distance. A political understanding between all Kashmir-baed parties - both mainstream and separatist - guaranteeing the safety of the Pandits is vital. If the separatists don't play ball on this, the idea won't fly - and they will stand exposed as nothing more than rank communalists. But one objective must be clear to everybody: the return of the Pandits, in separate or mixed enclaves, is non-negotiable, never mind what Pakistan wants. The only issue on the table is how, and with what assurances and compromises, this should be done. This ethnic cleansing has to be reversed at any cost. The time to deliver a modicum of justice to the Pandits is now.