Return Of The Natives To Kashmir

13 April 2015

New Delhi: The truth of the injustice done to Kashmiri pandits lies buried between political grandstanding and insincere protests. It is unfortunate that when it comes to the cause of reversing this injustice, attention seldom seems to waver from these extremes. Twenty-five years after the exodus of Kashmiri pandits from their homeland, a plan for their return has run into the rough weather of separatist politics. On 7 April, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed met home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi. Singh asked Sayeed to 'provide land in the state for composite townships for Kashmiri Pandits'. Sayeed 'assured the Union home minister that the state government will acquire and provide land at the earliest...' No sooner had these words been uttered in Delhi that protests, led by separatists such as Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik, broke out in Kashmir valley. These separatists claimed that Israeli-type settlements were being planned in Kashmir. Back in Srinagar, Sayeed had to publicly back away from plans for separate townships for Kashmiri pandits. This is a sad commentary on the politics of a state where everyone, from separatists down to the most patriotic politician, publicly praises the so-called composite culture of the state, but at the mere mention of the idea of bringing pandits back, all the worthies unite to oppose it. Take, for example, what Malik said. Professing that Kashmiri pandits have as much right to live in the state as Kashmiri Muslims, Malik has branded the plan for townships a conspiracy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to spread hatred. Irony, it seems, is the flavour of politics in J&K. 'Since elections, the BJP via RSS has been talking about setting up a satellite colony for our pandit brothers. The pandits have as much rights on Kashmir as I have. In India everyone talks about composite culture; that means people of different cultures should live together. But a separate colony on the basis of religion will only build walls of hate, like in Israel,' Malik told the media. There could be nothing more disingenuous. Around 300,000 pandits fled from the valley in 1990. At that time, no steps were taken to make them feel welcome or wanted; they were given the choice to leave the state or perish. Twenty-five years later, calling them brethren and asking them to return to those very areas from which they were hounded out, minus security, is facile. This paper has argued in the past that while there is 'all round lip service on what happened to the pandits from Kashmir, (there is) little systematic effort to get them back to their historic homeland.' ( Any scheme for their return needs to have two components. One, security of life and property must be assured to all those who return. As a rule, this is true not only for pandits but for all peoples who have been driven away from their homelands. If matters were normal in Kashmir, there would be no need for this. The community in which one lives is a big source of security. In Kashmir that feeling of community, the so-called Kashmiriyat, is more a myth than reality. Creation of community feeling requires that pandits live together, but the idea of separate townships cannot be considered without dwelling on its security implications. Two, townships in the absence of livelihood opportunities are meaningless. The pandits had an ecosystem in which they lived in Kashmir, one that included jobs. That does not exist now. Recreating that environment will be a very tough challenge. Over the decades, pandits have moved to different parts of the country and have rebuilt their broken lives. Building new towns is easy, building lives is not. Those who should have a decisive say over the issue of rehabilitation should be the pandits who were displaced. While separate townships may not be a barrier to unity and intermingling of cultures, pandits will, and should, have concerns about their safety. Housing all Kashmiri pandits in separate townships will have its own difficulties. There will be security challenges. Some problems can be foreseen, but there might be other, unanticipated ones. The government needs to consider these. All this is not to say that the plan of rehabilitating Kashmiri pandits is not welcome. The community has a right to go back to its state and live peacefully without feeling threatened. In the long run, this problem can only be solved if the virus of separatism is eliminated. That needs political, economic and cultural policies very different from the ones that are being pursued now. This is only possible with strong central and state governments that go beyond spouting platitudes and create sustainable living conditions for the pandits' safe return.