July 2016 News

Why Sainik, Pandit Colonies Spark Concern In Kashmir?

7 July 2016
Riyaz Wani

Srinagar: May was an exceptionally anxious month in the Valley. Not because of a spike in militancy-related violence, some of which even visited now largely sanitised Srinagar where the three cops were shot dead in broad daylight, but because of the proposed colonies for Kashmiri Pandits and ex-servicemen and the contemplated new yatras. This played to an inherent fear in the Valley about an impending demographic change overseen by the BJP Government in New Delhi, perceived as ideologically antithetical to Muslims. The consequent anxiety about identity found its expression in the civil society and the separatist-led protest. JKLF supremo Yasin Malik met the heads of the other separatist factions Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq besides Jamaat-e-Islami chief Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, and the business groups to forge a joint strategy against New Delhi's alleged design to alter the demography of Kashmir. Malik termed the proposed Pandit and Sainik colonies as 'do or die' issue for Kashmir. The Valley has since observed a shutdown over the issue on separatist call. The State Government, apprehending a large scale public groundswell, again acted fast to control activities of the separatist groups. Geelani and Mirwaiz have mostly been put under house arrest, with later even being barred from addressing Friday sermons at Srinagar's Grand Mosque. Malik has been arrested time and again to keep him from leading the public protests. The State Government even invoked a 29-year-old pre-militancy case against him to send him to jail. Finally, on June 12, Government allowed a joint separatist seminar on the proposed colonies but again sans Malik, who had been arrested a day ahead. The separatists said they were 'united' and 'ready' to foil India's plans to change the 'Muslim-majority character of Kashmir.'Geelani, however, said that Kashmiri Pandits were 'part and parcel' of Kashmir. 'Muslims will welcome them with open arms. If the government is giving them 20 lakh for rehabilitation, let them give them 30 lakh, but they must be settled at their native places,' he said. Further attempts by the separatists to mobilise public opinion and direct protests were foiled through pre-emptive measures. The growing disquiet reinforced by the increasing quantity of the words and headlines in the local press forced Mehbooba to respond. In her speech in the Assembly, Mehbooba denied that the Government had granted land for Sainik colony for ex-servicemen from outside the state, forbidden under Article 370 which prohibits ownership of the property by a non-state subject. She said the proposed Sainik colony will only accommodate the ex-servicemen from the state. When a local NGO pointed out the construction activity going on at a security area around the old Srinagar airport, Mehbooba slammed the media for carrying the story, clarifying that the activity was routine. 'It is Army, which was building quarters for its personnel,' she said. 'But media and some NGOs want to put the state on fire'. However, on Pandits, Mehbooba stood her ground saying they needed 'transit accommodations' before they could go back to their native places as advocated by Azadi groups. She, however, added that even in these transit camps, officially referred as composite colonies, Pandit community will share the space with the other communities. 'Kashmiri Pandits will live in transit accommodation and once the situation gets better they can go and live anywhere they want to,' said Mehbooba. 'These will be transit accommodations and not townships where 50 percent of accommodation would be kept for Pandits and the remaining 50 percent of people from other migrant communities, including Muslims and Sikhs.' However, government assurances on the composition of the Pandit colonies have not inspired faith. For one, there is no official order on this. Second, there are too few migrant Muslim and Sikh families to make up the remaining 50 percent. And the government hasn't also clarified whether Muslim and Sikh families in the colony will also be provided a compensation of 20 lakh due to the Pandit families or asked to pay for the property. This has only heightened the suspicion that the colonies are exclusively meant for Pandits, as separatists and some Kashmiri civil society groups had warned. Privately also, some PDP leaders don't see any harm in Pandit-exclusive colonies 'If Pandits feel secure in a Pandit-only colony, we should have no problem,' a senior PDP leader said. 'This would change no demography. Pandits constitute less than 3 percent of the Valley's population'. But this is a case that no Valley-based mainstream political party like PDP and National Conference will dare make publicly. In the Valley, the issue spans the contentious subjects of land and the identity, enmeshed with the political conflict over the state. It is about a deep-seated paranoia that New Delhi wants to alter the demography of Kashmir, heightened by the statements to the effect made by some senior BJP leaders like Tarun Vijay and Subramanian Swamy who in the past had called for undoing the 'cleansing' of the state of Kashmiri Pandits by 'sending one million x-servicemen and families into the Kashmir Valley for re-settlement'. And taking this narrative forward Vijay recently said that it was 'the right of jawans to get a piece of land in the Valley for which they have been shedding their blood and becoming martyrs'. These statements made it tough for Mehbooba to explain the documents leaked to the press which revealed that the state government had agreed to provide Army 173 kanals of land for the Sainik Colony but the process was halted when Army revised its demand to 350 kanals. 'After obtaining written commitment from the beneficiaries, the number of aspirants increased to 26 officers, 125 JCOs and 900 others, requiring a total of 350 kanals (44 acres) of land,' the Rajya Sainik Board wrote to the government in August last. Incidentally, the land agreed to be allotted also is near the old airport where the construction is going on. Smouldering cauldron: The paranoia about a perceived hostile centre allegedly conspiring 'to dilute the Valley's Muslim majority character' is redrawing the discourse in the Valley like never before. It is bringing into full play the issues of land and identity, hitherto more or less dormant elements of the ongoing conflict which operated largely along political and militant dimensions. And this is pitting Kashmiri Muslims not only against New Delhi but also against Pandits who have their own powerful narrative and seek a dignified return to their motherland ensured against a future flight in the event of a resurgence in separatist militancy. Hence, the demand for Pandit-only townships, safeguarded by the security personnel is stoking deep apprehensions among Muslims. For Muslims, the separate enclaves raise a spectre of 'Israeli-type settlements', an apprehension that the former chief minister and Mehbooba's father Mufti Mohammad Sayeed had unsuccessfully tried to dispel before his death in January this year and National Conference led by Omar Abdullah, and civil society and separatist groups have tried to reinforce. In fact, speaking about the Sainik colony, Omar said, 'it could be a ruse to settle non-state subjects in Kashmir and hence bypass Article 370'. Omar has also opposed separate Pandit colonies, playing to the public mood in the Valley, his and PDP's core constituency. The reasons for the widespread apprehension are not far to seek. In 2014, soon after the BJP government took over, some source based stories in the local media revealed that the Centre had asked the State government to identify and earmark 16,800 kanals of land in three districts of the Valley - Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar - where the Pandit families could be resettled. Each township, according to the proposal doing the rounds, would accommodate at least 75,000-100,000 people. The government will set up a medical college and engineering colleges for each settlement. Under the plan, 12 police stations would be provided to ensure security to the colonies. The Centre will also provide housing assistance, transit accommodation, cash relief for a period of two years after the Pandits return, besides student scholarships, employment in State government service, assistance to farmers and waiver of the interest component of loans taken by the members of the community before they fled the Valley in 1990. The plan generated deep unease in the Valley. The then NC-Congress state government didn't deny it. Nor did the then newly sworn-in central government under Narendra Modi. Nothing came of the proposal on June 12. However, state government identified a huge chunk of land for the 'transit accommodations' for Kashmiri Pandits who have been recruited or would be recruited in government service under the Prime Minister's Development Package (PMDP) for J&K. The maximum chunk of the land, 286.1 kanals, has been identified in Srinagar followed by 154.09 kanals at Kanispora, Baramulla, 95.12 kanals at Haal in Pulwama, 68 kanals at Sarai, Dangerpora, 52.04 at Gund Shopian, 41.16 kanals at Kharman Kupwara and 25 kanals at Anantnag. Under 80,000 crore economic package announced by the Modi in November, the Government of India has proposed the construction of 6,000 additional transit accommodation units in the Valley for the migrant Pandits with government jobs or being provided one. Besides, the central government has also approved 3,000 additional jobs for Kashmiri Pandit community under the package. For Muslims, this signals the government's resolve to go ahead with the execution of the Pandit settlement plan: 723 kanals for the migrant government employees to be followed by the allotment of a bigger chunk of the land for the apprehended townships for the community. Pandit story: Kashmiri Pandit narrative too spans the gamut of the politics, land and identity. The continuing exile from Kashmir threatens the community's very identity as a distinct ethnic group. In the past 26 years, a new Pandit generation has grown up which is not rooted in the Kashmiri culture and doesn't speak the mother tongue. This generation doesn't look to their ancestral land as their home. The exile has plugged a section of the displaced population into a wider world of opportunity. But a significant section which lost everything and was forced to live a life of indignity for many years has struggled to rebuild their lives. The overpowering pull off the home is mostly felt by the older generation with their memories of Kashmir. But then a return to the Valley has a meaning for the community beyond its nostalgia. The land in Kashmir is essential to recover a sense of the lost identity. But a majority of the Pandits cannot go back to their ancestral places, having sold out their properties to their Muslim neighbours. And wherever the properties are intact, the genuine security issues and a deep sense of estrangement bred by a quarter century of living apart forbid sudden coexistence. Similarly, the period has witnessed a generational shift in Kashmir too. And to get the new generations of the two communities to live together amid the baggage of the past two decades will require a great social re-adjustment and the accommodation, which is sorely absent. But this humanitarian aspect of the problem has been overshadowed by the lingering political conflict with its attendant fallout on how the two embattled communities view each other. Both hold stereotypes of each other articulated in an abundance of narratives, anecdotes and conversations. The yearnings intersect and clash. Pandits see Muslims as inherently anti-India and pro-Pakistan and the Muslims see Pandits as being deliberately used by New Delhi to ply a counter-narrative of the Kashmir conflict. Similarly, Pandits see their exile as the result of the exodus from Valley, Muslim see it as the flight aided by the state. Pandits see their killings in Kashmir as genocide, Muslims never tire of quoting the official figure of only 219 Pandits killed. It is this contradictory politics and the aspirations of the two communities that make the proposed Pandit colonies an explosive issue. A section of the people in both the communities apprehends the colonies will create a psychological barrier and fan further the mutual prejudice and suspicion. 'Aren't we taking our first steps towards institutionalising the hate and somehow following the Northern Ireland example where the political conflict led to the creation of Peace Wall between Catholics and the Protestants,' says Naseer Ahmad, a local columnist. In the past 26 years, a new Pandit generation has grown up, which is not rooted in the Kashmiri culture and doesn't speak the mother tongue More perceived threats: But in the Valley now, proposed Pandit safe zones are now one of the many contemplated plans which people need to fear and resist. While the political controversy over the separate settlements for Pandits and the ex-servicemen was roiling the Valley, came the revelation that the New Industrial Policy drawn up by the Governor NN Vohra during his three months at the helm, allowed non-state subjects to get on lease the land for setting up businesses outside the industrial estates in the state. The policy is silent on the upper ceiling of the land to be leased. And while the public outcry forced the government to review the policy and put on hold its four controversial clauses, the state government's decision to initiate work on building the structures for 'floating population' in Jammu and Kupwara districts became a fresh source of tension. 'We will construct homes for shelter-less people like those living on the roadside and beneath flyovers. They will not get any ownership rights. They can take shelter there but not on a permanent basis,' Hirdesh Kumar, Commissioner Secretary at Housing and Urban Development Department, said on May 17, adding that the government is also working on a scheme to provide ownership rights of land to Pakistani refugees residing in Jammu. Though Kumar denied it a day after, the damage had been done, not the least because the only shelter-less people in the Valley are those visiting the state from the other states during summer for work. The extended harsh winter makes it impossible for even the poorest among local people to be without a house of their own. The shelters, being built under National Urban Livelihood Mission, are thus seen as yet another attempt to settle outsiders in the state.