January  2004 
Year 10    No.95

Special Report

Pandits: When will they return?

While the return of Kashmiri Pandit migrants into the Valley has formed the core of fanatic rhetoric for over a dozen years, brutal massacres of Sikhs and Hindus motivated to sabotage this process of rehabilitation demand that a sensitive behind-the-scenes climate is created before public announcements are made


AT a clustered camp in the suburbs of Jammu, Veena Mujju (real name concealed to protect anonymity) has tried to recreate a home in her village near Anantnag. Just outside her two-room tenement, the interior of which may not be reminiscent of her home fifteen years ago, she has saved herself a small space to grow ‘Haaq’, a typically Kashmiri leafy green vegetable, along with radishes and other vegetables.

The clock cannot be turned back. But the Haaq and her Kangri (the Kashmiri fire-pot used to counter the cold weather) are symbolic of her dreams, her fight to survive despite her sorrows of dispossession, her woes of an unemployed son who took to drug abuse in the camp and her longing to live and die in her house in Anantnag. They energise her and kindle hopes, as do the promises each year by successive governments of a possible return.

Over the last 14 years, she has heard them on many occasions and has become more and more sceptical. Yet she cannot help but remain just a little optimistic. Veena may not symbolise the mood and emotions of every displaced Kashmiri Pandit but she personifies a section of those who have begun to feel that "it may be better to die once than to die day in and day out in humiliation in the camps".

A little over a year ago, when the state of Jammu and Kashmir was bestowed with a new chief minister, there was among other things also optimism about the question of Kashmiri migrants returning to the Valley. These were dispossessed Kashmiri Pandits now living in Jammu and other parts of the country. A year hence it seems that the issue has been bogged down in the desire to gain political mileage by vested interests. The more the issue is publicised, the remoter the chances of a possible return have become. The recent rehabilitation and employment package announced by the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mufti Mohd. Sayeed while addressing the Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Delhi last month is yet another case of more sound and less bite.
Most of the migrants living in camps in Jammu regard the announcement of this package sceptically though they do harbour secret hopes that something happens. Forced to live with the tag of ‘migrants’ and reeling under severe insecurity and homelessness for 14 years, any talk of return inevitably kindles hope though each time such announcements flounder in inaction, greater dismay results. For the migrants living in the camps in Jammu, however costly the optimism, the brute reality of their lives keeps the flame flickering. In contrast, for those living outside the camps, most of them well settled in their new habitats, each announcement for Pandit rehabilitation is viewed with an air of habitual indifference.

As for the Kashmiri Pandit organisations, they too stand divided in their response. While the more articulate organisations like Panun Kashmir, backed by the RSS, have rejected outright the proposals of rehabilitation and return, even the moderate ones like the Kashmiri Pandit Sabha (KPS) have expressed reservations about the modalities of the proposed return.

In the backdrop looms the grimmer picture of the Nadimarg massacre of March 2003, a chapter in the history of minorities in Kashmir that none want to learn lessons from. The massacre followed a series of announcements for the rehabilitation and return of migrants after the newly formed PDP-led coalition government under Mufti took over. And it was evident that any question of return had to be exercised with a certain amount of caution and restraint against politicising the issue.
As per the latest proposal to set up cluster colonies for migrant families, the government claims that 1,100 migrant families have already been identified for return to the Valley. But whether this project, estimated at Rs. 55 crore and hoped to be funded by the Centre, turns out to be the proverbial case of a slip between cup and lip is yet to be seen. The Mufti government is more than optimistic and was seen as initiating a serious step towards the endeavour since at one of the meetings with Advani in Delhi, the rehabilitation proposal also came in for discussion. The planning commissioner cum secretary and rehabilitation council in-charge, Vijay Bakaya is very confident that the proposal will soon get the green signal and that the money will be released by the centre in the near future.

In striking contrast is the scepticism of the relief commissioner, Jammu, RK Thussu. He says that the actual rehabilitation proposal began in 2000, when it was conceived as a composite, integrated project based on the recommendations of the former financial commissioner, ML Kaul. However, the Centre asked the state government to envisage the project (estimated at Rs. 2,500 crore) in phases, in view of the huge costs involved. It was considered too high a demand for the Centre to meet. Following the failure of this proposal, yet another Rs. 43 crore project, which envisaged the setting up of clusters and repair of houses, was formulated by the then divisional commissioner, Srinagar, in 2001 and sent to the Centre for approval. It was probably also approved by the Centre. However, the project remained in limbo until the new government took over.

The coalition government decided to pursue the proposal and go ahead with the project since the ‘safe and dignified return of Kashmiri Pandits’ was also part of its joint common minimum programme. But Thussu is categorical that no money has been released by the Centre so far and that the project stands frozen as of today. Regarding the employment package by the state government, he states there is nothing concrete to offer the migrants. It is merely that the government has maintained that in all appointments, migrants should also be given due consideration.

Bakaya, however, emphasises that the rehabilitation proposal of settlement in clusters is a fresh beginning. The earlier plan was abandoned long ago, he maintains. The employment policy is also in place, though he admits that no special package of employment is being given, only due consideration is to be given to the Pandits for government jobs in various sectors. There is also a parallel plan to give preference to the Pandits willing to go back to the Valley.

The Kashmiri Pandit Sabha calls this absurd. Jobs and postings in the Valley would not mean permanent settlement. Once the person is transferred outside the Valley the very purpose of the scheme would be defeated, avers KPS member KK Khosa. It may not be too difficult for anyone to get the job and get himself transferred back to Jammu, he says.

Revenue and relief minister, Hakeem Mohd. Yaseen denies the charge that jobs are being used as bait to bring Pandits back to the Valley. "The migrants are being misled by vested interests," he points out. However, he admits that the government is considering a special drive for employment to rehabilitate educated youth and that the ground work on this is underway though the modalities have yet to be worked out. As of now, only the settlement proposal is on the cards, which Hakeem says will be okayed by the Centre shortly. As a beginning, 1,100 migrant families have been identified from within the camps and they will be settled in small flats in cluster colonies to be set up in Sheikhpora in Budgam and Harnag in Anantnag.

Elaborating on the government’s seriousness, the minister says that the government has already acquired 80 kanals of land for the purpose. Modalities have been worked out and once it gets New Delhi’s nod, the project will be handed over to the Roads & Buildings department of the state government and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Construction Corporation (JKPCC).

He refutes the charge that the government is politicising the issue and allowing it to be sabotaged though he prefers to parry the query on what happened just before the Nadimarg massacre last year. Though he maintains that any drive to get Pandits back to the Valley has become a victim of vested interests pulling them in opposite directions, he is confident that things would be better in the present changing atmosphere. He agrees that any question of return has to be founded on the basis of confidence-building measures and mutual trust and reconciliation between the two communities in the Valley but is unable to explain what the government is doing in this regard.

Sources in his department maintain that conditions may be more favourable this time. They quote examples of separatists, including hardcore Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin calling for the return of Pandits. They also cite earlier instances when Muslims of the area encroached on land in Sheikhpora that was acquired by the government for the establishment of cluster colonies for displaced Pandits. "There was no reaction from the people and they welcomed the proposal of rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Hindus," this time they claim.

While there are confusing and contradictory notes from within the government about the fate of Kashmiri Pandits in the camps, there is also a cacophony of voices from Kashmiri Pandit organisations, even before the rehabilitation and employment package acquires a final shape. The RSS and Panun Kashmir have been vociferous against a return in phases and maintain that this would lead to division and fragmentation in Kashmiri society. In fact, the Panun Kashmir, which has been seeking a separate homeland for Kashmiris south of the Valley, has also been instrumental in raking up propaganda to wean away families living in the Valley, especially in the wake of the Nadimarg massacre last year.

Hakeem Yaseen’s fears that the Pandits in the camps are being misled by some organisations may not be misplaced. Recently, some 48 posts were identified for Kashmiri migrants in the police department. When the CID began a verification drive for eligible youth in the camps, the drive was irresponsibly construed as a move to dispossess the migrants of their ration cards and send them packing to the Valley! Much before the Pandits in the camps could react to the verification drive, the Panun Kashmir drew political mileage from the issue. In a hurriedly announced press briefing in Jammu, the PK was busy mouthing concern over the issue of ‘handpicking some migrants and forcing them to return with the lure of jobs’ and thus ‘dividing the community’!
In striking contrast is the Hindu Welfare Society (HWS), a forum that was re-activated following the Nadimarg massacre when a need was felt to give the handful of Kashmiri Pandits – estimated at over 8,000 families – who had lived in the Valley throughout the years of militancy, an organisational face and a voice. The HWS has been trying to consolidate the Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley and persuade them not to leave the Valley, and the organisation has also raised several demands for the need for security and jobs.

The Kashmiri Pandit Sabha (KPS) hails the efforts of the HWS and maintains that the return of Pandits to the Valley has to be centred round the Pandits already living in the Valley. According to the KPS’ Khosa, who is also associated with the All India Kashmiri Samaj, the Pandits staying in the Valley have to form a nucleus around which the return of the displaced Kashmiris can be made possible. Though he maintains that the return may have to occur in phases, he lays emphasis on security, averring that the security has to come not just from the government or the agencies but also from the majority community. That is what makes him sceptical about cluster colonies which he fears may end up isolating the Pandits in the Valley once they go there.
On the face of it, there is more reaction than action in the matter of rehabilitating those Kashmiris who were displaced 14 years ago. The cacophony of voices and their motivated reactions have been a negative factor that can be weighed against the background of the massacres of minorities in the Valley. Whenever fresh proposals have been politicised and publicised by successive governments in the state – and not backed by immediate and concrete action – they have been followed by a Wandhama or a Nadimarg. Last year when the Mufti government took over, it first announced the return of Pandits as a commitment. This rhetoric raked up expectations at the time that ended in cynicism when the Nadimarg massacre took place. Each step towards rehabilitation has also brought vehement opposition from right wing Hindu organisations including Panun Kashmir. Now again, 18 months later, when the move is being publicised once more, Pandit migrants who are keen to return hope that both governments exercise more restraint and caution.

The more the climate of expectation increases, the remoter the chances of return, says a Pandit woman at the camp who is pining for return much against the wishes of her children. Some Pandit intellectuals agree that the move to return has to be accomplished behind the scenes, with much of the groundwork being prepared quietly in advance without any fanfare or publicity. This is vital given the history of sabotage and opposition to Pandit rehabilitation.

In view of the issue becoming more politicised, can the Pandits return to the Valley ever be a possibility? Most Pandits who are keen to go back realise that there is need for dialogue with the majority community. Unless the latter come forward and provide the Pandits with the confidence to return, no amount of security camps can succeed in guaranteeing safety. Such measures would also help revive the secular fabric of the Valley. However, today there is no infrastructure in place to initiate such a dialogue or move. While several Pandits yearn to go back, many Muslims in the Valley also feel that their return is important to revive lost traditions, the vibrant culture symbolic of a plural society of which the Valley has been robbed. Even separatist leaders in the Valley have been mouthing concern over the plight of Pandits and feel that their return would be significant.

Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chairman, Yasin Malik, who took up the gun in 1989-90 following which a majority of Pandits left the Valley, believes, in retrospect, that it has been one of the biggest tragedies since the ‘azadi movement’. He agrees on the need to bring the two communities together and that the majority community may have to be more responsible. But, says he, more important is an assurance from both the Indian and Pakistani governments on the issue. The consistent attempts to sabotage any return plan are the brainchild of either one or other of these governments and their agencies, he maintains.
Apart from this, there is also the larger question of how many Pandits would actually like to return to the Valley. The controversy is further complicated by the dispute over the number of those displaced in the first place. While most Kashmiri organisations put the number of displaced Hindus anywhere between 3 lakhs and 4 lakhs, the total number of registered migrant families is approximately 55,000. In the last assembly polls of 2002, about 59,000 displaced Kashmiris were listed as voters. Out of the total number of those displaced about 36,000 families comprising 1.40 lakhs are in Jammu and its environs while 19,000 families live in camps or stay on their own in Delhi and other parts of the country. Many displaced Kashmiris also include Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities, though they may comprise a minuscule number for which figures were not available. Only about 5,274 families live in various camps in Jammu and most of them hail from rural areas. These may be the only ones keen to return.

Most of the other Kashmiri Hindus come from affluent sections of society or have settled well in their new habitat over the past 14 years. Any thought of return may disturb their sense of security. Besides, there are changing perceptions within the younger generation, which has grown up in an alien culture and adopted it because they had no choice. A common reality in many Kashmiri Pandit homes has the older generation pining to go back, the middle generation lukewarm on the issue and youngsters who loathe the idea of a native land that is alien to them.

Likewise, in the Valley, among the majority community too there is a similar generational gap in the understanding and acceptance of migrant and displaced Pandits back into the Valley. The younger generation is not used to their presence and many do not take the issue of return very kindly. Obviously then, any question of return has to be grounded in a series of dialogues and interactions between the two communities.

But will the politicians who are keen to use this issue to build their own images and vote-banks understand this imperative and identify with the crucial need to build bridges between two communities that once gelled so well together in a land called paradise on earth? n

(Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is executive editor, Kashmir Times).

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