Return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley is the biggest challenge to the very idea of India as a multi-ethnic, plural and secular democracy. Therefore, restoration of that position must remain India’s ultimate aim in Kashmir.
Displaced people have a right to return to their native places. According to UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the provisions of the Indian Constitution, it is the responsibility of the Government of India to create conducive conditions for Pandits to return safely and honourably to their habitual place of residence. UN Guideline 28 is quite categorical on this issue. It states, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily to their homes or places of habitual residence.” This involves the following:
- Guaranteeing their safety and security.
- Protecting their ‘Fundamental Rights’ as enshrined in the Constitution of India and honouring the same as universally accepted.
- Unhindered freedom of movement.
- Protecting their inalienable right to livelihood with dignity and honour.
- Providing adequate opportunity to enable them to participate in the affairs of their community.
- Must have a guaranteed right to be consulted in the matters that concern the welfare, identity, religious freedom and cultural well-being of their own community.
- Adopting such measures which would reinforce their sense of belonging as a necessary pre-condition for their re-integration into the Valley’s social milieu.
- Their economic well-being will have to be ensured through a mechanism that will ensure their economic rehabilitation at their usual place of residence, or at a mutually acceptable place. Following must form part of economic package:
• Loss of property must be completely compensated.
• Availability of generous loans on low interests for rebuilding their houses and restarting their businesses.
• Provision of relief for loss of agricultural assets.
…they (Pandits’) played no role even in deciding issues that greatly impacted their own community. This will have to be rectified if Pandits are to live in Kashmir with dignity and honour.
It is generally accepted that people displaced as a result of wars, conflicts or other natural calamities, be able to return to their homeland, once the turbulence has subsided. But this is contingent upon the fact that normalcy has been restored. In the case of Kashmiri Pandits, the moot point is whether the desired level of normalcy has been restored or not?
Kashmiri Pandits, particularly those living in camps, yearn to return to the Valley. They are overwhelmingly nostalgic while expressing their desire to return to their roots in Kashmir. In a survey conducted among displaced Pandits in 2005, to assess the pre-conditions of their return to Kashmir; security emerged as the overriding consideration, followed by their desire to have a secure area in the Valley, to settle in, preferably enjoying Union Territory status. These preferences were, in turn, followed by a need to be provided with social security, complete economic rehabilitation and reservation in jobs; the last being the choice of those displaced from rural areas of Kashmir. Many linked their return to the Valley with the necessity of their being politically empowered as a pre-condition. Therefore, the essentials pre-requisites that must be available to the displaced Pandits on return are; ability of Kashmiri Pandits to protect, promote and live according to their cultural traditions; be able to live without fear, without being discriminated against by the state or the Muslim majority population of the valley; be able to live in a secure environment that guarantees right to life and property of each individual; enjoy all democratic rights in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Constitution.
Having been deprived of any role in political decision-making, Pandits’ alienation from the mainstream has been complete. As a matter of fact, they played no role even in deciding issues that greatly impacted their own community. This will have to be rectified if Pandits are to live in Kashmir with dignity and honour. That will be possible if a statutory body is created to oversee the rehabilitation of Pandits in the Valley and provide them with constitutional safeguards so that they are not pushed out again in future. As Dr Ajay Chrungoo, President ‘Panun Kashmir’, said, “Pandits’ return to the Valley needs a new constitutional dispensation with ingredients which will retain them in the Valley on lasting basis.”1
The return to the Valley with honour and dignity is one of the top most priorities of the State Government.” The last attempt made by the Mufti’s Government in 2003, envisaging settling the refugees in Mattan and Tullamulla, in two more clusters, was put paid to due to Nandimarg massacre.
On a few occasions in the past, the state government has shown some urgency in dealing with the issue of return of Pandits to Kashmir. In November, 1997, it stated, “The matter of safe return of refugees to their native places in the Valley is of top most priority for the State Government… the State Government had constituted a sub-committee headed by Financial Commissioner (Planning and Development) to draw up an action plan… which was submitted in July 97.” As a consequence, a group of refugees visited the Valley to interact with their neighbours to renew their old contacts. In 1997, an Act called the “J&K Kashmiri Refugees Immoveable Properties (Preservation, Protection and Restraint of Distress Sale – 1997) was passed. Later, the same year, another Act, called the Jammu and Kashmir Refugees (Stay Proceedings) Act, 1997, was also passed. In 1999, it was envisaged that 2,000 families could be moved into 15 clusters of 166 homes still intact in the Valley, where security was available. An amount of ` 44 crores was made available for this purpose. However, families refused to return for various reasons. In August 2002, a statement made in the Rajya Sabha said, “…The return to the Valley with honour and dignity is one of the top most priorities of the State Government.” The last attempt made by the Mufti’s Government in 2003, envisaging settling the refugees in Mattan and Tullamulla, in two more clusters, was put paid to due to Nandimarg massacre.
Events in Kashmir since 2000, when conditions in the Valley started improving, have not induced much confidence among the displaced Pandits. Whenever serious steps were afoot to rehabilitate the Pandits in the Valley, the militants struck with great ferocity, killing Hindus and Sikhs to convey their opposition to the proposal. In the process, many innocent men, women and children were killed. It has been Pandits’ experience that whenever there is a talk of their likely to return to the Valley, there is invariably a violent event that targets the remaining few Kashmiri Pandits, who still continue to live there, sending a chilling message to those who are contemplating such a return. During Mufti Mohammad Syed’s rule, when loud-thinking about the return of Pandits could be heard in the corridors of power (coupled with the construction of clusters of flats in Budgam, etc.), Nandimarg massacre took place in the dead of night (2.30 A.M.) on March, 24, 2003, in which 24 Kashmiri Pandits, including 11 men, 11 women and 2 children were brutally murdered. The murders were committed to deter Pandits from returning to Kashmir and send a message to those persuading the Pandits to return. This put an end to any talk about Pandit’s return, at least for the time being.
The diffidence of the Pandits to return to the Valley on account of their security concerns can be gauged from the fact that despite a reasonably attractive package announced by the State government in its budget proposal in 2009, only 300 families expressed their willingness. This was in addition to 934 families that had registered themselves for their return in 2008, after the Prime Minister had announced a similar package. This forms just two per cent of the total number of registered displaced families (55,476). It is not a random killing due to a stray grenade attack on security forces or being an unintended victim of cross-firing, etc., that scares the Pandits. It is the fear of being the targets of well-planned massacres, like Wandhama, Chhitisingpora and Nandimarg, that scares them and justifiably so.
While playing marbles, the Kashmiri Muslim children name the targeted marble as Bhatta, (Kashmiri Pandit).
Events of 2008 and 2010 in Kashmir further shattered the Pandits’ confidence in the ability of the government to provide them with adequate security on their return to the Valley. Mass agitations launched by separatists on Amarnath land transfer issue in 2008, and orchestrated stone-pelting that paralysed the entire Valley during the summer of 2010, was a serious setback to the cherished desire of those Pandits who wanted to return to Kashmir. These agitations, spearheaded by separatists, attracted huge participation, indicating the ability of these militant leaders to whip up mass hysteria, which the vested interests can easily turn against the Pandits.
Sometime back the State government’s formulation of a ‘Surrender Policy’ for the militants further eroded the confidence of the Pandits regarding the intentions of the government. The policy was aimed at allowing those Kashmiri youth who had crossed over to Pakistan/PoK to return to the Valley and rehabilitate them. There are nearly 800 of them in the militant camps and many of them have married the local girls, whose children are now Pakistani citizens. That such people can pose a serious threat to Pandits was totally overlooked and did little to instill confidence in the latter. This sinister policy has created great apprehensions in the minds of Pandits who suffered at their hands.
Rehabilitation of Pandits in the Valley is itself going to be a nightmare for the State administration. A large number of houses belonging to the community have been burnt/destroyed, and out of the remaining, about 80 per cent houses have been sold out as part of distress sale. The remaining 20 per cent have been occupied by security forces on rental basis. Getting these premises vacated is proving a herculean task. One wonders whether any thought has been given to this aspect. Till permanent arrangements for their rehabilitation in the Valley are made, there would be a need for huge transit accommodation. Besides, it will need careful planning on many fronts; creating means of earning a livelihood, housing, adequate compensation for losses suffered; return of houses, factories, orchards, lands, etc., wherever these are still in functional order. To encourage the refugee youth to return to the Valley, the private sector should be encouraged to employ them by opening up its outlets in Kashmir.
The militant organisations have openly opposed the return of Pandits to the ‘Islamic Kashmir’.
One of the biggest obstacles to the return of Pandits is going to be their re-integration into the social milieu of the Valley. A complete generation has grown up in the Valley without ever having interacted with Pandits. This has robbed the Kashmiri society of a chance to live in an environment where there are ‘others’ besides Muslims. For Kashmiri Pandits it will be easier to fit into a purely Muslim dominated social milieu, but it will be next to impossible for the younger generation of Valley Muslims to share social space based on interaction with non-Muslims. This is further made worse by the fact that during this period, the fundamentalist Muslim preachers, namely Salafists, Wahabis and their ilk, have brainwashed the entire generation into adopting a more intolerant stance towards Kashmiri Pandits. The following examples will suffice:
A slogan has recently been coined to describe the return to the Valley of some women employees who were given jobs as part of the Prime Minister’s relief package. One of the pre-conditions laid down by the state government before issuing appointment letters to these women employees was that they would have to serve in the Valley itself. The slogan goes something like this:
‘Bud budani rooze tapas, yazzat soozukh vaapas’
(The old men and women preferred to stay in the scorching sun, but they chose to send their honour back to the Valley)
While playing marbles, the Kashmiri Muslim children name the targeted marble as Bhatta, (Kashmiri Pandit).
Kashmiri Pandits have further been discouraged from contemplating return to the Valley because of the step-motherly treatment meted out by the State government to those Kashmiri Pandits who are still left behind in the valley. Their sad plight was very much evident when the NCM visited the Valley recently. According to NCM, there were 3,700 Kashmir Pandit families in the Valley in March 2011. During their interaction with the beleaguered Pandits, they found that they had been left to the wolves, with no one in the government sparing any thought for them. Seeing their pathetic condition the NCM noted, “that the State Government was not doing enough for the welfare of Kashmiri Pandits left behind in the Valley. They were found to be even worse off than the refugee Kashmiri Pandits, who have better access to employment and educational opportunities outside the State.” Seeing their condition, Chairman of the NCM was moved to say “I have met several Kashmiri Hindu families, which stayed back in the Valley. Today, their wards barely have access to jobs, while those of the refugee Kashmiri Pandits are much better placed because they had moved out and managed a better education, besides the benefits of the state schemes for the Kashmiri refugees. Those who stayed back are now regretting not having migrated. Their children curse them for having stayed on. The State Government must provide for them.”2
The reaction of Muslim separatists in Kashmir to the idea of Pandits’ return has ranged from ambivalence to outright hostility. Though some of them have refused to take a clear-cut stand, others have, on occasions, expressed their view on the issue openly. In an interview given to Murtaza Saibili, a correspondent of Surya magazine (June 1993 issue), most separatist leaders, ranging from Syed Ali Shah Geelani on the one extreme to Miyan Abdul Qayoom, President of Kashmir Bar Association, on the other, accepted the possibility of the return of Kashmiri Pandits only on the pre-condition that Pandits will have to participate in the ongoing struggle in favour of Islamic Liberation.
The militant organisations have openly opposed the return of Pandits to the ‘Islamic Kashmir’. Nearly 17 years after the above interviews were conducted; their stand has shown little softening-up. In a recent television debate on ‘Return of Kashmiri Pandits’, Sajjad Lone, Chairman of People’s Conference, an important part of All Party Hurriyat Conference, and a well-known separatist leader said,“Some Kashmiri Pandits are overqualified to return.” It is clear from his statement that all Pandit refugees are not welcome back. A few years back, when PDP was ruling the state, its top leader, Mehbooba Mufti had also stated that only those Pandits, who lived in refugee camps, were the government’s responsibility. It is clear from the above statements that since all the property and lands left behind by Pandits in Kashmir had been usurped by Muslims, bulk of Pandits, therefore, were not welcome back to the Valley, to claim the same. Such a hostile attitude of important Kashmiri leaders towards the return of Pandits, sends a negative message to the frightened community.