The return of Kashmiri Pandits

Shujaat Bukhari TFT Issue: 17 Apr 2015

A new controversy highlights the problem with BJP’s approach towards Kashmir

The return of Kashmiri Pandits
Shops were closed in Srinagar on April 11 in response to the Kashmiri separatists' call for a strike against the decision to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in satellite townships

“The chief minister assured the union home minister that the state government will acquire and provide land at the earliest for composite townships in the valley.” This is a quote from a routine press release issued on April 7 after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed met India’s Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The statement has created a controversy that refuses to die down.

It has also put the coalition partners in the new government in Indian Kashmir – the People’s Democratic Party and Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) – in a tight spot. The issue of Kashmiri Pandits has been an inalienable part of BJP’s politics on Kashmir, and the PDP can hardly afford to do anything that is construed as undermining the politics that is centered around the sentiments espoused by the majority community in the state.

For both PDP and BJP, government formation was a hard earned achievement after two months of back-channel negotiations. The government came into existence on the basis of a document called “The Agenda of Alliance”, in which the return of Kashmiri Pandits also figured besides some other contentious issues. This is what the document says about the issue:

“Protecting and fostering ethnic and religious diversity by ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits with dignity based on their rights as state subjects and reintegrating as well as absorbing them in the Kashmiri milieu. Reintegration will be a process that will start within the state as well as the civil society, by taking the community into confidence”. As far as the wording is concerned, it is straight and unambiguous. It does not talk about any township whether composite or separate. Surely a process has to be followed.

As Chief Minister Mufti clarified on the floor of the House that there was no plan to have separate or isolated townships, the damage had already been done. Despite the state’s painstaking effort to clear the air, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated on April 9 that the Government of India would go ahead with the plan to rehabilitate the Pandits. On the other hand, the response of the Kashmiri separatists was also extreme. Concerns can always be genuine, but to draw parallels with Palestine in such a haste does not help in creating a scope for understanding the issue in the right perspective.

As pointed out by Sanjay Tickoo, the Srinagar-based president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti (KPSS), “in one breath they (the separatists) are opposing their return and also talking about their return with dignity”. Tickoo is a genuine voice that represents the families who have chosen to stay back in the valley despite the troubles Kashmir has seen.

They are not ready to leave lucrative jobs in India and outside to return to Kashmir

The migration of Kashmiri Pandits was a dark chapter in the history of Kashmir, and there is little disagreement on their return. If you ask a common Kashmiri, he feels incomplete without his Pandit neighbour, as his being part of a mohalla had made Kashmir the distinctive place we talk about.

If the BJP continues to play politics and stresses issues that further isolate this community from the rest of the people in the valley, it will not be doing any service to them. After their migration, most Kashmiri Pandits aligned with the BJP, but in the last assembly elections it became clear that except for a section of them, they have distanced themselves from the party, probably so that they are not projected as being against the majority community.

At this stage, it seems that the Kashmiri Pandits will return to Kashmir, and not to their homes, especially if we go by the proposals coming from some of the organizations representing them in Jammu and Delhi. The state and central governments need to come clear on the terminology used by the home minister and others. A “composite township” would generally mean that it would be home to all the communities, but it seems impossible to create such a space in the changing landscape of the valley.

Most Kashmiri Pandits have sold their property and only those families who used to live in rural Kashmir have their homes standing intact, although dilapidated. All the efforts to lure the Kashmiri Pandits back with doles in the past did not work.

The previous government constructed safe colonies for them in such places as Sheikhpora and Vessu and provided out-of-turn jobs to more than 4,000 girls and boys, but it did not work the way it should have. Many of them returned to Jammu and Delhi. Many Kashmiri Pandits are not ready to leave lucrative jobs within India and outside to return to Kashmir. Who will guarantee their security when the government stands even on Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which draws inspiration from the fact that the “situation is not conducive for that”?

While separatists have every right to articulate their viewpoint, they too have failed to contribute to any workable solution. How many times have they reached out to the community with a solution outside the government purview? By taking a particular stance, they are not helping build an understanding based on logic and practicality. They are stakeholders in the process of resolution of Kashmir of which the issue of Kashmiri Pandits is a part, but the last 25 years have seen that they lack direction. Then comes the “lone warrior for all issues”, MLA Langate Er Rashid, who stretches it too far by seeking an apology from the Pandits for leaving the valley. The National Conference maverick Mustafa Kamal speaks the same language. Such a stance is bereft of logic and reason. The issue of the migration of Kashmiri Pandits is complicated by narratives and counter-narratives, but fear did play a key role.

With the Indian government adamant on rehabilitating the Kashmiri Pandits the way they want to, it lacks the commitment to engage with the people of the state at large for resolving issues that are bigger than the rehabilitation of Pandits. That is why no proposal will find support on the ground. By cherry picking issues in isolation and ignoring larger political issues, the Narendra Modi government is doing no good to Kashmir. It is just to send a message that New Delhi does not care about the ground realities of alienation and its priorities are based on its inherent political agenda. The BJP came to power purely by playing the communal card in the elections. But Chief Minister Sayeed has repeatedly said that he joined hands with the BJP to counter the increasing polarization between Kashmir and Jammu. That, however, does not seem to be the case, going by the assertions of the BJP leadership, which even goes against the Agenda of Alliance.

The return of the Kashmiri Pandits is an integral part of the resolution of the larger Kashmir issue and should not be seen or treated in isolation. It can be resolved by taking Kashmir’s civil society on board (not necessarily the political groups) and not by creating isolated pockets, which in turn can be used by them only as summer houses. But that will increase distances at both political and social levels. Reaching out to Kashmir’s majority is essential for finding an amicable and dignified solution to the issue.

Shujaat Bukhari is a veteran journalist based in Srinagar, and the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir