Politicking Over Pandits’ Return
Pawns in successive governments’ Kashmir chessboard, Kashmiri Pandit (KP) migrants are once again being sold visions of never-never land. The suffering of Pandits is one of the most understated among refugees worldwide. Though a lot of political cake has been baked over the issue of their return to their former homesteads, the community still lives as refugees in its own country. Twenty-two years down the line Kashmiri Pandits are exactly where they have been since their displacement nowhere people with no homeland to call their own.
And yet, it is hard to say what stops the government from formulating a comprehensive policy in consonance with the urges and aspirations of this beleaguered community for a rightful and honourable return. Manmohan Singh government harps continuously on its resolve to bring back the Pandits. But questions persist over the fulfillment of its obligation to instil the necessary confidence into the Pandits. The government’s carrot and stick policy has very little takers in the Pandit community as it is nothing short of waving a red tag to this injured community.
There is no denying the fact that the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits is the worst tragedy of contemporary times. During the eighties and nineties hundreds of thousands of Hindus were driven out of Kashmir by waves of ethinic violence. Men were murdered, women raped, and property was destroyed. The homes of Pandits were forcibly occupied. Their shops were looted and their businesses were closed down. In short it was made clear to them that they were no longer welcome in Kashmir.
Over the past two decades not only has the Pandit issue become tangled with the larger Kashmir crisis but the return of Pandits to their former homes is still being viewed as a tricky proposition. Parties, whether mainstream or separatist have given only lip service to the Pandits’ aspirations to return to their homes. But the hollowness of their slogans has been well understood by Pandits now.
Strangely, the government has remained indifferent to the Pandit cause. Though security and rehabilitation have been at the centre of displaced communities demands, there has been no serious attempt to resettle them. Few politicians across party lines recognise that injustice has been done to them but nobody pays any attention to their cause. Now, the government is trying to bring some of the KPs back to Kashmir in certain areas where they can feel safe. Indeed, this is not a new idea. Earlier also some apartments had been constructed in Mattan and a few other places for rehabilitating Pandits. But the main issue for the Pandits has been how can they feel safe with the very people who drove them out and even attacked them?
Today there is a widespread consensus among Muslims that the Kashmir valley belongs to the Pandits as much as it belongs to them. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has also tweeted some time back that Kashmir would remain incomplete without Pandits. But Pandit organisations have smelt the rat in the Hurriyat Conference’s objection to the creation of such secure homes in the valley. Though Hurriyat Chief Syed Ali Shah Geelani called for the return of displaced Kashmiri Pandits to their native places in the valley he was up in arms against the government’s move to rehabilitate them in exclusive clusters with the far-fetched theory that it was a conspiracy to settle members of the RSS and other Sangh Parivar groups in Kashmir.
The question of a separate settlement for KPs has once again wound its way into the discourse in the valley. Mr Geelani has threatened to launch a mass agitation in Kashmir valley if the government of India does not drop its plan of rehabilitating the migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the safe zones. There is a view among majority of Pandits that Geelani has a communal agenda with ulterior political motives. It is also said that his statement reeks of double standards and his sole aim is to preempt the prospect of Pandits returning to the valley.
Incidentally, this is not the first time the issue has run up against opposition in the valley. Nor is the separate homeland a new idea. But the mode of community’s rehabilitation has always polarised the opinion in the valley.
Geelani’s remarks have drawn sharp reactions from KP organisations. KP Sabha has condemned in strong words Hurriyat Chief’s statement whom it described as self-styled Pakistani Ambassador in Kashmir. Criticising the state and central governments, the Kashmiri Pandits said that their appeasement policies towards separatists had emboldened the latter to make such statements. The terms and conditions for the return of Pandits will be set by the community and not by those who hounded them from the valley, they said.
“Kashmiri Hindus are part of the Kashmiri society and should be rehabilitated at their original locations or the state government should provide them money for building houses in the residential localities where they can live with their Muslim neighbours”, Mr Geelani told reporters. The Muslims in the valley also want KPs to settle back in their old neighbourhoods as they fear that the government may try to dilute the Muslim character of Kashmir by setting non-Muslims in secure areas. But majority of Kashmiri Pandits favour a separate settlement in the valley. The idea has for long been campaigned by Panun Kashmir and now finds an echo among other Pandit organisations.
There is a view that only Pandits can decide the mode of their resettlement in the valley given that only they are the victims of ethnic cleansing. But more than twenty years have passed since their exodus and most of them have settled in different parts of India. They will not be much inclined to going back to the unsafe environment of Kashmir and that too to live in barbed confines both physical and mental. Why would these young Pandits come to a place where they will be ghettoized and segregated in isolated homes like endangered animals?
Artificially created safe homes for KPs is definitely not a practical move as they will not be able to live as free and normal citizens. It is not an ideal solution for the problem. They cannot carry on their normal business and professions without fear. It will be an unnatural arrangement that will prevent their mingling with other Kashmiris free of fear and apprehensions. This will invariably create a psychological barrier between the two communities that militates against the very sentiment of age-old Kashmiriat. Seen from this perspective the government’s plan of creating security zones for Pandits is quixotic, notwithtanding Hurriyat’s objections to it. Already shaken by the ruthless severing of links from the native Kashmiri ethos, living in security zones would make KPs more miserable than in the camps in Jammu or other states.
No doubt, return of Pandits is highly desiarable but this has to be preceded by generating goodwill among the vast majority community of the valley in favour of returning natives. The challenge before the government is not only to work for the honourable return of Pandits but also to restore some semblance of harmony between the two communities. Mr Geelani on his part could commit himself to communal harmony and security of the minority community instead of launching a mass movement to stonewall their return. The purpose of rehabilitation of KPs should also encompass bridging of misunderstanding between the Pandits and Muslims. Only when Muslims will welcome the Pandits back with open arms, no safe heavens will be necessary to accommodate them.
By Sunita Vakil