BJP has made return of migrant Kashmiri Pandits focus of its Kashmir policy. As Omar Abdullah government is awaiting approval to its enhanced Rs 5000 crore package for a dignified return of migrants, NDA added Rs 500 crore to routine allocations to sound serious. After interacting with young Pandits living in segregated colonies across Kashmir, Anando Bhakto examines the contours of NDA follow up

Kashmiri Pandits lighting oil lamps on the occasion of annual Kher Bhawani festival in Tulmulla, Ganderbal. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

With the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s storming to power in New Delhi in the April-May held 16th Lok Sabha election, there has been much talk of rehabilitating the migrant Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) back to the Valley. The rehabilitation of KPs was a part of the BJP’s election manifesto, which stressed that the party was committed to ensuring the return of the suffering community with full dignity, and according to government sources, a comprehensive plan is being worked out to that end. Among other things, enhanced financial assistance, security to life and property, government jobs and other employment opportunities, and subsidised ration will be part of the package that is likely to be announced to facilitate the return of KPs.

But in a country, where any relief package ultimately goes to fill the pockets of the bureaucrats and middle-men, a debate is already raging whether such generous grants for the Pandit community is worth it. Similar grants had been announced by the outgoing United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) in April 2008 for return and rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits. The then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had released a package which included assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh per family for reconstruction of fully or partially damaged houses, assistance of Rs 2 lakh per family for dilapidated houses, assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh per family for purchase of a house in Group Housing Societies for those Pandits who had sold their properties during the period of turmoil in 1989 and in the subsequent years.

But the experiments of the last six years and the progress registered with respect to return and rehabilitation of KPs suggest that no matter however generous the grants released by the government, there is no visible reinsertion of the Pandits in the valley.

“I was ecstatic at hearing the rehabilitation package. The desire to come back to one’s roots is very natural, in any human being. When the government offered me a job in the valley, I grabbed it with both hands. But to my dismay, it’s a terrible situation here. We do not even have any decent accommodation,” said Ajay Tikku, an official in Revenue Department, attached to DC, Relief and Rehabilitation, who is one among the 1400 people who returned to Kashmir after availing a government service as part of the rehabilitation programme of the UPA government. He complained that there is an absolute lack of facilities and that he feels like as if he has been caged “inside four walls” in the quarters at Haal village near Pulwama, which has been provided to accommodate the returnees.

“There are 63 wards here to accommodate over 100 families. Our condition is miserable. We have been allotted the quarters on a sharing basis. For every quarter with a small hall and a sharing kitchen, two families have been asked to put up. We have to put up make-believe partition to secure a private compartment in the hall. Can anybody bring one’s family here and live?” questioned Tikku who is the father of two daughters who are 8th grader and nursery student respectively. For obvious lack of privacy and adequate accommodation, he has left his family in Jammu and returned alone. He lamented that instead of rehabilitation, it was like yet another exile for him.

(Left) Seventy five year old Onkar Nath’s neighbour’s son Bilal carrying gas cylinder for him. (Right) Onkar Nath
(Left) Seventy five year old Onkar Nath’s neighbour’s son Bilal carrying gas cylinder for him. (Right) Onkar Nath

He hoped that the government would help them purchase lands in their native villages or enable them to build houses in the land which some of them already have. “We still have land in Tahab village in Pulwama. But we do not have the financial means to build a house there. Our old house there got dilapidated due to years of neglect and now there is only a remnant of a structure there. The government had offered packages of Rs 10 lakh to Rs 20 lakh. Like you, I have only heard about it? The money is just not forthcoming,” complained Tikku.

Tikku had left Tahab village in 1990 when he was barely 14 years old. The fear of “physical threat” forced him to flee to Jammu along with his sister, while his parents continued to live in the valley. He and his sister were accommodated in a relief camp in Jammu, where they spent their lives in a tent. Even then, the government disappointed them and the relief package of Rs 1000 per family which had been announced came their way after months of wait and endless struggle. Because of this lackadaisical attitude of the government, he lost one year of schooling. Thereafter, having secured admission in a temporary, make-believe school, he returned to Srinagar to give his matriculation examination. “But since the militancy was at its peak, I returned and settled down in Jammu. I got married there,” added Tikku.

He is categorical that the whole talk about Pandits facing intimidation from their Muslim neighbours – a reason cited by officials and some right-wing groups, justifying the need to settle them in separate colonies – is illogical. “Yes, there was some minor tension in 2010 during the summer protests. Some unknown persons threw stones in our camps. But you cannot make that the excuse to say the whole Muslim community is against our return. That is far from the truth. There is absolutely no discrimination here on the basis of religion, there is no threat to  KPs from the Kashmiri Muslims,” Tikku contended.

He said that he was still friends with his Muslim neighbours and other childhood Muslim friends. And despite the fact that they have been ‘caged’ inside separate camps, Tikku said he makes it a point to walk down to nearby Muslim colonies and socialise. “We are friends with the Kashmiri Muslims living in nearby areas. Whenever I feel bored, I just walk down to them. There is no fear, only camaraderie,” Tikku claimed.

Abandoned Pandit houses in Haal village in Pulwama. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Abandoned Pandit houses in Haal village in Pulwama.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

In Haal village, which was a few kilometres away from Tikku’s camp, there was yet another beautiful illustration of the communal harmony that had existed in Kashmir throughout centuries. Even during the partition riots that took place in the 1940s, particularly in 1947 when Pakistan was carved out of India, Kashmir had remained calm. There have been accounts that nearly two lakh Muslims were butchered by Maharaja Hari Singh’s soldiers in Jammu, with the help of Hindu right-wing mobs, but that did not trigger even any minor backlash killing of Hindus in the valley.

In Haal village, in the remnants of Pandit houses in snow-capped plains, the sight of a teenaged Muslim boy carrying a gas cylinder on his shoulders and helping a very old Hindu man find the way to his house, tells volumes that the communal harmony remains preserved in people’s hearts in Kashmir.

Onkar Nath, a 75-year-old man, said his family was the only one in Haal village who did not migrate. He still lives with his wife Rani, two sons and daughters-in-law and five grandchildren in one of the old wooden houses there. When asked, if being the only Hindu family there, doesn’t he feel threatened, Nath grinned and said the Kashmiri Muslims have always been supportive of him and if he is still living in the valley with his family, it was because of the trust he has on his Muslim neighbours.

“Do you think this boy who carried this heavy cylinder through the icy slopes all the way for me, will ever harm me?” asked Nath, who retired as a field supervisor in the Department of Agriculture in Rajpura, Pulwama, in 1995. He said that unlike his neighbours who had to flee after getting mysterious threatening letters from militants, he continued to live there as he did not get any. “The militants and the army would come. The army would inquire about the militants, while the militants would inquire about my health and well-being. Thankfully, nobody ever threatened me to leave really. My neighbours remained truly faithful and caring to me,” Nath said.

Nath said it was impractical to conceive that Kashmiri Pandits can return here very comfortably. “My relatives never returned here. Why would they? What is the scope here? The government announces programmes and policies and we do not have any clue where does that money ultimately go?” Nath said.

Ajay Tikku feels caged inside four walls of his govt provided accommodation outside Haal village in Pulwama.
Ajay Tikku feels caged inside four walls of his govt provided accommodation outside Haal village in Pulwama.

Nath too agreed that it was unnecessary to settle the KPs in separate colonies. In the recent times, the separatist quarters too have alleged that settling the KPs in separate neighbourhoods is a well-thought-of ploy by the government, in alliance with right-wing groups, to push the impression that the Pandits face a physical threat from their Muslim counterparts in the valley. Since 1989, India has strongly managed to push the narrative to the international press that the movement for “Azadi”, which broke out in 1990 was “in fact a communal movement to exterminate the minority Hindu race”. There is a growing concern that by settling KPs in isolation from their erstwhile Muslim neighbours, the government only wishes to further its age-old agenda.

Hurriyat patriarch Syed Ali Geelani has already threatened to launch a campaign against the creation of a separate settlement for the Kashmiri Pandit community in the valley. He warned that such settlements can create an Israel-Palestine type situation in Kashmir and permanently divide the majority and minority communities in the state. Geelani, however, insisted that he was not against the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits and will support every measure to settle the community back in Valley. He said there was a plan to settle “Sangh Parivar and outsiders” in these separate zones. The aim, according to him, is to change the demography of the state and create a permanent social division in Kashmir. In these colonies, the fundamentalists will be given arms training to start a civil war, Geelani has publicly alleged.

Generally, the land encroachment of KPs is cited as a reason to justify that the Pandit community did not receive fair treatment at the hands of their Muslim neighbours. But, Manohar Lal Butt, who lives in a Pandit colony in Budgam, broke the myth. “I can’t say that the cases of land encroachment of Kashmiri Pandits are done by their Muslim neighbours. There are other factors here. When such a vast mass of people left the valley leaving everything behind, it naturally drew the attention of the land mafia. The land mafia is active here and I believe most of the encroachment has been done by them rather than the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim. The Revenue Department officials were hand-in-glove in that,” said Butt, who was a pharmaceutical salesman in Punjab, but who now works as a freelance journalist in Urdu publications.

He recounted the happy days of communal harmony in his native village Lalgam, about 15 kilometres from Budgam when the Hindus and Muslims lived in peace in Kashmir. “Shivarartri, which is our biggest festival, was followed by a ceremony called Salaam the next day which was observed to host the Muslims. We did not even need to invite our Muslim neighbours. They would drop in on their own with love and affection. We would be delighted to treat them. That day, a lot of pottery men, hawkers, other salesmen, mainly from the Muslim community, would also come as they would know they would be voluntarily given better prices,” Butt said with a visible pain for a happy, bygone era in his face.

A Kashmiri Pandit family praying inside their house in Habba Kadal area of Srinagar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
A Kashmiri Pandit family praying inside their house in Habba Kadal area of Srinagar.
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Butt’s family left Lalgam after the Sangrampora massacre of March 1997, in which entire Hindu menfolk were eliminated. “We packed our bags and landed at district headquarters in Budgam. It was because of the kind initiative of J Peer, DC of Budgam, that we were settled in houses left by fleeing Pandit community. Ghulam Nabi Azad later settled in this camp in Sheikhpora,” Butt said.

He complained that this isolated colony seemed to him “like a jail”. “It is not even a settlement colony. It is a transit camp which was allotted to us for one year. The government can throw us out any day it wants,” Butt said, adding that his house in Lalgam is now dilapidated and he sold away most of his land to sustain his family financially.

He too dismissed that sectarian divide is the reason behind the government’s resolve to settle KPs in separate colonies. He said that the Hindus and the Muslims may have ideological differences in how they perceive politics of the state and the country, but that is not too big an issue to create ill-feeling or insecurity on either side.

“The truth is that the practice of Salaam still happens in some places on the next day of Shivaratri. Many Kashmiri Muslims go to see their old KP friends this day with a basket full of nadroos (a vegetable derived from lotus stem). I know of a government employee Nisar who every year takes nadroos worth Rs 15,000-20,000 to Jammu to give it to KPs because nadroos found in Jammu are not of good quality,” Butt recounted.

It is grossly ironical then, that the government instead of focusing on helping the two willing communities to reach out to one another, is seemingly bent on widening the divide by settling KPs in isolation from Muslims. It is also ironical that the government is willing to dole out more packages to KPs without taking such officials to task as having been responsible for usurping earlier packages.

Note: Story done by Anando Bhakto in February as contributing reporter to Kashmir Life. Modified by the desk.


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