Kashmir’s Pandits

09 Jul 2016


The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

IF there were any doubts that Mehbooba Mufti, chief minister of Indian Jammu & Kashmir, would diverge from her father and former chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s dubious policy, her evasiveness on the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley should dispel them.

In 1990, on the outbreak of militancy, around 700,000 to 800,000 Pandits fled from Kashmir. Their return to their homes is a moral duty which the majority community, the Muslims, must discharge. Recent opinion polls have it that between 85-90 per cent of them desire the return of their neighbours.

Embittered by their lot, many Pandits fell under the leadership of the RSS-BJP ideologues. They lived, and many still do, in abject conditions in camps in Jammu and Delhi. This was not improved by the Pandits’ group Panun Kashmir’s demand for a homeland by partitioning the Valley.

Many in the Pandit community live in abject conditions.

More than 1,000 Pandits assembled in Jammu in a convention in December 1991, and adopted a “historic homeland resolution” that demanded a homeland in the Valley to the east and north of the Jhelum river. It also sought direct central rule without the curbs of Article 370 of the constitution which professed to guarantee Kashmir’s autonomy.

This demand haunts Kashmiris as they face brutal force, denial of civil liberties and reduction of Article 370 to a husk. The BJP having forged a coalition with the pliable Muftis’ PDP pressed the demand under an old garb. The coalition took power on March 1, 2015.

On April 7, 2015 Mufti Sayeed was put on the mat by Home Minister Rajnath Singh; Mufti obliged. A press note by the Central Press Information Bureau disclosed that the minister had asked Mufti Sayeed to provide land for “composite townships” for Kashmiri Pandits. It added, in direct quotes: “The chief minister assured the union home minister that the [Kashmir] … government will acquire and provide land in the Valley at the earliest.”

A Kashmir minister Naeem Akhtar explained that the townships will be open to all communities; but the percentage had not yet been decided. “We will build flats across rural Kashmir and around the city which any one can buy including Kashmiri Pandits.” Thus, the percentage was to be decided by J&K.

Three issues have come to the fore — return of the Kashmiri Pandits; return of refugees from Pakistan; and establishment of Sainik colonies of ex-servicemen from J&K.

The Muftis’ inherited the problem from Omar Abdullah when he was chief minister. An article by Qayoom Khan in Greater Kashmir told all. The J&K Rajya Sainik Board is headed by the governor with the chief minister and senior bureaucrats as members. Omar Abdullah, present at meetings from March 1, 2011 to April 8, 2013, never objected.

In April 2015, the RSB approved the establishment of a Sainik colony in Srinagar. The aim was 350 kanals of land for 26 officers, 125 JCOs and 900 others.

Last July, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said “the matter had been forwarded” to the government in Srinagar as the land allotment was the Kashmir government’s subject. The Valley alleged the move aimed at “changing the demography of a Muslim-majority” area. Only a White Paper containing the record can quell the disquiet.

It was fuelled by Naeem Akhtar’s assurance on May 19: “We will make land available where both Pandits and Dogras can live peacefully.” That very day The Hindustan Times reported that “at least three sites have been identified by his government for setting up colonies for the displaced Pandits”. The centre’s ‘assessment’ (read OK) was sought. The Mehbooba Mufti regime fell between the stools.

The Pandits “will live in transit accommodation … to provide breathing space till they feel confident to move to their original places”, Mehbooba Mufti said. Kashmiri Pandits will comprise half the inmates.

As the French say, nothing lasts longer than the temporary. “We can’t throw them like pigeons before the cats” she remarked.

The offensive remark about her people revealed her outlook. That the Sainik colonies would be for Kashmiri subjects assured none. On June 9, the Srinagar assembly was rocked by angry charges of deceit by the Mehbooba regime, which now said that no Sainik colonies would be constructed.

The issue prodded the Hurriyat leaders to unite. Their call for a strike won a strong response. It also created fissures in the government. The deputy chief minister, a BJP man, said the Pandits “would be in a majority because they migrated in a majority”.

Administrative solutions cannot supply the trust which alone can enable the Pandits to return to their homes safely. All Hurriyat leaders are in favour of their return. The best course is for moderate Pandit leaders to speak to them and work out a solution acceptable to all.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2016