After holding out a carrot to re-settle Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, Modi backed out, leading to shattering of dreams and increasing polarization
By Aasha Khosa
Twenty-five years of homelessness can erase the memories of a community’s past and pave way for a generational change in their culture and traditions. But for about three lakh Kashmiri Hindus, who had left their homes to escape violence and targeted killings by Islamic terrorists in the early nineties, the yearning for their land has only grown stronger.
So when the Narendra Modi government recently unveiled its plans to resettle the community in Kashmir even in the face of opposition from separatists, the displaced people felt vindicated. Many believed that the BJP’s strong presence in the center and in J&K, where it shares power with the PDP, would finally see the fruition of their dream of returning home. No one could have imagined that this ecstasy would be short-lived; the Modi regime backed out from its promise as it told parliament that there was no plan to re-settle Kashmiri pundits in exclusive encla-ves in the Valley.
“Frankly, this is a shocker, coming as it is from the BJP, which, unlike others, has had a definite stand on Kashmir for 65 years,’’ says Sushil Pandit, Delhi-based publisher of Praznath, a quarterly journal on Kashmiri heritage and culture. Pandit says exclusive enclaves are the only way to resettle the community in Kashmir. “These 25 years in pursuit of eking a livelihood have scattered the community all over the globe. A generation has grown up without any sense of attachment to Kashmir and its traditions.” He believes that unless Kashmiri Hindus are able to live together in special zones, their distinct ethnic and social identity would be at risk of being wiped out.
No doubt, most of the Pandits have done well as their exodus coincided with economic reforms and liberalization in India. But today, when the next generation does not speak Kashmiri and mixed marriages have become a norm, the community is definitely on the verge of losing its distinct identity. “Twenty years onwards, if the situation does not change, there will be no Kashmiri Pandits,’’ says Rashneek Kher, member, ROOTS, a cultural organization of Kashmiri youth in Delhi.
Kashmiris are a miniscule community of seven lakh people, whose leaders are never tired of likening their plight to the perse-cution of Jews in Nazi Germany. The comparison may be odd and a clear exaggeration, but the fact is that the community feels ignored and isolated whenever there is a move to address the Kashmir issue.
Many Kashmiri Muslims feel that the Pandits do not want to return as most of them are living better lives than they would have had in their homeland. The Valley also lacks economic opportunities and a safe environment for them to feel confident. In fact, any talk of Pandits’ return has always evoked snide comments and strong reactions from the Valley’s separatists and mainstream leaders. No wonder, after the Modi government’s backtracking from creating exclusive townships for them, separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani celebrated it as “our victory”. The separatists had compared the proposed Pandit settlements to those of Israelis on the Gaza Strip and threatened to launch a mass agitation against it.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani is opposed to resettlement of Pandits in the Valley
Other than nostalgia, Pandits have no apparent reason to go back. “We are not ready to go back into the same milieu where we face threats again,’’ says Ashok Pandit, member, Censor Board, who flew in from Mumbai to take part in a rally in Delhi by Kashmiri Pandits. He said before the community’s return to Kashmir, the government there needs to book all the killers of Kashmiri Pandits who are roaming free.
The community is also demanding that their exodus from Kashmir be recognized as a result of “genocide” and ethnic cleansing by the Islamic forces in Kashmir—something that, again, is politically loaded and can best be described as jugglery in semantics. However, the purpose is to involve the state in the rehabilitation of a tiny minority in the face of an aggressive majority.
The BJP, on the other hand, has always used Kashmir as an issue to further its political interests across India. For this reason, its leaders are good at the Kashmir rhetoric that, they believe, helps them consolidate Hindus across India. This is one of the tactics which helped the BJP and Modi come to power. However, the BJP lacks empathy for the people of Kashmir, who are victims of a geopolitical game plan, and are therefore, unable to deal with issues like Pandits’ return in a discerning manner.
Narendra Modi, who entered into a coalition with PDP chief Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, backtracked on his promise to Pandits
The party has no leaders with a vision of Kashmir beyond the Hindutva agenda. For this reason, the BJP, which, otherwise is an equal partner in the Mufti Mohammad-led coalition government, often has to eat humble pie on crucial issues. The PDP often has the last word on key issues like the return of Kashmiri Pandits.
Also, many in the Valley see Kashmiri Pandits playing into the hands of the BJP in demanding their return on their terms. Even former chief minister Omar Abdullah, whose government had constructed hutments for Pandits who had been given government jobs there, opposed the BJPs apparent proposal to have exclusive zones for Hindus.
As for the separatists in Kashmir vis-à-vis Pandits, there is apparently no love lost between them. For them, a Kashmiri Pandit is an irritant to their scheme of things for “Muslim consolidation in Kashmir”.
Geelani is so livid with the talk of Kashmiri Pandits returning that he feels the returnees must be part of the government of India’s plans to undermine the cause of Muslims. They tend to obfuscate this issue by raising that of thousands of political activists who migrated to Pakistan in the wake of an aborted tribal raid.
However, official data shows that there are some 3,500 Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley today, a number that does not bother the separatists much.
So far, the narrative on Kashmiri Pandits’ return has been about putting the onus on the governments. “The Kashmiri Pandit narrative is clearly meant to corner the governments in Delhi and Kashmir to own responsibility for not addressing the circumstances that led to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits—the community does not want to fight it out like moderate Muslims are doing in their own way,” says a senior Hurriyat leader on condition of anonymity.
Veer Munshi, a Delhi-based artist of Kashmiri origin, has proposed to the government that it set up a creative hub in Kashmir and invite thinkers, writers, artists to set up their studios. “We do not want land for free,” he quips. Munshi says since creativity had suffered in Kashmir during the years of insurgency, a new beginning could be made with this venture.
Artist Veer Munshi feels reintegration can be aided through art activities
On the other hand, Sushil Pandit says that Kashmiri Muslims should not feel threatened by their presence in Kashmir. “An enclave for us would lead to enterprises, as the community has professionals of all caliber and this would help create jobs for others too.”
Once again, the return of Kashmiri Pandits is mired in high-pitched rhetoric. But this time, those yearning to go back are stunned by the Modi government’s biggest flip-flop on Kashmir.