Modi govt readies plan but do Pandits want to return home?

Modi's Mission Kashmir has an emotional appeal but few pandits are keen to return to the valley

Aasha Khosa | July 4, 2014



Ravi and Sunita were playing doting parents to a toddler as the Kalashnikovs boomed in Srinagar’s streets. An employee of the agriculture department, Ravi, at times, skipped office due to curfew and bandh. All around, tension was growing with each passing day – the killing of soft targets, politicians and Kashmiri pandits, by the pro-Pakistan terrorists, was rampant. A couple of people from Ravi’s extended family were also gunned down. One day, Ravi’s family took a hard decision. His father, a spiritually inclined teacher in his late fifties, took a ‘parikrama’ of his recently built two-bedroom house in Rambagh; his mother tearfully gazed at the eggplant and chilly crop in her kitchen garden, and then they got into a taxi.

The family picked only some essentials and left for Jammu, hoping to return as soon as normalcy was restored.

Twenty-four years have passed; Ravi is father of two college-going children and lives in Delhi. His first-born is a final-year engineering student in Uttar Pradesh and daughter is all set to get into the Delhi university for an undergrad course. Both children have no memories of Kashmir. Ravi continues to draw his basic salary as a migrant employee as he is not entitled to the annual increment. He, therefore, has to pick up some low-paying odd jobs to make both ends meet. Meanwhile, his parents have sold off their house in Kashmir and helped their two sons buy themselves houses in Delhi. Ravi’s mother, a homemaker, writes poems on her loss and the father has gone deeper into spirituality.

“Where will I return to?” quipped Ravi as the Narendra Modi government unveiled plans to send some 2,50,000 Kashmiri pandits back to their homes, albeit with honour.

Likewise, instead of ecstasy, the announcement was greeted with scepticism and fears. Agnishekhar, who heads Panun Kashmir, an organisation that wants a separate homeland for the Hindus within the Kashmir valley, was quick to retort the government efforts. He warned the pandits of the “political undertones” in the Modi government’s plan. “This is an attempt to divide the community,” he said.
Panun Kashmir has asked Modi to end the doles policy towards the humanitarian issue laid down by the UPA regime. Agnishekhar even suggested that the government withdraw all doles to the community and instead focus on eliminating the jehadis and pro-Pakistan groups in Kashmir. He believes that addressing this root cause for exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in 1990 from the valley would see people returning on their own.

The cold shoulder given to the Modi government’s plan by the community is, however, no deterrent to the policymakers. Recently, a group of eminent Kashmiri pandits were ushered into the home ministry quarter in North Block. Soon they found themselves huddled with senior policymakers, who wanted their help in thrashing out modalities of their ‘safe return’.

“I personally do not see how the government can play a role on rejoining two estranged communities (Hindus and Muslims). We are not looking for doles ( '20 lakh promised for rebuilding homes) but a peaceful environment and a welcome hug by the Muslims when we go home,” said a leader who was part of this exercise, seeking anonymity. He and others had apparently wriggled out by promising to get back after consulting others.

However, sources say finance minster Arun Jaitley has nearly finalised budgetary plan for rehabilitation of Kashmiri pundits, to be announced in the union budget. At the other end, in Jammu and Kashmir the Omar Abdullah government is already identifying 16,800 kanal of land, preferably in south Kashmir, for resettling the displaced. In fact, this resettlement plan dates back to the previous NDA regime and was announced in 1997.

The package had promised  '7.5 lakh to each family to rebuild their house and financial help or a government job to restart life in the valley. The scheme was a dud and the government blamed it on lack of funds. Now the promised money is  '20 lakh and going by the land prices in Kashmir it is hardly much.

Kashmir has always been one of the core issues of the saffron brigade and this time it would be naive to take this move at its face value. The fact is that Jammu and Kashmir is headed for elections this winter and the BJP has given itself the task of winning 44 seats – crossing the halfway mark in the 87-member assembly. The party’s confidence is based on the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections where it had won in all the Jammu segments – and also the Ladakh seat for the first time.

Analysts say that riding on the Modi wave, the BJP has the best chances of reaching closer to the halfway mark. Also, if this wave continues, the BJP is sure to emerge as the largest party in the assembly. The Congress stands decimated, and the race for the valley’s 43 seats is mainly between Omar Abdullah’s National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Still the BJP is not ready to take chances and the best way is to keep raking up issues that will see further consolidating of its vote bank. Party sources said it may not mind provoking anger of the Kashmiri Muslims in the process and polarising the situation between Kashmir and the rest of the state. That sounds the best and also tried-and-tested way to victory.

No wonder, the proposal has generated fears among hawks in the valley. Octogenarian separatist leader Sayed Ali Shah Geelani has apparently fallen for the bait. After openly opposing resettlement of Kashmiri pandits in separate neighbourhood, Geelani has virtually launched a campaign to ‘educate’ Muslims of the valley on this. “We are not opposed to their return but Kashmiri pandits should go back to their homes – in villages and towns rather than settle down in a separate neighbourhood,” he said, clearly indicating that such an arrangement would fuel animosities. His argument is that separate enclaves and job quota for Hindus would annoy Muslims.
Barely able to hide his anger, Geelani says, “Most of the pandits have prospered during migration but Muslims in Kashmir have faced the wrath of the security forces coupled with the lack of job opportunities and therefore any preferential treatment to Hindus would only fuel communal tensions.”

Secretly, the hardliners also fear that Modi government’s “diabolical” plan aims at changing the Muslim-majority character of the state. They foresee the Modi government in due course giving citizenship rights to refugees from Pakistan towards this goal. There are about 1.5 lakh people of Pakistani origin who have been living in the state’s border areas without the state granting them citizenship rights. The state government, under its separate constitution, denies them the right to work, settle permanently or even vote in the assembly or civic elections. These refugees are Indian citizens but not citizens of Jammu and Kashmir. Resettling them with honour is one of the promises of the BJP-led government.

Looking from Kashmir the idea of resettling returnees in isolated and protected townships would amount to de facto recognition to the idea of a separate homeland for Kashmiri Hindus. But ironically, Panun Kashmir, exponent of separate homeland, is not on board in government’s plans. “We have not been approached or consulted,” says Agnishekhar. Instead, he claims, the home ministry has consulted Delhi-based non-migrant leaders of the community.

However, for a common Kashmiri pandit, the idea of going back lock, stock and barrel is hardly an option. Their years of displacement have coincided with the economic boom in India. This apparently has helped the younger generation secure well-paid jobs across India and even abroad. Sanjay Khushu, whose 20-year-old daughter has visited Kashmir only as a tourist, says there is no economic opportunity waiting for him in Kashmir. After living a hard life in Delhi, Sanjay has managed to set up a small lift installation company. “My heart beats for my homeland but I will not go there unless there is a major social reconciliation and political resolution.”

Most people feel they are being forced to return even if it means feeding them to the militants’ bullets. “We would again become cannon fodder for the jehadis. Why should we go even if it means I can again see the peak of Shankaracharya and tree leaves changing with seasons from the window of my room?” asks Ragini Bhat, an aged Kashmiri pandit, who lives in Jammu’s middle-class neighbourhood. Her question sums up the challenge the Modi government faces in seeing through its major dream plan.

(Khosa is a veteran journalist who has specialised in Kashmir)

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