By Preetika Bhateja:
“On June 23, 1989, pamphlets were distributed in Srinagar. It was an ultimatum to Muslim women, by an organization that called itself Hazb-i-Islami, to comply with ‘Islamic’ standards within two days or face ‘action’. Pandit women were asked to put a ‘tilak’ on their foreheads for identification. On September 2, the 300-year-old Baba Reshi shrine was gutted in a fire under mysterious circumstances. Everything was toppled in Kashmir in the next few weeks. Within a few days, the whole scenario changed and it was a catastrophe on the night of January 19, 1990.” This is a blistering account by Rahul Pandita, author of the book ‘Our Moon Has Blood Clots’.
There was unrest in the Valley since 1987 but on January 19, 1990, the insurgency that centred around the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) escalated. Hundreds of schools were burnt, and shrines destroyed. India deployed thousands of troops in Jammu and Kashmir and on January 20, CRPF open fired on a group of Kashmiri protesters at Gawakadal that killed 50 people. January 19 became the catalyst which propelled into a mass upsurge. After that, hundreds of young men came out in support of secession and crossed the borders to receive arms. Local mosque told pandits to leave their homes that led to a mass exodus. One of the Kashmiri Pandits recall “They (militants) said be a human shield for us because there was curfew.” The Pandits were not the only community thrown out, Punjabis and Dogras faced the same fate.
Most of the Kashmiri Pandits who left, settled in the transit camps of Jammu, NCR and other parts of India. Once elite Pandits, who monopolized most of the government jobs and lived in posh colonies of the Valley were thrown out, their property was either charred down or taken over by the militants. The Pandit families who chose to stay in the Valley amidst insurgency were supported by their Muslim neighbours but this was a rare scenario. 40,000 Kashmir Pandit families left the Valley during that time. Home for them was a make shift plastic tent. Their population declined drastically because of the difficult living conditions and a fall in the birth rate.
25 years after the exodus, the Kashmiri Pandits are still not willing to go back. Kashmir now houses less than 3000 of Kahsmiri Pandits. When asked about his return, Suresh Koul, a retired government official said “Kahsmir ki bahut yaad aati hai…kaun bhool sakta hai.” Scratch the surface and the rage comes out spilling, “Our ethnicity and identity is destroyed, we had to assimilate new cultures, our ethos forgotten. From birth to death Kashmiri Pandits have our own culture, our own rituals; you can’t be a Kashmiri Pandit outside of Kashmir. My children will never be able to go back to their homeland. They drove us out.”
In 2008, the government started PM’s special package for rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits, before this no authority paid heed to the plight of Pandit community. Under this scheme, the youth were offered jobs if they came back to the valley with their families and Rs 7.5 lacks for re constructing their ancestral homes. Around 1445 young people were given jobs as part of this package. Special flats were constructed in Sheikhpora and other colonies. Rahul Bhatt (name changed) is one of those living in Sheikhpora, he says “Before joining, employees are made to sign a bond that allotted accommodation for them and their families. Under the terms of the package, they could not request job transfers and will be immediately terminated if they left the Valley. Two families are made to share two bedroom quarters. We are cut off from the society and this is just bonded labour.”
This package failed to attract the Kashmiri Pandits. Pandits left in lakhs and came back in hundreds. Recently, Omar Abdullah admitted that to bring back Pandits, government needs to double its efforts for their return by increasing financial assistance and instilling a sense of security. A new package has come up that offers Rs 20 lacks to the Kashmiri Pandit families to re construct their homes. However, no Kashmiri migrant family has so far come forward expressing its willingness to return to the valley and avail the incentive. Kashmiri Pandits feel luring them with money won’t dismiss the fact that they were thrown out. “SuchÂ endeavorsÂ try to reduce ourÂ exodus from the Valley to some kind of a natural calamity, like famine, flood or earthquake”Â said a member of ‘Roots in Kashmir’. A group of Kashmiri Pandits staged a protest at Press Enclave with a six-point charter of demands that included passing of the Temple and Shrines Bill, probe into the encroachments of Hindu temples, special employment package for non-migrant KPs and more. Ashwani Charangoo of ‘Panun Kashmir’ said “the migrant community is not prepared to return to the Valley until the fulfillment of its geo-political aspirations which included carving out of an area with Union Territory status for Pandits within the Valley.”
This news has not gone down well with Kashmiri Pandits who didn’t migrate. There are close to 3000 Pandits still living in Kashmir. But the government has no proposal for them; they don’t have jobs or compensation unlike the ones who migrated. “We have also witnessed the same mayhem the Pandits who migrated faced. We are isolated and our kids could not get proper education” said Kamlesh Parimoo, who stayed back with her family in Habba Kadal in the old Srinagar city.
The moment this package was announced, the Grand Mufti opposed settlements for Kashmiri Pandits. He said Kashmiri Pandits are free to return back but no separate colonies and packages should be available to them. He said that settling the Kashmiri Pandits in security cover will lead to a divide in the Kashmiri society on religious lines. Some religious organizations are cautioning the Centre against any move to create separate settlements for migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley.
With this new package, 70,000 families can avail the incentive but no family is interested in the money or the job. When we talk about rehabilitation in Kashmir, it isn’t limited to giving a job and a shelter. Security is a major concern. Blaming the then Governor Jagmohan, or Farooq Abdulla won’t help. Mufti saying that RSS members are being settled in Kashmir in garb of Pandits won’t help either. The murky politics revolving around this issue needs to take a backseat. Thousands of families lost their homeland and their return is necessary to restore the composite culture of Kashmir. But what will they come back to? If they reject the incentives, they will have to live away from their homeland and if they dare shift back to Kashmir, people like Mufti won’t let them live in separate colonies and small clusters. The last time they lived in terror, they were thrown out. How do we expect them to come back? It’s time government finds a way out and there should be a wider consultation. Somebody has to listen to what they (Pandits) are saying. They deserve a dignified and honourable return to their home.
– ‘Our Moon Has Blood Clots’ by Rahul Pandita