Just when one thought that the controversy surrounding the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley had subsided, the issue is back at the centre stage with Pakistan too jumping into the fray. On 30 April, Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam called India’s plan to create composite Pandit townships a bid to alter the demography of the “disputed territory” of Jammu and Kashmir. And now, taking a cue from the public mood in the Valley, even the Opposition National Conference (NC) has taken a strident position against separate colonies for Pandits while welcoming their return to their ancestral places.
“We are against separate clusters for Kashmiri Pandits. We welcome their return to Kashmir but we will not let the government create separate colonies for them,” NC general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar told reporters during a protest rally in Srinagar. The party’s response followed Deputy Chief Minister Nirmal Singh’s statement that the state would go ahead with the plan and enable Pandits to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.
This has added a new dimension to the controversy that began in early April after Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in a meeting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh decided to build “composite townships” in Kashmir for the Pandits. Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (jklf) supremo Yasin Malik was quick to hold a press conference and give a call for hartal on 11 April. All the separatist groups supported the move, leading to a complete shutdown on that day.
The strident objections of the separatists and the subdued reservations of the nc and the People’s Democratic Party (pdp) were matched measure-for-measure by the strong pitch for the segregated Pandit townships by some Kashmiri Pandit groups, with both the bjp and the Congress showing some empathy with the community’s predicament. While Mufti, goaded by public pressure, clarified that people from all communities would inhabit the composite townships, Singh stood by the central government’s decision on “the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits”.
There was nothing surprising about the turn of events. This is a script that has been played out in the state over and over again in the past several years. The separatists have long been demanding that the Pandits should return to their ancestral places and reintegrate into the Kashmiri society. It is a demand that finds resonance among a large section of the population in the Valley and is, therefore, also tacitly favoured by the Valley-based mainstream parties such as the pdp and the nc, which are afraid of running foul of their constituencies should they support separate settlements.
Far from heading towards a resolution, the issue has thus become increasingly complex over time and mired in the competing paranoia of the two communities. While the separatist groups fear an impending “demographic change and Israel- type settlement plan in the Valley”, the Kashmiri Pandits claim to have legitimate security reasons for seeking segregated colonies. The fear is that if they were scattered across the Valley, they would once again become easy targets for the secessionist militants.
Apart from the competing fears, however, there are some practical reasons for the Pandits’ inability to go back to their houses. According to Vinod Pandit of the All-Parties Migrant Coordination Committee, around 80 percent of the Kashmiri Pandits have sold off their houses in the Valley since the 1990s. “Where shall we go now?” asks Vinod, who had sold his house in Kulgam for 3.25 lakh sometime in the early ’90s. “This makes it impossible for the Pandit community to resettle in their old localities.”
Another reason is that a new generation has grown up in both the communities in the past 25 years with no memories of coexisting with the other community. “We can’t go back to a place where people don’t recognise us,” says Vinod. “Hence, the need for separate townships.”
But such arguments hardly wash with the separatist groups who find the very idea of segregated townships inherently dangerous. “The purpose of the return and rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits should have been the restoration of harmony and reconciliation between the communities rather than driving a wedge between them,” says Ayaz Akber, spokesperson of the Hurriyat faction led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani. He points out that even today there are some places in the Valley where the Pandits live with their Muslim neighbours. “Creating separate settlements is an exercise in complicating rather than resolving the problem.”
Kashmiri Pandits comprise just over two percent of the Valley’s population while the Muslims account for 97 percent. Right now, only 7,247 Pandits live in Kashmir. So their return is hardly a demographic threat. “This is true. But what does Pandit-only townships complete with modern infrastructure mean? Doesn’t it echo the Israeli policy in Palestine ? Won’t this create a permanent division between the communities with New Delhi using the Pandits for imposing a kind of civilian occupation of Kashmir?” asks Khurram Parvez, convenor of the civil liberties group J & KCoalition of Civil Society. “Besides, this whole security narrative about Pandit resettlement is bogus. The separate colonies will make the Pandits more vulnerable to attacks, not less.”
Last year, soon after the BJP government assumed charge in New Delhi, there was talk of the Centre having asked the state government to identify and earmark 16,800 kanals of land (about 170 sq km) in three districts of the Valley — Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar — where Pandit families could be resettled.
Each township, according to the proposal doing the rounds, will accommodate at least 75,000-1,00,000 people. The government will establish medical- and engineering colleges for each settlement. Under the plan, 12 police stations will be set up to ensure security to the colonies. The Centre will also provide housing assistance, transit accommodation and cash relief for a period of two years after the Pandits return, besides scholarships, employment in the state government, assistance to farmers and waiving of interest on loans taken by the members of the community before they fled the Valley.
The plan generated deep concern in the Valley. The then NC-Congress coalition government didn’t deny it. At the time, too, a similar political spectacle had played out in and outside the state. And this is bound to happen every time the issue crops up.
“Over the past 25 years, the Pandits issue, just like everything else in j&k, has become tangled with the larger Kashmir crisis. It can’t be antiseptically resolved by an act of the state, while every other problem continues to fester,” says Naseer Ahmad, a Srinagar-based columnist. “A solution has to be worked out collectively by building trust between the two communities. It has to be a civil society initiative where we debate the solutions and then build a consensus. This is the need of the hour as Kashmir can’t afford another fault line.”