Is Home Where The Heart Is?

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Hope floats Kashmiri Pandits celebrate Ram Navami in Srinagar
Hope floats Kashmiri Pandits celebrate Ram Navami in Srinagar
Photo: Faisal Khan

The Pandit question is back on everybody’s lips in the Valley. With the Narendra Modi government making the return to Kashmiri Pandits a priority issue, the debate is once again focussing on the nature of their rehabilitation, generating both hope and concern.

While most Pandit groups seek a separate settlement in the Valley — a demand opposed by Muslim parties, arguing it will create a perpetual communal divide — Muslims seek reintegration of the community into the Kashmiri society, a proposal viewed with suspicion by Pandits, who have legitimate security worries in such an arrangement. And the argument is far from settled.

On 20 June, Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and the issue that figured on top of the agenda was the return of Pandits.

Sources say that the Centre is all set to approve a package of 20 lakh each for migrant Kashmiri Pandits to reconstruct their houses, a significant increase from the existing aid of Rs 7.5 lakh per family, which was decided in 2008.

Omar says that the package for enhancing monetary assistance was sent by the state government to the UPA government in 2012, but nothing came of it. “I am glad that the current government is actively considering the proposal with some modifications. We support this measure,” he says.

But what both the Centre and the state government have not revealed is the shape this rehabilitation will take. Sources in the Central government talk about a plan to settle the community in three satellite townships in north, central and south Kashmir.

New Delhi, the sources reveal, has asked the state government to identify and earmark 16,800 kanals of land in three districts of the Valley — Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar — where the Pandit families could be resettled.

Each township would accommodate at least 75,000-100,000 people. The government will set up a medical college and engineering colleges for each settlement. Under the plan, 12 police stations would be provided to ensure security to the colonies.

According to the seven components of the existing package for the community, the Centre will provide housing assistance, transit accommodation, cash relief for a period of two years after the Pandits return, besides student scholarships, employment in state government service, assistance to farmers and waiver of the interest component of loans taken by the members of the community before they fled the Valley in 1990.

But the project is facing stiff opposition from separatist groups who want Pandits reintegrated back into Kashmiri society, a demand that resonates with the majority community in the Valley. At a recent seminar, Hurriyat G chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani threatened mass mobilsation against the contemplated townships for Pandits.

“For the past 70 years, India has rejected the two-nation theory. Now, the same country is trying to create separate settlements in Kashmir on the basis of religion,” said Geelani. “We will mobilise public opinion and build consensus with pro-freedom parties to foil Delhi’s plan.”

However, Geelani welcomed the return of Pandits to Kashmir. “I can say with authority that there is not a single person in Kashmir who is against the return of Kashmiri Pandits,” said Geelani. “But they must be settled in their own homes and not in special zones as they are an integral part of our culture.”

While acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue, sources in the state government argue that there is no other option. They cite the fact that a large number of Pandit families have sold their properties in the Valley and, as a result, it was impossible for them to return to their old neighbourhoods. More so, when the security issues that forced them to leave still exist.

“In my neighbourhood in Srinagar, a Pandit family sold their house for 10 lakh, now the same house costs 2 crore. It will not be possible for them to buy it back,” says a National Conference leader, underlying the practical difficulty of resettling Pandits in their ancestral colonies.

But this contention is rejected by the Valley’s civil society, which terms the idea of separate settlements dangerous. “If the government is ready to build separate cities for Pandits, why not buy land for them in their native villages and settle them there?” asks noted Kashmiri poet Zarif Ahmad Zarif. “Separate settlements politicise the otherwise genuine humanitarian issue of the Pandits’ return and serves to achieve a sinister agenda in its garb.”

Civil society group Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, of which Zarif is a member, held a meeting in Srinagar on 23 June and decided to resist what it called the “insidious project to create religious ghettos in the Valley”.

This has created a fraught situation, which, if handled without understanding, could take a violent turn in the run-up to the Assembly election scheduled for later his year. And this is what even Sanjay Tickoo, the leader of the small Pandit population that did not leave Kashmir, warns against.

“In power, the BJP is talking two things about Kashmir. One, to revoke Article 370. Second, to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley,” says Tickoo. “This creates suspicion in the minds of Muslims and thus harms rather than helps the cause of the return of Kashmiri Pandits. What the government should do is to create inclusive colonies where both Muslims and Pandits live.”

The Kashmiri Pandits left the Valley in the wake of the outbreak of militancy in 1989. According to political scientist Alexander Evans, who has researched the Pandit flight, 95 percent of the around 170,000-strong community left. And ever since, their return has been mired in Kashmir’s troubles and, much like the conflict over the state, become more complicated by the year.

Though the exodus has plugged a section of the displaced Pandit population into a wider world of opportunity, a significant number has lost everything, gone through the indignity of living in refugee camps and struggled to rebuild their lives. The community faces tough choices, split between the older generation’s memories of their homeland and a new generation with no lived experience of Kashmir and hence less attached to the prospect of returning. But overhanging both generations is the fear of ethnic extinction. With the new generation marrying outside their community, the Pandits’ struggle to hold on to their language and mores is becoming ever more difficult.

In Kashmir, however, this reality gets pitted against the narrative of the sufferings of Muslims. “Thousands have died in Kashmir and the society is still mopping the fallout of the war,” says Coalition of Civil Society convener Khurram Parvez, who adds that the Pandits’ suffering was part of the larger Kashmir tragedy.

But Khurram cautions that a separate Pandit settlement would create a new conflict in Kashmir over and above the existing political problem. “This will ghettoise the Pandit community and the ghettoisation, as we have already seen globally, becomes a permanent source of fragmentation and divide,” he warns.

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The last Pandit family of Haal 

While Pandits fled this village at the height of militancy, one man decided to stay back. Riyaz Wani on the life of Omkar Nath Bhat 

Crumbling edifice A house left behind by a Kashmiri Pandit family in Haal
Crumbling edifice A house left behind by a Kashmiri Pandit family in Haal. Photo: Javed Dar

A roadside village, Haal, suddenly heaves into view at a bend in the road, often shocking people with its haunting desolation. Villagers talk of hearing noises in the night. A group of broken mud brick houses with gaping windows is all that remains of the once thriving south Kashmir village where 80 Kashmiri Pandit families lived side by side with 40 Muslim neighbours in keeping with the tradition of Kashmiriyat.

But for the family of Omkar Nath Bhat, all the Pandits left when militancy began in 1989, following their brethren from other parts of the Valley to Jammu and other parts of the country. Bhat was left alone and nervous but he decided against migration. “It was a decision we can’t explain why we made. But we made it,” says Bhat, 75, a pheran-clad grey-haired man, who lives in the village with his wife Lajwanti, two sons, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. “In fact, we can say we delayed our decision to leave and still continue to defer it.”

Outside his home, the deserted houses of his old Pandit neighbours come into sight as imposing hollowedout brick shells under resurgent Chinar trees. A dense undergrowth of bushes and bracken has massed around their unbounded compounds. Their ruins nevertheless point to a once prosperous village with large expansive houses built in the traditional Kashmiri style with unplastered bricks stacked in timber frames and a projected bay window in the middle of the third storey. But now, the houses are in a proactive state of decrepitude with the still standing bare brick walls threatening to collapse.

It was tough for Bhat to watch Haal disintegrate into a scattered group of ghost houses and live through the Valley’s darkest times where the village itself got sucked into the unfolding murder and mayhem. His family stayed put through the 1990s when the Valley averaged a daily death toll of more than 20 people, which included a civilian killed by security forces just outside his house in 1996. And Bhat didn’t even think of fleeing when his own community suffered three successive massacres.

Haal became a microcosm for the turmoil playing out across the state, with around 10 youth from among his Muslim neighbours going across to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for arms training and returning as militants. “But they never visited our home nor did they harass us in any way,” says Bhat, standing under the eaves of his old home. “This encouraged us to carry on.”

But this was little comfort for the family in an environment ruled by fear, with death always lurking in the corner. “As far as possible, we did go normally about our lives, trying to stay away from activities that might breed suspicion or compromise our neutrality,” says Bhat, mindful of the sensitive space he occupied between the separatist insurgents and the State. “I just did my farming and my sons their government jobs.”

His elder son Ashok Kumar, 40, is a clerk in the postal department, while Maharaj Krishen, 38, is a government teacher. Kumar is married to Purnima, a Pandit girl from a neighbouring village whose father also chose to stay back in 1990.

The family feels their tightrope walk has paid off. After 23 years of wait, Haal is slowly finding peace. The mayhem of the ’90s is long past and now even the intermittent mass protests have petered out. But along the way, Haal has also moved on and so have the Pandit families who left the village with the onset of militancy.

Bhat is not certain that they will come back, even though none of them have sold their properties. “In recent years, many of their owners came back to the village. They visited their ravaged houses, walked around them, sat in the courtyard and then left,” says Bhat. “In the past two decades, they have built up an alternative existence and it won’t be easy to wind that up. Besides, it is the older generation with memories about the place that is nostalgic about the return, not the young generation.”

Carrying on their limited existence in the village, Bhat’s family is choosing to sidestep the challenges that face them and their community in the transition to a peaceful Kashmir. They are happy that Haal is past its violent interregnum and hope that the village will return to its good old days. But this is not what the members of their community living in a government established barricaded settlement across the bridge think. They are government employees — some of them former residents of Haal — who have come over to the Valley for temporary durations to join their duties. And for them, while Haal may be peaceful, the shadow of the conflict stretches right across the village.

“For us, Kashmir has just lapsed into normalcy. There is nothing in terms of a political development or resolution of the problems that has enabled this change. Factors that spawned the conflict are unchanged,” says Sachin Pandit, a former resident of Haal, who is staying in the government colony. “I, for one, will not feel secure living at my ancestral house in Haal. There is always a dread that Kashmir will go back to square one.

Bhat’s family, however, has no such fears. Having chosen to live through the uncertainties of Kashmir, they aren’t scared of more trouble. Or in the words of Bhat, they can never bring themselves to taking a decision to leave. “We belong to this land and this land belongs to us. We know how to adjust with each other,” says Bhat, who now spends his time looking after the village temple. “This will not be how we will live in a strange land. Leaving Kashmir will send our lives adrift.”

And while Bhat was saying this, his grandkids were frolicking around the courtyard, and his wife peering distantly through a window barred by uneven wooden rods.

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