Ever since they had to leave their homes in the Kashmir Valley in the wake of armed militancy in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Kashmiri Pandits living in exile have been the subject of competitive demagoguery during every election. This pattern has continued in the 2014 Lok Sabha election as well.
Responding to Union minister and National Conference (NC) chief Farooq Abdullah’s comment that those who vote for Narendra Modi should “jump into the sea”, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate alleged that Abdullah was indifferent to the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. “Kashmir is the only land from where Pandits were removed solely for their religion. The land of Sufism and harmony has been made communal due to the politics of your father (former Jammu & Kashmir CM Sheikh Abdullah) and your son (CM Omar Abdullah),” said Modi. Omar, in his turn, simply laid the blame for the exodus on the then J&K governor Jagmohan, a “BJP man”.
The Pandits, however, are not amused by this war of words. Under the banner of the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC), they have planned a protest rally on 4 June at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk with a six-point charter of demands. Called ‘Srinagar Chalo’, the rally is expected to be the biggest by the Pandits in 25 years.
The APMCC is demanding the passing of the Kashmir Temples and Shrines Bill in the J&K Legislative Assembly; probe into encroachment of temple/shrine land; establishment of Mata Sharda Peet University in J&K; one-time compensation for ‘overaged’ unemployed youth among migrant Kashmiri Pandits; and a special employment package for Hindus still living in the Kashmir Valley.
Perhaps the most striking demand is for a dialogue with Pakistan for allowing Kashmiri Pandits to visit the Mata Sharda Temple in Neelum Valley of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “Kashmiri Muslims are allowed access to Muzaffarabad (in PoK). When we demand the same, we are asked to approach the Pakistan government. If Pakistan has agreed to trade across that border, they can surely allow Pandits to pray at one of our holiest shrines,” says APMCC spokesperson King Bharati.
Protection and access to temples has been a longstanding demand of Kashmiri Pandits. In 2012, the J&K government had admitted that “of the 438 temples in the Valley, 208 had been damaged over the years”, though it denied reports of encroachment on temple land.
“The state government has been assuring us since 2006 that the Temples and Shrines Bill will be passed, but all the parties have been stalling it,” alleges Bharati. “The 600 temples in the Valley remain vulnerable to encroachment. For instance, the Jwala Temple in Pampore district has suffered massive encroachment owing to mismanagement by its trust.”
Bharati also points out that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had offered 1,600 crore for the “rehabilitation and resettlement of Pandits in Kashmir”. “What happened to that? Where are the jobs and reservation that were promised to us?” he asks.
NC spokesperson Junaid Mattu is defensive on the issues raised by APMCC. “The Temples and Shrines Bill was stalled by the PDP. There is no political consensus yet on tabling the Bill,” he says. “The NC has a sound policy on the return and rehabilitation of the Pandits.”
Another worry is whether the rally by Pandits would worsen the law and order situation in Kashmir, which has seen numerous incidents of stone-pelting during the ongoing Lok Sabha election. Detaining of minors under the stringent Public Security Act has added fuel to the fire, leading to more protests. “Our rally won’t add to the tension as we have nothing against the local Muslims. Our fight is with the J&K government,” says Bharati. “You will see that a lot of Kashmiri Muslims will also stand by us on 4 June.”
With a new government at the Centre having been sworn in by then, will the Pandits’ demands finally get a fair hearing?