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100-Day Lockdown: Pandits' Return Still a Chimera

While pandits outside Kashmir bask in revenge, in the Valley they fear a bleak future.
Kashmiri Pandits

Flats built in Sheikhpura, Budgam to facilitate the return of Kashmiri pandits to the valley.

One hundred days have passed since the revocation of Kashmir’s special status and bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. The prime justification for these moves, an issue continuously raised by right wing forces, is that it would facilitate the return of Kashmiri pandits to the Valley. This justification is even used to counter the criticism of undemocratic practices in the Valley and to legitimise atrocities on minorities in the rest of the country.

Of course, a substantial section of the Kashmiri pandit community—from Jammu to Johannesburg and Delhi to Dallas—hailed the government’s decision to read down Article 370. Their jubilant celebrations were plastered on the front pages of newspapers and found cosy accommodation in the gung-ho nationalism of news channels. News channels saw the coverage of the lockdown of the Valley as a very minor issue, something they considered subservient to the ‘national interest’. Besides, it was justified by raising the prospect of Kashmiri pandits being rehabilitated in the Valley after close to three decades.

So palpable was the enthusiasm that a singer, known for her right-wing affiliations, called for Chhath Puja celebrations at Srinagar’s iconic Dal lake. Her definitive assumption, it appeared, was that Hindu culture is synonymous with the religious practices of the Gangetic plain. She was remarkably oblivious to the fact that Kashmir has its own culture and festivals which do not include most celebrations in states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Now that the lockdown has crossed a hundred days, it is high time to examine the claims of the government, its supporters and the Kashmiri pandits, in particular those who live outside the Valley.

I had the opportunity to interview some members of the pandit community living in different parts of Kashmir valley. Indeed, contrary to both the popular perception and the propaganda around the exodus of Kashmiri pandits, it is true that some Hindus never deserted their homeland. Around 808 families, mostly Kashmiri pandits, but also some 6,000 Sikh families, still live in the Valley.

The Exodus, Article 370 and Pandit’s Return

The number of Kashmiri pandits who fled the Valley between 1991 and 1998 vary. Opinion is sharply divided whether 1.5 lakh of them had fled, or more than 7 lakhs. Setting aside this controversy—and indeed the alleged role of then governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Jagmohan—this exodus is one of the greatest human tragedies in India after 1947.

Even more so because while all of undivided Northern India saw communal violence and forced exodus in 1947-48, the Valley had remained perfectly harmonious. Then, what happened in Kashmir during the nineties, did not affect the mainland as much. Contrary to substantive Kashmiri pandit opinion, not much attention was paid to the exodus outside Jammu. The obvious reason is that the rest of the country was busy with Rath yatras, the Babri masjid demolition and its bloody aftermath, and so on.

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Sanjay Tikoo

But as Sanjay Tikoo, leader of the resident Kashmiri pandit organisation, Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) says, “When the nineties happened, no one in the mainland cared one bit. But things have changed since then. If the right wing gets stronger in India, Kashmir will see a further surge in Islamic fundamentalism—and if this time Kashmir bleeds, India will not remain peaceful.”

The saga of the exodus of Kashmiri pandits started to gain prominence only after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as a viable independent electoral force and could form government. Thereafter, their exodus has been most unfortunately used as a convenient tool to defend religious extremism. And, a section of Kashmiri pandits have obligingly joined the rabid communal chorus.

To start with, Article 35A deterred other Indians from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir, but it never stopped Kashmiri pandits who had migrated from the Valley—whether during the nineties or earlier—from doing so. They had state subject certificates which gave them every right that a resident Kashmiri possessed until the region’s status was changed on 5 August. What deterred them, if anything, was the lack of peace and sense of security in the Valley. Another factor was the lack of employment and viable career opportunities, even for educated Kashmiris.

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Khemlata Wakhloo

Khemlata Wakhloo is a social activist former minister in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state government. In the early nineties, she was abducted by militants. When I met her, she welcomed the abrogation but she was not quite sure about its implications for long term peace in the Valley. And on the possible return of Kashmiri pandits, she pointed towards the continued and distinct lack of employment opportunities.

Most migrant pandits are, by now, well settled in different corners of India and even in other countries. Valley resident Wakhloo’s is an instructive example: none of her children settled in Kashmir. Or meet Dr Vimala Dhar, who owns a magnificent home in Rajbagh, one of the most affluent parts of Srinagar. She narrates a similar story. Her husband, Dr SN Dhar, was also abducted by the militants during the turbulence nineties. Not just the Dhars, most well-to-do Kashmiri families send their wards outside Kashmir for higher education. They also encourage their children to make a home in more peaceful locations which offer better career prospects.

Industrialisation and Development: Myth and Reality

One more claim that is repeatedly being made since 5 August is that revoking the special status and bifurcating the state presents an opportunity for rapid industrialisation, even of the Valley, and that this will generate employment. However, what is never mentioned is that land for commercial purposes was always available on lease to anybody keen on setting up industry in the Valley.

In his (in)famous speech (after which he was sacked by Peoples Democratic Party chief Mehbooba Mufti), former state finance minister Haseeb Drabu had called Kashmir a “sold-out destination” and characterised the Kashmir problem as a social issue. He had suggested that it was lack of peace that was the sole reason for the absence of investments in the region.

But recall an incident from the late sixties, when then prime minister of Kashmir Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq had written to former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi: “If I ask for an extra battalion of the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] you will send it next day, but if I will ask for an industry, it won’t come even in a decade.” Things have changed for the worse since then.

Amit Wanchoo, whose grandfather is the famous trade unionist, late HN Wanchoo, has a more pertinent query: “What investment should you expect in the Valley? You cannot establish heavy industry here. The best you can do is to develop tourism or make it an educational hub or encourage herbal farming. That needs good governance and peace,” he says.

This peace is still illusive and nowhere in sight. As Tikoo laments, “The (non-resident) pandits’ celebrations have made our lives here difficult. The move on Article 370 will prolong the conflict for another 100 years, sharpen the communal divide and bring down tolerance levels.”

This is quite evident from the continuing civil disobedience across the Valley. The people of the region have largely refused to participate in daily economic life, for they wish to not strengthen the propaganda about “normalcy” having returned to the Valley. To anyone moving around in the Valley today, the anger among the masses and their total disillusionment is in any case palpable.

Tikoo says, “Why would any Kashmiri pandit who lives in a peaceful locality of a metro and is earning well want to return to the Valley? That is the question, does anyone really want to return? If yes, then what was stopping them until now and what has changed for them now?”

This sentiment is echoed by Roop Krishna Kaul, who runs a medical shop on Hari Singh Street of Srinagar and Ratan Lal Talashi who is from Walarhama village of south Kashmir. Manohar Lalgami, who lives in a transit camp at Sheikhpura near Badgam, points out that the decay in Kashmiri society and the religiously-charged radicalisation of the Valley’s education system. These two factors are what he holds responsible for the flight of students from Kashmir. He asks, rhetorically, “How can you expect quality education when schools and colleges remain closed for months every year?”

Triumph? Or Lost Opportunity?

The elation of Kashmiri pandits outside the Valley seems to emerge from their sense of triumph over, and revenge from, those whom they hold responsible for their exodus. It is less about the possibility of their return. The animosity between younger generations of Kashmiri pandits and Muslims is cruder and more vocal, because unlike their parents or grandparents, they have had no first-hand experience of co-existence. They have grown up hearing traumatic stories of the exodus on the one hand and repression on the other.

The Jama’t [Jamaat-e-Islami] has had a deep impact on the Kashmiri Muslim psyche. Alongside, a resurgent Hindu right has captured the imagination of a large section of the migrant Kashmiri pandit population. The pandits have tried hard to merge with the larger Hindu identity, diluting their own ethnic character within it. By now, the children of migrated Kashmiri pandits have lost their language, which was their most important link with the Valley and its ethos. Inter-caste marriages are common among them too and as, Roop Krishna Kaul points out, “Forget the return of the pandits. The real danger is the dilution and evaporation of Kashmiri pandit identity and culture.”

The writer is author of Kashmirnama and his next project Kashmir aur Kashmiri pandits is soon to be published.

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