Among the multi-layered tragedies that have afflicted J&K, perhaps the most poignant is the forced exile of the Kashmiri Pandit community. Estimates are that there are some 60,000 families, who now live mainly in Jammu and New Delhi. This could translate to 3-4 lakh people who were suddenly uprooted and forced to fend for themselves.
In a Valley inhabited by some 70 lakh Muslims, it is hard to see how their resettlement would upset the ethnic balance. Yet those who are protesting make it out as though that would be the consequence of having the Pandits back in the Valley.
An estimated 60,000 Kashmiri Pandit families were uprooted and forced to leave the Valley
The paranoia is manifested by claims that their return through “composite townships”, as mooted by the government, will be tantamount to Israeli settlement - but Pandits are as much entitled to live in the Valley as Muslims.
The community had no choice but to leave. They were the objects of targeted assassination and intimidation at the onset of the Kashmir rebellion. People attacked Governor Jagmohan for their flight, but the reality is that the unarmed and scared Pandits fled as they witnessed mass intimidation and assassination of their community.
All Jagmohan did was to ease their departure by assuring those who had government jobs that they would continue to get their salaries.
The real blame for their departure rests squarely with the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front and its leader at the time, Yasin Malik.
The violence in the Valley has receded. But the situation is not normal, as evidenced by recent incidents of attacks on security forces in Jammu, as well as the incident last week, where three unarmed police personnel were gunned down.
Normality will not come till the union government addresses the sentiment that is exploited routinely by the Hurriyat. We must also settle with Pakistan, since Kashmir is a dispute in the books of the international community.
But, of course, normality will also be judged by the return of the exiled Pandit community to the Valley.
The problem now is that not many would want to go back to the Valley for economic reasons. Those who have government jobs can easily be reinserted into the system. But the others have moved on. After all, it has been a quarter of a century since they were exiled. They have been forced to join the mainstream in search of jobs and education and there may not be much left for them back home in the Vale of Kashmir.
As it is, there is not much by way of manufacturing or services in the Vale. Yet the project of re-integrating the Pandits into the Valley has important cultural and political imperatives. Efforts have been made in the past to offer the Pandits incentives to move back. But barely 200 families have availed of the opportunities.
The BJP is particularly keen to take up the project and as part of this, the Union Home Ministry has announced the decision to create “composite townships” and have requested coalition partner CM Mufti Mohammed Sayeed to acquire land for the purpose.
This has been vehemently opposed by the separatists, led, ironically, by the same Yasin Malik who played a nefarious role in forcing the Pandits out.
They have made all kinds of wild allegations about creating Israel-type settlements in the Valley. On the other hand, the Congress and National Conference charge that these townships will be akin to ghettoes.
The word “composite” has been carefully chosen – Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madni, the founder of the Jamiat-ul-ulema-e-Hind believed India was a composite culture where Hindus and Muslims could live together and hence he and his organisation opposed partition.
Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed has clarified that these will not be Pandit-only settlements, but include Muslims as well. Not many people realise that it was not just the Pandits who fled the Valley, but many Muslims as well.
The key, of course, is just how the project will be executed. Pandits and Muslims have lived side-by-side in the past and even today they enjoy a composite culture under the rubric of “Kashmiriyat”.
The idea of a composite culture has been battered by the events of the last 25 years, and what we are trying now is to see if its pieces can be put back together and a deprived people given a modicum of justice.
The townships should not be seen as special fortresses, but a newer way of approaching the urbanisation of the Valley which requires not only proper housing, but generates job opportunities.
As for security, there is no option but to make it part of the larger security of the Valley itself. As of now it is not all that bad, despite the isolated instances of terrorism. There are still some hardcore gunmen in the Valley, but their message is of little consequence.
Besides composite townships, the government could also consider rebuilding the many run-down houses of Pandits in their erstwhile localities in Srinagar and other Kashmiri towns. While some properties were sold off, there are many lying more or less abandoned. The state can purchase and redevelop them.
Reinserting the Pandits back into their old environment is a preferable option. However, at the end of the day, the process depends not only on the design of the project, but on the imperatives and desires of the individual Pandit families now living in exile.
All options must be explored to do the right thing by them, because the state which failed to protect them owes them that. But at the end of the day, what they do, has to be their decision.
Mail Today April 14, 2015