Return of Kashmiri Pandits: Promises and Uncertainties
ISSSP Reflections No. 19, August 1, 2014
Author: Dr. M. Mayilvaganan and Ms. Pallavi Parashar
President Pranab Mukherjee, in his inaugural address to the joint session of Parliament on June 9th outlined the plans of the Narendra Modi-led Government regarding the rehabilitation and return of the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. Subsequently, Finance minister Arun Jaitley announced Rs. 500-crore special package for rehabilitation of Kashmir Pandits in the Union Budget 2014. The scheme, part of the BJP’s election manifesto, aims to encourage the return of displaced Pandits to the state with ‘dignity, security and assured livelihood.’
According to the announced scheme, a package of Rs. 20 lakh would be given to the returnees’ families for reconstruction of their house/property in the Valley, which were either destroyed or burnt during the communal strife in 1990. The rehabilitation package also provides for repurchase of their houses which were sold in distress before fleeing the state, regardless of the time period in which they disposed of their properties.
With this, the focus is back on the ‘forgotten community’ of the Valley. The renewed attempts from the Indian government instil a sense of optimism within the community on the issue of their rehabilitation. Nevertheless, there are concerns, which raise multiple questions about the viability of their return. On the whole, a financial package may help the displaced families in establishing a place to live, but concerns regarding their safety and livelihood in terms of jobs and infrastructure remain. Questions about their safety in Kashmir have also been a cause of worry for the community. Specifically, the Kashmiri Pandits are fearful of falling prey to another cycle of jihadi violence and communal strife in the state.
Exodus and State Response
The Kashmiri Pandits are Hindu minority—mainly Brahmins and followers of Shaivism—of Kashmir. In 1980s, they accounted for about 6% of the total population in the valley. The outbreak of militancy and violence in 1987, which was also directed towards the Hindu minority in Kashmir, resulted in large-scale displacement of Pandits from the State. The exodus was marked by the fear of persecution compelling many to seek safer places outside the valley. Amidst the chaos, many Pandits left behind their properties and assets hoping the turmoil would end soon and they would return to their native places. However, uncertainties and continued hostilities prevented them from returning to the Valley.
Those who were well off ‘migrated’ to metros such as Delhi or to foreign lands, but the not so well off families were compelled to stay in the State established camps in Jammu. Since then, the community has undergone numerous challenges in rebuilding their lives and protecting their culture.
Estimates vary on the number of Kashmiri Pandits who left the Valley. According to the 2011 report of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council, 250,000 Pandits have been displaced due to violence in Kashmir Valley since 1990. Conversely, the government statistics maintain that around 100,000 left the Valley. According to them, there are about 60452 registered Kashmiri migrant families in the country and close to 3000 Pandits still residing in Kashmir.
Displaced Kashmiri Pandit families living in Jammu and Delhi receive cash relief of Rs. 1650/- per head per month (maximum Rs.6600/- per family per month) in addition to dry ration of 9 kg Rice, 2 kg wheat per person per month and 1 kg sugar per family per month from the government.
Prior to the current package, New Delhi had initiated some measures in the form of financial assistance/relief. Notably, the UPA government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April 2008 announced a proposal of Rs 1,618 crore packages for the return and rehabilitation of Pandits following a similar package in 2004. The main components of the package were housing assistance of Rs. 7.5 lakh per family for repair/reconstruction for fully or partially damaged houses, financial assistance of Rs. 2 lakh per family for dilapidated/unused houses and assistance of Rs. 7.5 lakh per family for purchase/construction of a house in Group Housing Societies, for those who had sold their properties during the period after 1989 and before the enactment of ‘The Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) Migrant Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Restraint of Distress Sale) Act, 1997’ on May 30, 1997.
Additionally, the package assured the continuation of cash relief and free rations to displaced families (who had taken refuge in Jammu and Delhi) at Rs. 5,000/- per family for a period of two years after their return to the Valley and assistance of Rs. 750/- per month per child up to the age of 18 years. The J&K Government also constituted an Apex Advisory Committee in September 2009 under the Chairmanship of State Revenue Minister to oversee the implementation of the announced package. Earlier, through the J&K Immovable property (preservation, protection and restraint on distress sales) Act of 1997, the state government specified that District Magistrate would take possession of immovable property of Pandits for preservation, protection and eviction of unauthorised occupants.
However, attempts to ensure return of the Kashmiri Pandits have failed due to multiple reasons. In the view of some Kashmiri Pandits, the state and central government have only doled out meagre cash compensations and not made any substantial efforts to build confidence. They feel that the governments lack the political will to negotiate a settlement, fearing it may antagonise the Muslim majority in Kashmir.
Views of the Pandits and Muslims
Even though Kashmiri Pandits and Muslim majority in the State welcome Modi-government’s rehabilitation scheme, they continue to remain sceptical about the pronounced plan for various reasons. The Pandits fear that once they return, they may be targeted in case of any unrest in Kashmir, since they were and perhaps continue to be seen as “agents” of the Indian Government in the region. Massacres at Wandhama in 1997, Sangrampora in 1998 and Nadimarg in 2003 are some cases in point.
Therefore, due to the complex nature of the issue, Pandit organisations or “samitis” such as ‘Panun Kashmir’ have demanded a separate homeland—Union Territory or at least a separate satellite town—for them within the region. Recently, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s “supreme commander” and Pakistan-based Kashmiri head of the United Jihad Council, Syed Salahuddin has opposed this idea, calling it a ‘big conspiracy.’ Thus, only time will tell if ‘Panun Kashmir’ would serve as a viable solution for the problem.
Another important question that arises is whether the displaced Pandit families really want to return? There are no straight answers but multiple views within Pandits community.
Understandably, for majority of the new generation that were born and brought up outside Kashmir, there is little yearning to go back to the Valley. The social and economic transformation of some Pandits, brought about by emigration and assimilation with their new habitation have contributed to their disinterest in returning to the Valley, irrespective of whether or not the situation is conducive. Also, many feel that avenues for economic sustenance or growth are not available in Kashmir due to the economic and political uncertainties.
The older generation, in particular, may prefer to return to the Valley, if there is an assurance of security and peace. However, a major problem would be to re-integrate the returnees with the local community, especially in view of their past trauma. Hence, some feel that a return can be negotiated on the condition of establishing a separate satellite township, for the Pandits within the Valley, along with political empowerment and minority status. Undoubtedly, settling them in their native habitat appears more challenging given the numbers of pending litigations in various forums regarding illegal occupation of their properties. Therefore, the debate revolves around the issue whether the returnees should be integrated with their old neighbourhoods or be made to settle in new clusters/settlements.
Meanwhile, the idea of forming separate clusters for Pandits has run into opposition; thereby raising serious questions about the return of the Pandits to the state.Muslims in the Valley perceive the Modi-government rehabilitation package as an attempt by New Delhi to divide the Kashmiri society. It is also believed that through this policy, Indian government intends to settle non-Kashmiri Hindus so as to change the ethnic composition of Kashmir.
The need of the hour is to initiate an exhaustive dialogue between the Pandits and all the stakeholders in the state in order to reach an acceptable and viable solution. Also, the Modi government needs to forge consensus within the Pandits community regarding their return and settlement in Kashmir. For changes to happen and promises to be fulfilled, the government must show sincerity as the previous governments and leaders have spoken about facilitating the return of Kashmiri Pandits but progress has been extremely limited. Without wider consultations and a general consensus, any package would be unacceptable and unviable.
In short, the issue of rehabilitation of the Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley is unlikely to make much headway without consensus among the various stakeholders. With fresh attempts by the Modi Government towards rehabilitation of the Pandits, there is hope but amidst fears that the fate of the displaced community may continue to hang in uncertainty for some more time to come.
About the Authors
Dr. M. Mayilvaganan is Assistant Professor, International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, NIAS, Bangalore. He can be reached at mumayil[at]yahoo[dot]com
Ms. Pallavi Parashar is a Post Graduate Scholar in Department of International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai & former intern at ISSSP, NIAS.
Picture Courtesy: Deccan Chronicle