After 27 years, on January 19, 2017, the Jammu & Kashmir Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution calling for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. The resolution was moved by former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah stating that what had happened 27 years ago was “unfortunate”. “Today, it has been 27 years since they left the Valley and we should rise above politics and pass a resolution in the House for their comeback,” he said. The resolution read that “a conducive atmosphere should be created for their safe return.” It was the first time ever that such a resolution was adopted by the State Assembly.
Continuing the efforts to reach out to the Pandits, the State government this month announced that it has identified 100 acres of land, spread across the 10 districts of the Valley, to build 6,000 transit homes and also promised them 15,000 jobs. But does this signal the end of the nightmare for the Pandits, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley?
The ‘self-determination movement’ caught on in Kashmir after 1998 with many political and militant groups challenging the sovereignty of the Indian state. By the early 1990s, prominent people supporting Indian rule were selectively killed; there were rallies chanting Islamic and anti-Indian slogans and attempts at Islamisation spread. The state failed to intervene decisively or provide security to the minorities.
Amid this atmosphere of fear, on January 4, 1990, Aftab, an Urdu newspaper in the Valley, published a warning, allegedly issued by the Hizbul Mujahideen, asking all Hindus to leave the Valley. This warning was repeated in the Al Safa and Srinagar Times on January 16, 1990.
The warnings came after the brutal killings of prominent Pandits such as Tikkalal Taploo, a high-profile Pandit leader, in September 1989 and Nilkanth Ganjoo, a High Court judge in November 1989.
Slogans such as Asi Gache Pakistan, Batav Ros, Batnev San (We want Pakistan and Pandit women and not Pandit men) put the Pandits on tenterhooks in their own motherland and their fears reached the peak in the cold night of January 19, 1990.
Point of No Return
Col Tej Kumar Tikoo in his 2012 book, Kashmir: Its Aborigines and Their Exodus, captures the deadly night:
“As the night fell, the microscopic community became panic-stricken when the Valley began reverberating with the war cries of Islamists. A host of highly provocative, communal and threatening slogans, interspersed with martial songs, incited the Muslims to come out on the streets and break the chains of ‘slavery’. These exhortations urged the faithful to give a final push to the kafir in order to ring in the true Islamic order. These slogans were mixed with precise and unambiguous threats to Pandits. They were presented with three choices – Ralive, Tsaliv ya Galive (convert to Islam, leave the place or perish). The Pandits could see the writing on the wall. By morning, it became apparent to Pandits that Kashmiri Muslims had decided to throw them out from the Valley.” The exodus began.
By 1991, most Pandits moved to transit and relief camps in Jammu and Delhi. Estimates put the number of Pandits who fled above 1,50,000 out of a total of about 1,70,000 Pandits in the Valley. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, 38,119 families live in Jammu, 19,338 in Delhi and 1,995 in other States.
Squalid refugee camps have been home to the once mostly prosperous Pandits for nearly three decades now. Many a time, over 10 people share a tent. The Impact of Migration on the Socio-Economic Conditions of Kashmiri Displaced People, a report by the Jammu and Kashmir Centre for Minority Studies states that “an alarming 79% of the migrants suffer from depression, while 76% suffer from anxiety disorders such as phobias and panic attacks. Eight per cent even suffer from delusional disorders and psychosis. More than 36% of women become infertile by the time they reach 40.”
The Kashmiri Muslims and Kashmiri Pandits, who shared a common culture and co-existed peacefully, constituted the main inhabitants of the Kashmiri Valley.
Though both followed different religions, they shared cultural practices which fused elements of both religions. Their food habits (nun-chai), and dress (pharen, kangari) were similar and both spoke Kausher language. The poetry of Lal Ded, a Hindu spiritual woman, and Nund Rishi, is recited by both the communities and both revere Charar-e-Shareef.
Morever, both Islam and Hinduism in Kashmir are different in many ways, compared with the normal practices in these religions. For instance, Kashmiri Muslims avoid beef and Pandits eat halal mutton. These unique Kashmiri social practices, distinct cultural identity and close association between the two communities constituted Kashmiriyat.
This uniqueness of culture, customs and way of life has meant that the Kashmiris see themselves as different, which has also driven the secessionist demand. But with the withering away of the Pandits from Kashmir, Kashmiriyat is under threat.
It’s perhaps Kashmiriyat which is forcing even the separatists to welcome the Pandits back home. The separatists have even used the present announcement to cautiously make their point.
Yasin Malik, chairman, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, said “We are not against the return of migrant Pandits. They are like our brothers and sisters and they have every right to live here like we have. But we won’t allow Israeli-type colonies to be established in Kashmir.”
The Geelani faction of the Hurriyat said, “the division of Kashmiris on religious lines and the isolation of Pandits from society will not be allowed and both the communities collectively will not let this happen. We are in no way against the return and rehabilitation of the Pandit community in the Valley, but the Indian government and its policy makers want to play a very dangerous game under its garb and they not only want to divide Kashmiri society on religious lines but they also want to harm the freedom struggle of the Kashmiris.”
While one is unsure whether the separatists actually want to welcome back the Pandits, but housing them separately is no long-term solution and will not do any good to the composite culture of Kashmiriyat. Pandits need to live among their erstwhile neighbours to return to a normal life and revive Kashmiriyat.
The Pandits’ deep sense of loss, pain and alienation makes reconciliation difficult. In fact, Panun Kashmir, an organisation of Pandits, on the very same day that the J&K Assembly called for their return, passed two resolutions urging the Union government to declare January 19 as ‘National Holocaust Day’ and to create a separate ‘homeland in Kashmir North-East of River Jhelum invested with Union Territory status where Indian Constitution flows freely’.
Addressing the anguish and grief of the Pandits needs to be an integral part of the way forward.
Rather than external intervention, this initiative needs to come from their own Kashmiri Muslim brethren to begin the reconciliation. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s plain-speak early this month presents an opportunity.
“Those who have taught us, lived and grown up with us and in whose homes we used to eat and those who are an inseparable part of our culture, what demographic change will there be if they return to Kashmir? I fail to understand this logic. This is not the culture of our Kashmir. This is absolutely wrong. It is not Kashmiriyat. The composite culture of the tolling of temple bells (on Hari Parbat hills) and prayers at Makhdoom Sahib’s Ziarat and the ‘path’ (Sikh prayers) from the Gurudwara have received a setback. The true spirit of Kashmiriyat needs to be revived again.”