“We will be the ones protecting the culture of Kashmir. A time will come when Kashmiri Pandits will be seen offering prayers at Mata Kheer Bhawani temple and Sufis will also be seen alongside them. Modi government is committed to retaining the culture of Kashmir.”
∼ Union home minister Amit Shah (replying to the debate in the House on extension of president’s rule in the state on July 1, 2019.)
New Delhi: Six years into its rule at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party has failed to actualise its own promises, not just made to the Pandit community but also to the Hindu majority country. January 19, 2020 marked 30 years since the violence targeting the Kashmiri Pandit community, which led to a mass exodus.
The BJP advocated for ‘the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the land of their ancestors with full dignity, security and assured livelihood’ in its 2014 election manifesto and ‘the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits’ as a part of its 2019 election manifesto. Both manifestos also talked about the annulment of Article 370 and 35A.
While August 5, 2019 was a ‘historic’ day for the BJP’s Hindu idea of India, completing its plan decades-old plan to read down Article 370 and 35A, members of the Pandit community feel differently about the abrogation and their promised return to the Valley. More importantly, they believe the BJP regime has continued to neglect them.
Satish Mahaldar, Delhi-based Pandit activist and chairman of the Reconciliation, Return and Rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits (RRRKP), feels that it is the obligation of the government to rehabilitate Pandits. He adds that successive governments have failed and so has the BJP. Mahaldar says that only efforts charted out by the Manmohan Singh regime have been carried forward.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs 1,600-crore package with incentives included housing grants, jobs and educational opportunities, and waiver of interest on loans, for those displaced due to militancy after 1989.
Mahaldar says, “This government implemented CAA-NRC [the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens] for Hindus living in neighbouring countries, but they forgot their own people living in exile out of their motherland Kashmir, such an irony!”
“I want to ask all Hindu leaders, Mohan Bhagwat ji, where is his heart? Where is L.K. Advani ji, who is always talking about Kashmir? We know the Pandit exodus was a conspiracy and we will expose those who were involved from within the government if we are not rehabilitated. Kashmir is our motherland and we want to go back. But now it looks like they have plainly used us for getting votes.”
Commenting on the repeal of the old land laws, Mahaldar says, “I am not against Indians settling in Kashmir but every state has certain laws to safeguard the residents’ rights over land, they can’t make it an open darbar for everyone and anyone.” Mahaldar also points out how recently, the government transferred 24,000 kanals (3,000 acres) of land to the industries and commerce department for investment purposes, yet the government hasn’t been able to allot a mere 200-300 acres of land to Pandits for resettlement.
Ashok Bhan, a Delhi-based senior advocate who left the Valley in 1990, feels that rehabilitation of Pandits is a mirage. Bhan quotes former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral as saying, “For the illustrious Kashmiri Pandit community, which has contributed a great deal in shaping the nation building a democratic, progressive and secular India, if the coffers of the country are to be emptied for them, it would still be a small price to pay.” He feels that this kind of sensibility is missing from the current regime, and that if the prime minister and home minister really want the rehabilitation of Pandits, they should meet representatives from the community and make things happen.
Bhan says, “Our issue was only used to garner votes, presently all their other assertions regarding the Valley are visible but no assertion talks of us Pandits. The ‘integration’ they want makes no sense without the rehabilitation of Pandits.”
Neera Koul, a teacher at a Delhi school, feels that politicians and public figures using Pandits’ agony for gain are emotionally scarring the community. While she feels that all politicians are alike, she wants the BJP to fulfil the lofty promises its leaders made. Neera says, “The BJP shows that they want rehabilitate the Pandits but nothing has happened in actuality, even people like Kangana Ranaut use our painful memories for their own gain.” She also says that Pandits do want to go back, but not many of them will be able to, due to their professional commitments outside the Valley.
Ravinder Pandita, founder of Save Sharda Committee, says that over the years, due to the lack of attention to their issue, the Pandits have become frustrated with governments. He says, “After 30 years, many of us still live in tenements, I am annoyed to this extent because we attached high expectations to the ruling government and we got nothing.”
Ravinder says that he regards Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be as big a leader as former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, he also shares the view that the plight of those forced to leave the Valley has been only used to garner vote bank. He says that he has been travelling to the Valley since 2006, and the “abrogation of Article 370 didn’t help us at all, neither Pandits nor Muslims, there was no change on the ground. I went before 370, I went after 370; I didn’t find any change”.
While he admits that the community has received media attention in the past 4-5 years, he goes on to question the government, asking, “What is your plan? What is my address? Tell me what is my future regarding Kashmir?” The new domicile law, he argues, also has no value for internally displaced persons like him. “370 hatt gaya, domicile law aagaya, mujhe kya karna hai domicile law ka? (370 is gone and the domicile law is here, but what do I do with that?) I have a permanent resident certificate, so who denies that I’m a Kashmiri?”
Khushboo Mattoo, a Jammu-based media professional who migrated from the Valley in 1990, feels that there is a lack of interest in the government to rehabilitate the community. Mattoo says, “There is so much more than rehabilitation that the government could do for the community, our elders still haven’t been able to bypass the trauma of the exodus and are still living in two-room house sets, receiving meagre compensation.” She also explains how mere rehabilitation will not solve the problem, providing good job opportunities should also be looked at. “The whole community is not even asking for rehabilitation, they could’ve done so much, but there has been no help, and what do we go back to? It is not Canada or New Zealand, Kashmir hasn’t transformed in 30 years!”
Sunil Pandita, a resident of Jammu’s Jagti camp for the last nine years, openly says, “BJP ne toh use kiya Kashmiri Pandito ko politics ke liye 1990s say, opposition mein rahein toh theek hai, but ruling mein BJP humaray liye theek nahi hai (BJP used Kashmiri Pandits for politics since the 1990s; as an opposition party they’re fine, but as a ruling party, they’re not good for us).”
Sunil claims that he had been an ardent BJP supporter, however its neglect towards the Pandits has now made him stand in complete opposition to the BJP. He says, “Soon enough you will hear that Pandits are changing their religion; the BJP has played politics on religion, on Hindutva. We are told that we belong to the Hindu majority, then what is this neglect? Why doesn’t the BJP attend to the Pandits? Even militants are asked to quit violence in exchange for jobs and opportunities, what sin have we committed to be ignored this way?”
“Desh ko jhooth bol kar aapnay 370 hataya, Jammu Kashmir ki ladaai thi militancy, dispute, BJP nay uss ladaai ko kahan ghuma dia?370 hataane se konsa dispute khatam hua? Land laws say kya hua? Harr mudday per Hindu-Muslim ki baat kyu? (You removed Article 370 by lying to the nation, J&K’s issue was militancy and dispute, BJP has turned it around. Did removing 370 settle the Kashmir dispute? What did land laws change? Why is every issue made about Hindu-Muslims issues)?” he continues.
Ramesh Koul, another resident of the Jagti camp, says that BJP has betrayed Pandits. Ramesh says, “We are Brahmins, our tears will cost them dearly. Today in 2020, Brahmins are protesting on roads, our children have been protesting outside Press Club Jammu for job opportunities for weeks now.”
Ramesh also says that while the government wants to reclaim Gilgit-Baltistan, they are inactive on the encroachment on Pandits’ properties in the Valley. He understands that rehabilitation is a task yet to be undertaken, but still wishes to draw attention to how the government is paying minuscule amounts as relief compensation, that too only to Pandit families with unemployed members and not equally to all Pandit families who left the Valley.
Commenting on the BJP’s failure to rehabilitate Pandits, writer Badri Raina feels that the Hindutva rightwing never did intend to resettle Pandits in the Valley. He adds that resettlement would have resolved an issue which, so long as it remains an issue, comes in handy to the rightwing to criticise Muslims in Kashmir.
He also says that older Pandits do feel ties of brotherhood and cultural oneness, and are very devoted to their places of worship; and to their own language. Such Pandits feel very out of sorts in environments alien to them. Raina said that the younger Pandits, who do not know the language now, may have a political point to prove – to establish their claim to a lost territory, without any emotive attachment to the Valley, its history and its culture. He also claims that the new land ownership laws have disappointed many Pandits, like so many Dogras, although only some may say so.