Srinagar: Vasundhara Tulloo (26) lives at her maternal home in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal area, a bustling neighbourhood of small lanes and tightly packed houses perched on an embankment of the Jhelum river. She was young when her parents separated. Her grandfather was a priest at Ganpatyar temple. “My mother doesn’t work and ever since our grandparents passed away, I am the only one taking care of my family,” she told The Wire.
On Monday, Tulloo was among dozens of Kashmiri Pandits who embarked on fast-unto-death strike inside the premises of the 300-year-old temple.
At the onset of militancy in 1990s, an estimated 76,000 Pandit families left the Kashmir Valley amid a glut of killings and threats. As per the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS), which looks after the welfare of non-migrant Kashmiri Hindus, 850 Pandits have died during militancy in various targeted killings and massacres.
Today the remaining 808 families of Pandits that are still living in at 242 places across Valley form a small fraction of the Kashmiri population. But these families are now beset by dwindling employment opportunities. Those who can afford to are leaving Kashmir along with their families for better job prospects, kick-starting a second exodus of sorts. And those who cannot are staring at a deep abyss.
Tulloo managed a modest living by offering tuitions to children in her neighbourhood. But ever since the coronavirus pandemic raged, students are not attending classes and the income that came through them has all but dried up. Now Tulloo is eating into her meagre savings to survive. The Central government had promised one job for each of the 808 families of Kashmiri Pandits living in Kashmir, but despite repeated reminders and meetings with the administration, the employment offers have not been forthcoming. As a result, young Pandits like Tulloo are embittered and have been forced to launch a hunger strike. “I completed my masters in electronics from Kashmir University,” she said. “It’s not that we are asking for largesse from the government. We are all highly qualified people here.”
Like Tulloo, Bhupinder Singh (34), a Kashmiri Hindu from Tengbal village of Kulgam district, is also navigating the ups and downs of an austere life. Singh is a postgraduate in English. He is professionally trained as a teacher too and teaches at a private school in South Kashmir. He is the only breadwinner in a family of five – his ailing parents, wife and an eight-month-old baby. “Schools have been closed for more than a year and my income isn’t enough to support my needs,” he said.
His friend Rajeshwar Singh (36) too faces the same ordeal. A postgraduate in public administration, he is teaching at a local school in Kulgam. Now, with their incomes falling short, both friends often turn to rice farming and work as day labourers at apple orchards, picking fruit and packing in in boxes. “This work fetches us Rs 500 a day but the picking season lasts only for 30 days. After that we fall back on our meagre incomes,” Rajeshwar told The Wire.
In 2007, a delegation of the KPSS met then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking an extension of benefits under one time employment and financial package which was finally announced in 2009. “But there was no mention of non-migrants Pandits,” Sanjay Tickoo, who heads KPSS, said. “We are a different category from those who migrated. We live in strife-ridden situation with lockdowns and curfews becoming a norm. We cannot be put on the same pedestal as migrant Pandits.”
KPSS has cited the 137th Parliamentary Committee Report to substantiate that their economic conditions have worsened since the 1990s and that they are eligible for affirmative action in ways other communities in Kashmir are not.
In 2013, Tickoo took the matter to the J&K high court. “The MHA, through a letter submitted to the court, assured us of the inclusion of non-migrant Hindus in the package,” he said.
Tickoo told The Wire that they were specifically miffed with the Disaster Management, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Department of J&K. “The department is sitting on the notifications issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on June 23 earlier this year that reiterated that non-migrant Pandits were eligible for jobs on the formula of one job per family,” he said. “We made countless representations to officials but there has been no headway in this case.”
According to Tickoo, the DMRR&R has responded to their representations through the J&K Grievance Cell, writing that “All the posts will be advertised in terms of SRO 412 and SRO 425.” “Yet there’s been no breakthrough despite multiple reminders,” he said.
There’s also one more bone of contention. To accommodate the non-migrant Kashmiri Pandit category in the prime minister’s job package, the J&K government amended Rules of 2009 vide SRO 425 in 2017 prompting protests from Kashmiri Sikhs who alleged discrimination.
The Wire called Baseer Khan, advisor to the J&K lieutenant governor. “The matter is not in my knowledge,” he said. Kashmir’s divisional commissioner P.K. Pole did not respond to calls.
The issue assumes urgency given that the MHA had promised 500 jobs to Kashmiri Hindu families living in Kashmir and as the local administration dithers, many young Pandit individuals eligible for employment are breaching the age bar.
Up to 70 such Pandit youth have surpassed the age criteria and are no longer eligible for employment. “The more they make us to wait, the more we are likely to be on the losing side,” said Sandeep Koul, a 30-year-old civil engineering graduate who is currently employed by a private firm in Srinagar. “Due to the conflict and lockdowns, the private sector has not been able to mushroom in Kashmir. But if the administration doesn’t take a call on this issue, I have no option but to leave the Valley permanently along with my family to find a living elsewhere in the country.”
The Tickoo-led KPSS has demanded an inquiry against officers of the DMRR&R for alleged “misuse of official positions”, implementation of MHA recommendations, monthly financial aid to 808 Hindu families, accommodation and extension of benefits under Migrant Welfare Fund.
Kashmiri Pandit youth told The Wire that it was ironical that under an administration appointed by a Hindu nationalist party at the Centre, Kashmiri Hindus were reeling under the travails of diminishing numbers, unemployment, penury and starvation.
“For us this is not just about benefits. It’s about survival,” Tulloo said. “If we are not given the jobs promised to us, we have no option but to starve. So instead of dying a death like that, I chose to go on a hunger strike.”