Why The Return Of Kashmiri Pandits Is Still A Distant Dream

Why The Return Of Kashmiri Pandits Is Still A Distant Dream

3 June 2013
The New York Times
Rahul Pandita

New Delhi: On April 24, Kamal, a 35-year-old unemployed Kashmiri Hindu, died in the Jagti refugee settlement on the outskirts of the city of Jammu, the winter capital of the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. His body was found a few days after his death. More than three weeks later, the Jammu Tribune reported that the young man, who was living alone after his parents died some time ago, was mentally disturbed and had died of starvation after the state government’s relief department stopped his monthly stipend for unknown reasons. Kamal’s death is the latest event to add to the Jagti residents’ sense of abandonment by the state and central governments. The Jagti settlement is home to about 4,000 Kashmiri Hindu families, who have been living there since 2011 after the state government dismantled their old camps scattered around Jammu, which had served as their homes since 1990. The Kashmiri Hindus, more popularly known as Pandits, were forced out of their land in 1990 when an Islamist insurgency broke out in Kashmir Valley. It’s the only Indian state where the Muslims are in a majority. About 350,000 Pandits, including my family, were forced into exile after being brutalized on the streets of Kashmir and inside their homes. Hundreds were killed and many raped and maimed. Since the Pandits are an educated lot, most of them moved on, securing jobs and careers in India and abroad. But a small percentage continues to live in miserable conditions in refugee settlements like Jagti. I was there in September last year when a few residents were on a hunger strike, protesting against the state government’s apathy. Those families who didn’t have a government job survived on a monthly dole of 1,250 rupees, or $22. The government provides a maximum monthly stipend of 5,000 rupees for each family, and the Pandits at the Jagti settlement were demanding more aid and new facilities. Many such families had taken small loans from banks, both private and government to start small businesses before they were shifted to Jagti. The loan installment was deducted from their meager monthly stipend. All year round, the camp faced a power outage of 16 to 18 hours each day. Residents alleged that a substantial amount from the 3.69 billion rupees allotted for the construction of the camp had been siphoned off by government officials and their political bosses. “We belong to nobody,” a resident, Bhushan Lal Bhat, told me. “No government is interested in us because we are not a vote bank.” When a team of three delegates appointed by the Indian government looked into the grievances of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the report it issued in October 2011 was dismissed by everyone, including the separatist groups in Kashmir. The Pandits, in any case, expected nothing from it. The report made some vague references to the Pandits, asking the government for “sympathetic consideration” toward their plight. In an even vaguer reference, it said that the “women can provide a bridge for Kashmiri Pandits to reconcile with their co-citizens in the Valley.” Recently, the same government-appointed team submitted a feedback report to the Home Ministry in New Delhi, recommending the construction of a new city in the heart of Kashmir Valley for the rehabilitation of the Pandits. Howver, it doesn’t acknowledge the circumstances that led to the exodus of the Pandits in the first place, a trauma that is still fresh in many Pandits’ minds. Without official recognition of the events of 1990, true reconciliation is not possible. In April, I was in Bangalore for the release of my book, “Our Moon Has Blood Clots,” which deals with the exodus of the Pandits. Among the audience was a lady who sat upright all time, paying attention to every word I spoke. As I read a passage, she bowed her head and I could see she was trying hard to control her emotions. Later, I learned her name, Rudrakshi Warikoo. She spoke about her experiences of 1990 – she was 19 at that time, she said. “I still have nightmares about those days,” she said, shuddering. Most Pandits have gone through similar experiences and have no hope of returning to their homeland. “We visit Kashmir Valley in summer to escape the heat,” another Jagti resident, who did not wish to be identified, told me. “The former militants who killed Pandits in 1990 have turned politicians and keep on saying: ‘Kashmir is incomplete without the Pandits.’ But they don’t mean it.” That is what a few hundred young men and women who returned to their erstwhile home under a central government job program, which has been operating since 2008, have experienced. In the valley, they stay in a few ghetto-like camps. But security is the least of their concerns. They have faced such harsh treatment and harassment from their Muslim colleagues that many of them have left their jobs and Kashmir Valley. “I suffer from a permanent depression because of what I go through daily,” one man told me when he visited me secretly at my hotel room in September. He worked as a teacher and said he was thinking of leaving his job. In all the Pandit killings, there has been but one conviction so far. Meanwhile, people like the militant Farooq Ahmad Dar, alias Bitta Karate, freely run around Kashmir – a man who in 1990 confessed on national television that he was responsible for the killings of about two dozen Pandits, including his neighbor, on whose scooter he used to pillion ride at times. He spent 16 years in jail awaiting a trial, then was granted bail after a judge, N.D. Wani, said the prosecution had shown no interest in arguing the case. For some in Kashmir, Mr. Dar is a hero. In September, I was at one of the camps in Kashmir Valley where some Pandits live under police protection. I met an old lady who sat on her haunches outside her quarters, winnowing rice grains. She would not let my photographer colleague take her picture and declined to give her name. But she said in the last seven years she had been out of the camp only thrice. “My heart is about to burst,” she said. The return of the Pandits to Kashmir Valley seems like a distant dream unless the wounds of the 1990s exodus are healed. Under such circumstances, the idea of the new city, as proposed by the government-appointed delegates, is far fetched. Rahul Pandita is an author, more recently of “Our Moon Has Blood Clots.” He works with the newsweekly Open. Follow him on Twitter @rahulpandita.