India has had its share of human tragedies in the past seven-odd decades. But the exodus, almost overnight, of anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 Kashmiri Pandits in early 1990, leaving behind their ancestral homes and property to live in penury as exiles, is unrivalled in its magnitude. It is also an echo of Partition, separated by four decades—both in the manner in which the communities amidst which they lived turned on them in many instances and in the logic of the first wave of radical Islamists gaining currency at the time who saw Kashmir as unfinished business. Political indifference has compounded the plight of the Pandits; they have either been ignored in the years since or cynically used.
The agenda of alliance between the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) features resettling the Pandits in Kashmir. But the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) attempted it in 2008 too, and made a mess of it. Fortunately, the initial signs now that Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and home minister Rajnath Singh have spoken on the issue are positive. But if they are not to fail the exiles—as they have been repeatedly failed—they must confront several issues related to security and economic opportunity. Kashmiriyat is a fine notion, but it will not be enough if the Pandits are to make a difficult choice; they must be provided a concrete road map.
Both Singh and Mufti have publicly stated that the aim is to resettle the Pandits in composite colonies that will also house those of other faiths, until they feel secure enough to return to their native homes. This is an improvement upon the UPA’s 2008 initiative that had opted for exclusive colonies. Security becomes a trickier concern when it comes to integrated colonies, of course, and one the state and central governments must address together.
It is also the reason some of the returning Pandits may prefer separate colonies. And there is, admittedly, an element of high-handedness in telling those taking the risk how they ought to do so. Yet, the separate colony option is ghettoization in another guise, helpful neither to the Pandits themselves nor the larger goal of reintegration. The overblown rhetoric from separatist leaders such as Syed Ali Geelani, Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq about exclusive colonies being the first step of a demographic takeover plan aside, it is also the smart play politically—undercutting the primary objection of various factions in the state’s politics and putting the onus on them to back up their claim of wishing to see the Pandits return to Kashmir.
The economic question is even trickier. Consider the fate of the UPA’s 2008 special resettlement and employment package of Rs.1,614 crore. It has resulted in five Pandit resettlement colonies—squalid pre-fab affairs—and a chronic delay in paying the salaries of those employed in the promised state government jobs. The transit housing has become, in effect, an outgrowth of the exile colonies in Jammu and Delhi—themselves little better than slums, visible manifestations of successive governments’ failure.
An entire generation of Pandit exiles has come of age in various parts of the country with all the economic opportunities they offer. Does Kashmir offer anything commensurate besides a handful of promised government jobs? For that matter, how will the returning families move on from the transit colonies to their original homes as Mufti envisages? Many have been destroyed, others changed hands. What is the current state of the Jammu and Kashmir Immovable Property (Preservation, Protection and Restraint on Distress Sales) Act, 1997, which specified that the district magistrate would take possession of the immovable property of migrants for preservation along with evicting unauthorized occupants? Do the state and central governments have back-up plans on the anvil for new permanent houses for those whose property cannot be retrieved for various reasons?
These are not easy questions. But they are not unanswerable either—if the BJP and PDP mean to do right by the Pandits and not merely use them to burnish their political credentials. The transit colonies are not a solution; they are the beginning of one.
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