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Will the Pandits ever find a home?
March 27, 2003
They called Kashmir the 'Paradise on Earth' and compared it with Switzerland. The great Sufi saint Nur-ud-din refused to enter one of its royal gardens thousands of years ago, saying, 'If I visit this place now I shall not be allowed to visit paradise hereafter.' Persian poet Firdaus said, 'If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, and it is here.'
Today the same Kashmir sends an icy knife stabbing through the heart. Today's Kashmir evokes the picture of gore and terror. Not a day passes without grenade attacks, brutal killings, kidnappings, arson, loot, rapes, bloodshed and mayhem. Now the souls of the people are scarred as insanity haunts the region. Firdaus' couplet has lost its relevance as Islamic fundamentalists turn it into virtual hell.
Hundreds of them have been brutally killed by terrorists; many more have died prematurely due to inhuman conditions, in tattered and unhygienic makeshift camps. This has not happened in the last few months but has been their destiny for the last 13 years.
Not many Pandits were willing to leave their homes, but such threats made them rethink their decision. When they left they entrusted their homes, lands and shops to their Muslim neighbours. They didn't realise they were biding a final adieu to their homes and homeland. Eventually, an estimated 400,000 Pandits -- some 95 per cent of the original population in the valley -- became part of the neglected statistic of 'internal refugees,' pushed out of their homes as a result of this campaign of terror.
Not only did the Indian State fail to protect them in their homes, successive governments have provided little more than minimal humanitarian relief. This exiled community seldom figures in the discourse on the 'Kashmir issue' and its resolution.
Not only this, the mass migration has also resulted in high death and low birth rates. A recent study based on inquiries at various migrant camps in Jammu and Delhi revealed there had been only 16 births compared to 49 deaths in about 300 families between 1990 and 1995, a period over which militancy was at its peak. Family life is under great strain; the divorce rate in the prime fertility age group has increased. For a community where divorce was unheard of, it is a serious development. Couples voluntarily chose not to bear children for if they cannot fend for themselves, how can they take care of children.
Diabetes is said to be rampant, psychosomatic diseases, biophysical effects of stress and strain, cases of cancer are noticeably evident. Dr K L Choudhary, who has been treating various Kashmiri Pandit patients, asserts they had aged physically and mentally by 10 to 15 years beyond their natural age, and if the current situation persists, their extinction could not be ruled out.
One wonders if we still live in the same country amidst the same leaders, intellectuals and human rights activists whose hearts bleed if illegal Bangladeshi immigrants are sought to be repatriated, and who welcome and shelter Afghan refugees and militants alike. They talk loudly about human right violations and forget about the Pandits in their backyard. Even in exile, the community has been subjected to apartheid.
In addition to this, the agriculture, horticulture and other commercial properties of the Pandits in Kashmir is under unauthorised occupation of the local population. The passing of an Act by the J&K legislature regarding immovable property of displaced Pandits in Kashmir could not provide any relief to the Pandit community. Why haven't vested parties espoused their [Pandits'] cause in the mercenaries' court? Are they not human or is it that they don't have rights?
To silence their voices from time to time, the government has come up with various rehabilitation proposals that envision provision of jobs if the displaced people returned to the valley. Perhaps the government doesn't realise that return could be more difficult than the experience of exile itself. They cannot force Kashmiri Pandits to return on any pretext without knowing what conditions await them. If they cannot guarantee their security, they can again become soft targets for militants in Kashmir where the rule of law hardly exists, where violence still continues, where guns are still prevalent.
Evidently, such a hostile environment do not satisfy even the basic security needs of these uprooted people.
There has been a lot of rhetoric about the return and rehabilitation of the Pandits 'with honour and dignity.' Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed plans to resettle some Pandits around two shrines, namely Mattan and Tulamula. How is that going to solve anything or save them from the same enemies who have grabbed their property and ensured their exit?
Proposals for the setting up of camps is unacceptable because that would mean isolating the community and making them more vulnerable. The primary aim should be the restoration of peace in Kashmir. As long as there is support of men and material from across the border, militancy will continue to thrive. Kashmir cannot have peace as long as there is no negotiation between Pakistan and India.
The other option can only come from face-to-face dialogue with the majority people of Kashmir. One has to be sure if they are prepared to return to the old ethos of tolerance and brotherhood. After all, there is nothing wrong in a dialogue with the majority community of Kashmir, on a people's level. If they show some signs of goodwill and think about the good old days when they lived and shared everything peacefully with Kashmiri Pandits, half the problem will be solved. They can bring them back to their neighbourhood and make them feel safe again.
It is the duty of every member of the community to prove to the world that Kashmiriyat cannot be wiped away from Kashmir no matter how hard militants or politicians try. A Kashmiri is a Kashmiri first, and only after that is he or she a person of any other faith.
Seema Kachru is a freelance writer and PR consultant in Houston, Texas
Column: The real tragedy of Kashmir