National

The ‘Homeland’ Dream Of Kashmiri Pandits

The Kashmir Files has put the spotlight back on the displaced Kashmiri Pandits. But will their problems—jobs, houses, monthly relief, return and rehabilitation—get national attention?

The ‘Homeland’ Dream Of Kashmiri Pandits
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Kshama Kaul, a noted Kashmiri Pandit (KP) author and poetess, turns nostalgic as she talks about her lake-facing home at Rambagh in Srinagar. Sadly, the labour of love had to be sold off at a dirt cheap price following the exo­dus of Pandits from the Valley in the wake of the Pakistan-backed insurgency in early 1990.

At her Jammu home, where she lives with her husband and nonagenarian mother, the décor testifies that her family’s emotional connection with Kashmir hasn’t weakened even after 32 years. Int­erestingly, the home is located adjacent to Kheer Bhawani temple, a replica of an ancient temple in Tulmul village of Kashmir’s Ganderbal district.

The inside walls of their home are adorned with paintings of Kashmiri icons—Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh guru; Kirpa Ram Dutt, a 17th century KP leader; Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the 18th century Sikh emperor; Birbal Dhar, a 19th century taluqdar; Shriya Bhat, a 15th century physician; and Abhinavagupta, the 10th century Hindu philosopher. She says even before 1990, “…Pandits were driven out of Kashmir six times.”

“You can’t separate kaal (time) from kala (art),” she remarks, emphasising that “…what happened in Kashmir in the early 1990s wasn’t an exodus. It was a genocide…”

Kshama has written books like Dardpur, Samay Ke Baad, Kashmir Unn Dinon, Murti Bhanjan and Baadlon Mein Aag that talk of the trauma of Kashmir’s displaced minority Hindu community.

Vivek Agnihotri had visited their home while he was researching for The Kashmir Files— a film that has put the spotlight back on the displaced community. Like Kshama, her 96-year-old mot­her Indira Kaul too holds a grouse against the director-producer. “Ask him why didn’t he show in the film the story of the couple from Sonamarg, who were dragged along the road by terrorists after being tied to a jeep?”
Kshama’s son works in Canada, while her dau­g­h­ter, Bhasha Sumbli is an actor and aspiring film director who has played the character of Shardha Pandit in The Kashmir Files.

Kshama didn’t register her grievance online. “We’ve no faith in such initiatives. Pandits can’t go back to their homes and start living among the majority community.”

According to Kshama, Shardha’s character was inspired by a real incident, in which a KP woman was gangraped and then cut into two while still alive with a mechanical saw.

Recalling the distress sale of her Srinagar home, Kshama says, “We had spent our entire life’s savings to build it. We had no option but to sell it for our family’s sustenance. My children were still babies at that time,” she tells Outlook. “We received Rs 1 lakh for the house. Today, it would cost over Rs 10 crore.”

On August 13, 2021, the Union Territory administration issued an order under the Jammu and Kashmir Migrant Immovable Property (Pres­er­v­ation, Protection and Restraint on Distress Sal­es) Act, 1997, mandating field verification by district magistrates within 15 days of a complaint, and submission of a compliance report.

A month later, on September 7, a website which allowed migrants to submit their grievances was launched by the UT administration. “This initiative will put an end to the plight of migrants who have been suffering since the 1990s,” Lt Governor Manoj Sinha had said while inaugurating the website.

But Kshama didn’t register her grievance online. “We have no faith in such government initiatives. Displaced Pandits can’t go back to their abando­ned homes in Kashmir and start living among members of the majority community,” she says, ruling out the possibilities of rehabilitation, unl­ess the government met the long-standing dem­and of Panun Kashmir, an organisation of disp­l­aced Kashmiri Pandits, that wants a separate ‘homeland’ within Kashmir with UT status, for the displaced community.

Her husband, Agnishekhar, a prominent Hindi poet and author, blames successive governments and political parties for downplaying “genocide” and “jihad” in Kashmir. After the Kerala Congress rec­ently posted a series of tweets, listing “Facts about Kashmiri Pandits’ issues”, he had posted a Facebook video, in which he described the tweets as “…rubbing salt to our bleeding wounds”.

According to the official website of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (Migrant) Jam­mu, “Approximately, 60,000 families, majority of them Hindus, migrated from the Valley during the turmoil. Most of these families preferred to settle in Jammu and adjoining areas, whereas approximately 23,000 displaced families settled outside J&K.”

While the government is building flats for displaced KP employees in Kashmir, other components of the return and rehabilitation policy remain unimplemented.

For KP migrants living in dilapidated camps on the outskirts of Jammu city, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in 2004 had started constructing townships with allied facilities such as community halls, higher secondary schools, hospitals, roads, drainage system and parks under the Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Programme.

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These townships at Muthi, Purkhoo, Nagrota, Jagtai and Butta Nagar have flats comprising a room, a small lobby, a kitchen and a washroom. While families living in these flats have grown over the years, those without gainful employment and can’t buy new houses are finding it difficult to stay together.

Middle-aged Bansi Lal, for example, lives with some members of his family in Purkhoo township, whereas his two sons shifted to the prefab struct­ures at the 30 year-old camp—an unsightly exp­a­nse of slums—when they started raising their own families. Despite the lack of basic amenities at the camp, it has over 100 registered families who have been awaiting allotment of flats and can’t afford to pay monthly rent.

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Abandoned by all Protest at Jagati camp Photographs: Ashutosh Sharma

One of Bansi’s sons at the old migrant camp alle­gedly committed suicide last year due to financial problems. “When Narendra Modi came to power (in 2014), he had promised our rehabilitation in Kashmir. We were quite hopeful. But he couldn’t even enhance our monthly relief,” says Bansi, with helplessness and despair writ large on his face. “The government should seriously think about our rehabilitation in Kashmir.”

Amid heated debate over the exodus of Pandits, a week after The Kashmir Files was released, an ongoing protest at Jagati township, 20 km from Jammu city, completed 600 days of sit-in. The protesters have been demanding a monthly cash relief of Rs 25,000 per family, jobs to unemployed youth and eviction of encroachment from the aba­ndoned land and properties of displaced Pan­dits in Kashmir. They say the government should start providing displaced KPs a monthly financial compensation against their abandoned properties in the Valley—farms, orchards, houses and shops­—­before it begins to rehabilitate them.

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While a majority of migrants at the township refuse to talk on record, fearing reprisals in Kash­mir, they demand that KPs should be given min­o­rity status. They also want the government to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the lines of South Africa, to ensure their dignified and safe return.

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A family at Purkhoo camp Photographs: Ashutosh Sharma

When Lalita Pandita and her husband Shadi Lal fled Kashmir 30 years ago, they had a steady ann­ual income amounting to over Rs 1 lakh from their orchards in village Tangwari Pain in Baramulla district. “The government must compensate for our economic losses, as we can’t use our land and properties in Kashmir,” says Shadi Lal, who runs Soan Kashmir Front that works for the rights of displaced KPs. “Our double-story house with 22 windows was burnt down in 1992. The governm­ent gave me as compensation Rs 90,000 out of the Rs 2 lakh value for the house it had estimated. But even at that time, the total worth of our home was over Rs 1 crore.”

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On March 17, 2021, the home ministry informed the Rajya Sabha about the compon­e­nts of the policy for return and reha­bi­litation of Kash­m­iri migrants under the Prime Minister’s package. Bes­i­des employment to displaced Pandits, it offers cash assistance of up to Rs 7.5 lakh to repair damaged houses or to build new houses for those who had sold their properties between 1989 and the enactment of the J&K Migrant Immovable Property Pres­er­vation, Protection and Rest­r­a­int of Distress Sale Act of 1997.

Under the UPA, the Prime Minister’s Rehabilitation Package, announced in 2008, had provided 5,797 government jobs to displaced Pandits. While the government has also been constructing flats for displaced KP employees in Kashmir, other components of the return and rehabilitation policy remain unimplemented to date.

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Flats at Jagati township for Pandits Photographs: Ashutosh Sharma

Speaking to this reporter in early October last year, officials of the Assistant Commissioner (Cen­tral) Kashmir, which deals with issues rela­t­ed to displaced KPs, feigned ignorance about policy components other than employment, while emails to the office of the Divisional Commi­ss­i­o­ner of Kashmir went unanswered.

Speaking to this reporter last month, Ashwani Kumar Chrungoo, a prominent displaced KP lea­der and state in-charge of BJP’s department of political feedback, had said: “Resettlement is a political issue, while employment is an issue of economic sustenance. Post-retirement, these emp­l­o­yees are likely to leave Kashmir and settle elsewhere. In fact, the government lacks a clear vision regarding our rehabilitation. It coul­dn’t even resettle the internally displaced, militancy-affected people in Jammu pro­vince.”

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On complaints regarding encroachment of properties of displaced Pandits in Kas­h­mir, Ashok Kumar Pandita, Relief and Rehab­i­l­i­tation Commissioner (Mig­r­a­nts) of the UT, says, “Of a total 7,659 complaints we have rece­i­ved, 5,186 have been processed. In as many as 2,500 cases, the encroachm­ent has been removed. We have closed 2,586 cases after the land was retrie­ved in some cases or the complaints were rejected on merit in others.”

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Against forgetting Kshama Kaul with one of her books

When the government started rem­oving encro­achments from the properties of Pan­dits last year, Tej Tickoo, an executive member of the Delhi-based All India Kashmiri Samaj, had told this rep­orter, “The properties will get encro­ached again if Pandits don’t go back and take the possession.” Str­essing on sustained financial and security bac­king to encourage the return of Pan­dits to Kash­mir, he had added, “Those who have benefitted from our exodus and made millions are not going to let go of our properties so easily.”

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Incidentally, the UT administration took a ser­ies of steps regarding protection of abandoned properties of displaced Pandits, after the J&K high court had issued an order in March 2020, on a petition filed by the All India Kashmiri Samaj. Seeking directions to the government for the safe return of displaced Pandits, the plea had originally been filed in the Supreme Court in November 2006. But the apex court had transferred it to the Jammu wing of J&K high court in March 2016. The petition had also reiterated the community’s long-pending demand that the displaced KPs be declared “internally displaced per­sons” as per directions of the UN High Com­missioner for Human Rights.

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Back at the Jagati migrant colony, many residents lament the miserable lives they have been comp­e­lled to live in exile. “If you conduct a survey, you will get to know how many displaced Pandits here have been suffering from serious health issues. The number of people struggling with mental health issues will shock you,” says Shadi Lal, convener of the Pradesh Congress Committee Mig­r­ant Cell, accusing the ruling party of using disp­laced KPs for electoral gains.

Scores of Muslim and Sikh families who had also migrated with the Pandits corroborate his views. “Apart from creating noise, the BJP government has done nothing to redress even our basic issues or ensure our return and rehabilitation—a process that was started by the previous UPA government,” Shadi Lal says. “The government has failed to provide even residential facilities to the majority of PM package employees, who live in homes of local Kashmiri Muslims.”

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The ‘Homeland’ Dream")

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