It is 23 years today since Jammu & Kashmir saw the beginning of the ethnic-cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits, the original inhabitants of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), from their homeland at the instigation of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) by a group of Kashmiri jihadi elements trained, armed and motivated by the ISI.
The lead in this act of ethnic-cleansing was initially taken by the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM). Other jihadi organisations, which subsequently came into existence after having been trained and armed by the ISI, kept the ethnic-cleansing going till practically all the Kashmiri Pandits were driven out after having been subjected to numerous indignities and brutalities such as rape of women, torture, forcible seizure of property belonging to the Pandits etc.
The Pandits, who survived these acts of indignities and brutalities, were forced to leave their homeland and seek shelter in camps for refugees set up in Jammu and Delhi. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the ethnic cleansing, a majority of the Pandits found themselves reduced to the miserable status of refugees in their own country.
As the Pandits and their wives and children were subjected to indignities and brutalities and driven out of their homeland, the State of India totally caught by surprise watched helplessly and pusillanimously, as the plans of the ISI to change the demographic composition of the Kashmir Valley in order to make it a predominantly Muslim area were sought to be implements by the jihadis trained by the ISI.
Neither V.P.Singh, who was the Prime Minister when the ethnic-cleansing was carried out nor any of his successors had the least idea of how to deal with the situation. There were various options available. I would cite only two. The first option was to direct the Army to re-establish Indian sovereignty over Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Gilgit-Baltistan as a punitive measure. Pakistan had by then acquired a military nuclear capability, but not a nuclear arsenal. It did not have a satisfactory delivery capability. We could have, therefore, easily re-taken the POK and Gilgit-Baltistan without fear of provoking a nuclear war. The V.P.Singh Government did not exercise this option.
The other option was to train and arm the Pandits and ask them to go back and re-occupy their property and fight against the ISI-trained jihadis. This option was carefully examined and given up as not advisable. There were legitimate fears that this option could polarise for ever the relations between the Muslims and the Hindus and play into the hands of the jihadis who wanted such polarisation.
The option finally chosen was to look after the Pandits in the refugee camps and other areas where they had settled down with their relatives and wait for the restoration of normalcy in the Valley so that these refugees could be helped to go back, re-establish their ownership of their property and resume a life of dignity as the residents of their traditional homeland.
The Pandits have been waiting for 23 years hoping that the day of their return with honour and security to their homeland would come. It has not so far despite the considerable improvement in the ground situation. In the meanwhile, the plight of the Pandits has been slowly forgotten. Everybody sheds crocodile tears over their sufferings, but there is nothing more by way of action. The future of the Kashmiri Pandits as an important dimension of the Kashmir problem is less and less talked about.
There was one man, who spent his years of retirement in attempts to ensure that the promises made by the nation to restore the honour and dignity of the Pandits was not forgotten. He took a lively interest in their future and interacted vigorously with leaders of the Government and opposition political parties to see that this dimension of the Kashmir problem was not forgotten.
His name was R.N. Kao, a Kashmiri himself, who was the legendary founding father of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). The Kashmir tragedy broke out five years after he finally retired from public service in 1984. From 1989 onwards till his death in 2002, he devoted a lot of his time to his self-assumed task of restoring the honour and dignity of the Pandits.
Since Kao’s death in 2002, the Kashmiri Pandits find themselves orphaned. There is no one at the political or bureaucratic level, who is prepared to come to the forefront, stick his neck out and demand action to restore the dignity and honour of the Pandits. Hopes that the BJP-led Government would pay lively attention to the future of the Pandits were sadly belied. The BJP-led government was as confused and as inactive as any of the other Governments that had held office since 1989.
How to move forward? Two realities have to be kept in mind. Firstly, it is too late in the day to think of identifying and punishing those who were responsible for the ethnic-cleansing. Any ill-advised attempt to do so would complicate the situation further.
Secondly, the return of the Pandits to their homeland cannot be enforced unilaterally by the governments of India and the state. It has to be the outcome of a consensus among different political parties of the state and leaders of different communities. The government of India has a moral responsibility for working towards such a consensus. Presently, it has not been doing so. It should be made to do so through public pressure. It is time to stop meaningless breast-beating on the plight of the Pandits and their future. It is time to work for concrete ways of enabling their return to their homeland in dignity and honour.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.