NEW DELHI // The new government in India’s Jammu and Kashmir state has stirred up controversy by announcing plans to build townships for Kashmiri Pandits, to encourage the return of the Hindu community that fled two-and-a-half decades ago.
More than two-thirds of the Pandit population – about 24,000 families – left the Muslim-majority state in the early 1990s as a separatist movement became increasingly militant. They have remained in exile ever since, unable to return as battles between Indian security forces and insurgents destabilised Kashmir.
On Tuesday, the state chief minister, Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, notified the federal home minister that his government “would acquire and provide land at the earliest for composite townships in the [Kashmir] Valley”, Mr Sayeed’s office said.
Mr Sayeed leads a coalition government made up of his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which swept to power in national elections last year and has long supported the return and rehabilitation of Pandit families in Kashmir.
Prime minister Narendra Modi promised Pandits a safe return to the Valley during his election campaign, and after taking office had asked Mr Sayeed’s predecessor, Omar Abdullah, to earmark land for their housing. However, Mr Abdullah’s government was voted out of power in December, leading to the present PDP-BJP partnership.
The idea of delineating zones for returning Pandits has proven contentious, and been compared to the creation of a “state within a state”.
Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a leader of the Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organisation of separatist parties and religious organisations, said Pandits should return “to their own villages, towns and neighbourhoods and live where they want to, like Sikhs and Muslims do”.
"Once the government is pushing for separate homelands and townships for them, it is a devious plan to create Israel-type settlements in Kashmir," Mr Geelani told The Hindu newspaper on Tuesday.
That same day, Naeem Akhtar, a PDP spokesman, clarified that the townships would not be exclusively for Pandits, and that anybody could purchase homes here.
Sanjay Tickoo, head of a Kashmiri Pandit activist organisation, is also opposed to the creation of special townships.
“They have to integrate more naturally with life in the valley, if they return,” Mr Tickoo said. “They have to work together on the ground. Staying in special townships will only widen the gap between Hindus and Muslims.”
The Pandits are the only Hindu community native to Kashmir. Comprising members of the Brahmin caste, they have historically enjoyed an exalted social status for their learning and have produced several notable figures including Jawarharlal Nehru, Indian first prime minister.
Mr Tickoo is among the few Pandits who stayed on in Kashmir. He recalls how, in the summer of 1990, he saw a poster in Urdu on a wall outside his Srinagar home, warning Pandits to leave Kashmir or die.
His family’s neighbours – all Muslims – urged them not to leave, offering a measure of security. But in the face of intimidation by militants, the population of Pandits in the Valley shrank from roughly 140,000 in the late 1980s to 19,865 in 1998. Mr Tickoo estimates that roughly 650 Pandits have been targeted and killed since 1989.
Pandits continued to leave Kashmir even after the worst of the intimidation ended in the late 1990s. Mr Tickoo’s Kashmiri Pandits Sangharsh Samiti conducted a survey in the area in 2008-09 and found about 2,760 Pandits living there.
Mr Tickoo admitted it would be difficult for Pandits to return to their old homes and neighbourhoods. Many of those homes have been demolished or taken over by neighbours, or their title deeds have been lost.
Rahul Pandita, the author of Our Moon Has Blood Clots, a memoir of his family's exodus from Kashmir, said that his father sold his ancestral house in Srinagar "for a pittance" in the mid-1990s.
“We were in severe economic distress,” Mr Pandita said.
The concept of Pandit townships is not ideal, but it is a beginning, he said.
“If Pandits can’t go back to their original homes, they can really only go to townships like these,” he said. “And they can’t remain within these settlements, after all – they’ll have to come out, to interact with others. Slowly, people will start assimilating again.”
The real question, Mr Pandita said, was whether the townships would ever materialise. Several politicians have made promises to rehabilitate the community, he pointed out.
Also, the trauma of the 1990s is still fresh, and no real action has been taken to reassure returning Pandits about their security, he said.
“Frankly, people like my father have to feel that if they return, they will be safe. Right now they don’t feel that sense of security.”