On August 15, last year my father’s cousin died in Delhi after a juvenile on a speeding bike threw him into the air. The prognosis had not been good and as soon as he was admitted to hospital we began to prepare for the worst. There were too many things to take care of — medical bills, police complaint, insurance — but there was one thing that made everyone take a deep breath — my uncle’s pension account — that was still being operated from Kashmir.
After the turmoil began in 1990 and we were all forced to flee, my uncle had stubbornly refused to move. The only concession he made was to move to a relatively safer part of Kashmir, where the presence of men in uniform and hastily put together bunkers offered a sense of security.
Uncle, who argued ‘normalcy’ was like the spring that follows winter, eventually moved, but decided to continue operating his pension account from a bank in Kashmir because it became the pretext to keep his Kashmir connection alive.
For uncle, his pension money was his ticket to Kashmir. But for thousands of us who fled Kashmir, will money be the reason to return?
The answer to that lies in the government’s own admission. In July last year, Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju told the Rajya Sabha that despite a comprehensive package worth Rs 1,618.40 crore announced by the Centre in 2008 for return and rehabilitation of migrant Kashmiri families, only one family had opted to return.
The fact that these monies for the purchase or construction of houses and renovation of the damaged and dilapidated ones has not encouraged people to return has not compelled the government and the decision-makers to ask why.
Instead, 3,000 more jobs are being planned as a ‘confidence building measure’ for Kashmiri Pandits and 505 transit accommodations have been allotted to these ‘migrant employees’ on sharing basis. The mainstay of the rehabilitation policy seems to be jobs and makeshift accommodation.
Which is perhaps why, each time there is a ‘rehabilitation package’ announced for ‘Kashmiri migrants’, and we are asked, ‘are you returning?’ no hands go up.
I ask myself: What will it take for me to return?
Will it be a temporary shelter behind barbed wire fences, or a hastily constructed roof-and-four-walls house that no one consulted me about? Will I get back our home from where were driven out and which was later occupied, burned, and vandalised? Or will I have to walk past my old home and pretend I moved to a new neighbourhood?
Will it be safe to live in a house with an armed guard stopping by now and then, or should we play safe and go to bed with shoes on, as we did 25 years ago, when the Valley woke up to blaring spine-chilling slogans.
The questions are endless.
Jobs, transit accommodation and the assurance of security will do only so much to convince the community to return. For the real homecoming we will need to build trust between people separated by 25 years of mistrust, hurt, anger and even rancour.
Good fences make good neighbours, but ghetto-like residential facilities do not allow for the making friends.
We need to forget past wrongs and forge a new future. Are we ready for that? Are we ready to start afresh where one community tells the other, ‘this is your home and I’m glad you are back’? If the idea of reaching out and starting afresh is naïveté, maybe we can put on hold all these rehabilitation packages, and snap the purse strings shut, perhaps even wait for the Parliamentary Committee-mandated White Paper on migration that will tell us why we migrated.
As I see it, money did not make us flee, and only money will not take us home.