There is a consensus in Muslim-majority Kashmir, in the grip of a 25-year-long militancy and a secessionist movement, the Pandits must come back. The Pandit community, a minuscule but culturally a pivot of Kashmir, left the Valley when the insurgency started in the 1990s. Militant threats, targeted killings and posters setting deadlines to leave acted together, culminating in the state machinery ensuring a mass migration to safer locations in Jammu, etc.
Looking back, no Kashmiri Muslim takes pride in what happened to the Pandits. Though one cannot ignore the anger brewing among the new generation with no collective memory to cling to, there is a realisation that the two cannot exist without each other.
Every year, several separatists make a beeline to Khir Bhawani Temple, central to the Pandits’ faith, to show warmth and negate any notion that the migration was anything to take pride in. The tone of the separatists has been reconciliatory. Hardliner SA Geelani describes the Pandits as the “organs of a body”, moderate Mirwaiz Umar Farooq believes “culture is incomplete without them” and JKLF chief Yasin Malik calls them “part and parcel of society”. This sentiment comes from the fact that the migration of the Pandits continues to pose a moral question to them. The goodwill in favour of the Pandits has turned into a mass mood despite the ongoing militancy.
However, ever since the BJP placed the Pandits’ return on top of its agenda without spelling out the details, weariness is palpable here. People fear the haste of the BJP accentuates one point: The party is for imposing the Pandits rather than a return based on a consensus on modalities. No move has been made to seek a guarantee from the majority community to uphold Kashmir’s inclusive and secular credentials.
The weariness was fuelled by reports of setting up exclusive satellite cities in the Valley doing the rounds. No politician in the Valley or in Delhi admitted or denied them, which paved the way for scepticism. If true, this government is challenging the premise on which the country took birth: Upholding the values of secularism, inclusiveness and composite culture. Four walls housing a community on the basis of religion will strike at the heart of Kashmir’s secular credentials, something it’s trying hard to keep intact. Except for the unfortunate events of the 1990s, the Muslims of Kashmir have ignored grave provocations like the one of 1947 to protect the minorities.
The rumoured plan has the danger of converting the political struggle into a sectarian one, and may consume the remnants of the well-guarded tenets of Kashmiriyat, which thrives on composite culture. The creation of enclaves will set a bad precedent. Is the government ready to give exclusive cities to the migrants of Muzaffarnagar, Gujarat and Assam?
A way to start should be an interaction of the Pandits with their counterparts to create a conducive atmosphere, followed by widening the goodwill in the Valley to encourage the Pandits to return to their unsold properties lying vacant in Srinagar, Anantnag, Ganderbal, etc.
The trickle — rather than a mass flow — may hold the key to a successful and long-term settlement. Restore confidence among the Pandits to roam without fear and purchase property wherever they want to. The government cannot create Mughal Gardens, the meadows of Gulmarg and slopes of Pahalgam in these cities. People have to trek together on these slopes.
The government has to provide liberal financial assistance to re-establish the Pandits. The return should be followed by addressing a bigger political problem so as to discourage any repeat of the 1990s or using minority as a medium for a political message.