The return of Kashmiri Pandits to Kashmir is a key touchstone for progress in the state.
What was to be a promising project of reconciliation between separated communities has snowballed into a major controversy, owing to mixed messages from both the Centre and the state government.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh first asked the state government to allocate land for ‘composite townships’ to accommodate Pandits who wished to return to the Valley.
Chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed assured that land would be allocated for the townships. Kashmir’s intelligentsia was rightly alarmed about the prospect of having separate enclaves for Pandits, which defeated the very purpose of reconciliation.
Accusations that New Delhi was planning the kind of settlements that Israel builds in Occupied Palestinian Territory flew thick and fast.
Mr Sayeed subsequently clarified that there would be no separate townships for Pandits. J&K’s finance minister Haseeb Drabu said they would be multi-faith townships but Mr Singh was more equivocal, saying the Centre would stick to whatever decision it had taken.
The Centre and state must address this situation quickly.
New Delhi must not countenance the idea of separate townships as this will escalate unrest, sow fresh seeds of discord between communities and exacerbate PDP-BJP tensions within the coalition government. Policymakers must understand where Kashmir’s objections come from.
Land use is a contentious issue in the Valley. Security forces continue to occupy vast tracts of civilian property and the 2008 Amarnath Yatra agitation also involved the transfer of land.
New separate townships at the behest of the State are bound to be perceived as gradualist efforts to secure more land.
Separate townships are assuredly not in the interests of the future of Kashmir. Establishing ethnic enclaves does not address the security fears of Pandits; they instead ghettoise the community robbing them of the chance to restore fractured relationships, rediscover conjoined forms of living with other communities that are as central to notions of longing and return as are attachments to landscape. Many Kashmiri Pandits fled violence and lived as refugees in camps in Jammu and New Delhi.
Separate townships are not the answer; in some ways they threaten to duplicate the refugee experience back in the Valley.
The return of Pandits is a complex issue linked to questions of security and livelihood amid the wider context of Kashmir’s alienation with India. It ought to be handled with sensitivity and care with clear messaging on what the policy means for all sides.