A consensus is emerging within the political spectrum in Kashmir that the 5% Pandit population remains at the core of the state’s composite culture, their displacement was a migration of a civilisation and that the return of the Kashmiri Pandits, who left the Valley in the 1990s, symbolises inclusive Kashmiriyat.
The assimilation of the Pandits into the social milieu of Kashmir also remains a compulsion for separatists, who, of late, have distanced themselves from the forces that are pushing for exclusionist and destructive politics based on extreme religious interpretations in the state.
In fact, the stand of the separatist groups has seen incremental accommodation of the Pandits, and is a welcome step. The separatists’ move to ask Pandits to return to their properties in the Valley is helping them portray their struggle as inclusive and indicates that any solution to the Kashmir problem will not be based on religious identities but on historical and political realities.
More than 62,000 Pandit families await return to their roots. However, the state government and the Centre’s ‘roadmap’ for their return is flawed and bound to destroy the inclusive culture of Jammu and Kashmir. The Centre’s stress on “composite townships” and its exclusive focus on Pandits also reflect unfair politics, if not bias.
The displacement issue needs to be addressed irrespective of ethnicities. Hundreds of Muslims migrated in 1947, 1965, 1971 and in the 1990s to the Jammu region. They continue to remain a fluid population with no sense of closure. However, to create Muslim-only enclaves for the displaced in Jammu to question the region’s secular credentials is equally flawed.
There is a better way to deal with the Pandit issue. First, their return should be part of a serious political process which addresses the larger political question of J&K. Two, it needs to be clubbed with other confidence-building measures like allowing divided families of Gilgit-Baltistan to meet in Kargil, allowing joint initiatives on knowledge creation and tourism between Jammu and Kashmir.
There will be more takers for the ‘return-to-the Valley’ project if it becomes an outcome of a process and not an event, where one can seek guarantees to safeguard their interests from those putting pre-conditions.
Besides, enclaving the Pandits is fraught with the danger of turning the Kashmir issue into an Islamic issue, which will prove disastrous in the long run.
There is a need to quarantine Kashmir from being an Islamic problem rather than a political one and confine it to its boundaries only. Any push to turn Kashmir
into an Islamic problem blurs its frontiers and clubs it with two volatile regions of Afghanistan and North-West Frontier Province and Peshawar of Pakistan.
This will bring volatility beyond control and consume all.
The need of the hour is caution. Steps to realise the dream of the Pandits’ return to a Muslim neighbourhood in Kashmir should be done in a phased manner. The government must encourage the restoration of properties that are still intact like in areas of Habba Kadal in Srinagar. This Pandit population after living with Muslims will help other displaced and dispossessed Pandit population to purchase land. Of course, the state must make money available for an organic absorption.