Dear Mr Home Minister,
I write with a great sense of urgency.
You, your party and the government, no doubt, have noble intentions when it comes to resettling Kashmiri Pandits but emphasising, reiterating and re-emphasising that they will be rehabilitated in 'clusters' defeats the very purpose of trying to get them to return to their homeland.
Let go of your ideology and the BJP's stand on the issue for just a few minutes and rewind to the pre-nineties when the AK47 gun had not raised its nozzle in the air to deafening chants of 'hum kya chahte, azadi…' (We want freedom). Sure, as the home minister of India, you are--and should be--concerned about the safety and security of an entire community that was forced out of the Valley but bringing them back to ghettos is no homecoming.
Their ghar wapsi will be meaningful only if they can return to a normal life and live in the midst of their Kashmiri Muslim neighbours. By caging them into sand-bagged clusters, you will only be making sitting ducks out of them. Do you, Mr Home Minister, want to dot the city of Srinagar with more bunkers that will have to be put up on the roads leading up to such clusters? Do you want suspicion between the Pandits and Muslims to grow new feet? Do you want to further alienate the Pandits?
Do you know that till the early 90's when the migration started, the Pandits and Muslims were bound by tradition, love and warmth? Each time a Pandit girl got married, a Muslim neighbour accompanied her to her new marital home; so close were the ties; so passionate the bond.
Yes, it was shattered in the early 90s when Pandits were targeted and killed and their bodies thrown into open squares, to spread terror. Yes, the mosques were overtaken by gun-wielding militants who screamed slogans from the loudspeakers from within these places of worship. Yes, the Muslim neighbours got carried away by the slogan for azadi and didn't do enough to stop their Pandit sisters and brothers from leaving.
Can I please tell you that the ordinary Kashmiri Muslim bears a huge cross for having allowed their Pandit neighbours to leave. Soon after the exodus, hundreds travelled from Srinagar to the refugee camps in Jammu to personally apologise. The message was always the same: it's a regret they would take to their grave.
Speak to some of the Pandits, and they will tell you that they DO NOT (emphasis deliberate) want to live in 'Israel-type settlements' (to borrow chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's words ). Yes, they're worried about returning but their worries are different.
They worry about what jobs they would go back to. There aren't enough employment opportunities even for the Muslim youth. Eighty percent who sold their homes through the 90s and the decade after--as they saw no hope of returning-- are concerned about how they will adjust to a new neighbourhood. They are worried about taking their children--born post-migration--to a society they know little about.
So, Mr Home Minister, rehabilitating the Pandits is not a simple exercise. It's most certainly not about building a cluster and ensconcing them in there. Concentration camps are not what Pandits are looking for when they talk about a life with dignity. You can't possibly expect them to move from a refugee camp to a cluster akin to a concentration camp.
By insisting on moving Pandits into clusters, you are also giving the separatists a new lease of life. Yasin Malik, who has barely been able to gather more than a few hundred people, is now taking out protest marches that are leading to a stand-off with the security personnel. A deteriorating law and order will only bring back memories of violence that the Pandits have been battling for a long time. The larger point the separatists are making is simply this: don't divide the state along religious lines. I agree with their message even though I've often disagreed with their politics.
One last thing: you and your government need to move fast. Twenty five long years have passed since they left home. You need to reintegrate them soon. In a few years, the new generation of Pandits won't know what Kashmiriyat is all about. It's about being tied by love and tradition. You can't afford that. India, as a nation too can't afford that.
(The views expressed are personal.)