In a few weeks, thousands of Pandits from across India will arrive at Tulla Mulla in Ganderbal, around 27 km from Srinagar, for the Kheer Bhawani mela, a religious festival associated with Goddess Ragnya Devi.
While Kashmiri Muslims make arrangements for the fair, the Hindus hold night-long prayers at the temple. The fair, in a way, is symbolic of the valley’s religious harmony that came apart in the early 90s when Pandits were forced to leave.
Never in history, perhaps, have the celebrations held more meaning than this year’s, coming in the backdrop of rising tension over a proposal to rehabilitate displaced Pandits in separate colonies, allegedly on the lines of Jews-only settlements built by Israel in occupied lands.
Since 1990, most of the valley’s 1.5 lakh Pandits fled their homes for fear of persecution by militants fighting for Kashmir’s ‘azadi’ (independence). Around 5,000 Pandits, however, stayed back, assured of safety by their Muslim neighbours and friends. Some returned over the years. But most of the displaced are still living away from their home, hoping and waiting.
The controversial proposal – which the PDP-BJP government denies – has brought the Kashmiri separatist groups on the same page after many years. Kashmiri Muslims are wary of the seemingly divisive move. Pandits who stayed back too say the exclusive colonies are not the answer.
On Saturday, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the colonies would be “transit accommodations that Pandits can use till they feel safe to move to other residential places”. The colonies will be composite in nature with 50% reservation for Pandits, she added.
Moderate separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, however, doubts the government’s sincerity.
“The problem is, the PDP says composite colonies in Srinagar and BJP says something which is totally contradictory…the return has to be dignified.”
The All India Kashmiri Samaj, a conglomerate of 23 organisations, says that no one in the community wants a rehabilitation plan like an “Isreali settler”.
Vijay Aima, the president, of the samaj, however, has a doubt over the entire business. “But my question is plain and simple, this is welcome, (but) where do we go? Most people have sold their houses be it distress selling, or even genuine.”
Aima says the only solution was colonies in different areas or districts marked by government where Pandits can buy land and settle. Suriender Kachroo, a Pandit who returned to Srinagar with his wife in 2014, says that proposed colonies can be composite with 50% given to Kashmiri Pandits and rest open for sale to other communities. “There are mohallas of Shias, Sikhs, even Tibetans in the city. So a mohalla for Pandits should not be a problem.” The couple hopes that Kashmiri Pandits take a stand and don’t wait for the last “gun to fall silent”. “We can die anywhere, any accident can happen,” his wife Santosh says.
There is a flip side to the issue as well.
Lack of opportunities and uncertainty in the valley is also keeping the new generation away. “Our generation and our parents have that yearning for Kashmir and resettlement. For our children Kashmir is just another state. And even we don’t want to move back, we have a life of 25 years outside,” says Meeta Kaul (name changed) a teacher in Bengaluru who left Kashmir as a class 8th student.
For many, the economics just don’t add up. Despite all the emotions attached to a valley which is as green as it was many years ago.