In Pandit camps, anxiety over return to homeland
For the past 30 years, Oma and her family— which includes the families of her two sons—had to move from one cramped rented accommodation to another.
Dapan Modi chu makaan banavan (they say Modi is constructing houses)...”
In her cramped but impeccably clean two-room tenement in Jagati, octogenarian Oma’s query about the supposed houses coming up in the Kashmir Valley for the Pandits — she believes at the behest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — betrayed her anxiety.
For the past 30 years, Oma and her family— which includes the families of her two sons—had to move from one cramped rented accommodation to another. The rents kept rising even as the spaces shrunk. Finally, the family moved in to the “migrant camp” at Jagati, a 10-km drive from the city of Jammu.
Jammu has five such camps; Jagati, as per government sources, is the largest. The administration calls it a township, but for residents, these cramped quarters are temporary homes.
Oma’s family left Kashmir in 1990, leaving behind a two-storey house on a five-acre farm and most of their possessions. Her sons chose to move into the two-room tenement (TRT) at Jagati to save up for the education of their children and rebuild their lives.
“The salaries are so low, we can’t afford to pay rent in addition to all other living expenses…at least here we don’t have to shell out money for power, water and rent,” Oma’s daughter-in-law, Sunita, said. They work in the private sector.
The family that does not want their last names used, is not averse to the idea of moving back to Kashmir. They are worried that the government might suddenly decide to move them from their TRTs to a similar accommodation in the Valley without adequate provisions for their security.
“If they take us back; what will happen if we are again driven out? We’ve already lost the house in Kashmir, these TRTs will also be gone and we will be on the roads and homeless,” Oma said.
It is this anxiety that binds Oma in Jagati to Previr Rangroo, a techie in Australia to Rashneek Kher, who works with a multinational firm in Delhi.
All of them, across ages and geographical locations, demand answers and seek assurances that there will be no recurrence of what happened in 1990, when roughly 300,000 of them were forced to flee Kashmir in the shadow of violence, threats and targeted killings.
Over the years, statements of intent by political parties and governments about ensuring the return of Pandits to the Valley have come to mean little for the community.
In April 2015, when the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Peoples Democratic Party alliance government ruled Jammu and Kashmir, the proposal to identify land for exclusive townships for Pandits was met with protests by the separatists, forcing the then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to backtrack on the announcement.
Community members, therefore, have come to dismiss these announcements as rhetoric.
“As the situation stands, it is very difficult for me to think of returning to the Valley to settle down and to build a future for my children. I’d say the odds are near about impossible. The reasons that led to the KP exodus from the Valley are, more or less, still a reality…The only difference from ’90s is that now you have mobile cameras, which just means that any KP pogrom can be broadcast live to the world, or shared via Whatsapp later if the services are down,” said Rangroo, who was about 10 when the exodus happened.
He fears radicalised elements in the Valley will not allow Pandits their rightful place.
“Over the years, there have been no successful de-radicalisation measures that I know of. The youth of the Valley have not accepted the principles of liberal, progressive, pluralistic and a science-based society that KPs in the rest of India, and especially in the West, have thrived on and come to take for granted,” he added.
Writer, poet and member of Panun Kashmir, a group of Pandits who seek a separate homeland, Agnishekar laid down certain conditions as a prerequisite for their return.
“The exodus was dubbed as migration; diluting the significance of the genocide that had ramifications on the physical, cultural and economic level. Before we initiate the process of return; the government must guarantee there is no refoulement,” he said.
BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said any move to relocate the Pandits will be taken only after consultation with community leaders.
Most of the families sold their immovable assets, including their homes, at grossly undervalued prices, while others fought for many years to get encroachers to vacate their properties.
Ramesh Tamiri, an ophthalmologist, remembers his aged father having to travel 150 km between Jammu and Ramban district court to fight for the eviction of land-grabbers who had moved into their family home in Kashmir’s Shivpora.
“The legal battle that lasted over two years, took a toll on us and eventually we sold the house in distress,” he said.
Another overriding concern is about avenues to earn a livelihood.
“My family had to sell off our land after our house in Bagati Kanipora was burnt down. My father needed the money to pay for our education. Now, if we were to return, the big question is where do we go and what avenues are there for us to earn our livelihood,” said Kher.
In 2008, the United Progressive Alliance government announced 6,000 jobs for Pandits in the state; of these only 3,000 posts have been filled so far. Temporary accommodation provided to these appointees at places such as Vesu in Kashmir were far from habitable.
“We lived in rooms with asbestos sheets for the roof,” said a state government employee, who did not wish to be named.
Daya Krishan, who lives in the migrant camp of Purkhoo (also in Jammu) said little was done to provide employment to the youth in Jammu, and to fill the vacancies that arose from the retirement of Pandits in the Valley.
A government functionary speaking on condition of anonymity admitted that the process of appointments is underway as is the construction of habitable dwellings for these appointees who will have to move to Kashmir for taking up these jobs.
An overwhelming sentiment in the community is the demand for justice. Trial and punishment for the perpetrators of terror attacks and acknowledgement that the exodus was on account of targeted killings are issues that the government cannot brush aside, said Agnishekhar.
“The other equally important issue is that of getting justice. There are still people around who have blood on their hands. If the government does not punish them, how will we feel secure? How will we be assured that if we return we will not meet the same fate?” asked Kher.
Justice, echoed Rangroo, was the first step to restoring peace. “Any attempt at peace that doesn’t heal the Pandit wounds first and foremost is doomed, as these wounds will keep festering for decades and across generations,” he said.
“I chuckle when my peers talk about things like Star Wars and Commodore 64 from their growing up years. We were just trying to survive,” he added.