Illustration by Suhail Naqshandi
A dispassionate debate on departure and homecoming of Kashmiri Pandits is the need of the hour
On 19 January 2017, Jammu & Kashmir’s Legislative Assembly passed an important resolution in relation to the return of migrant Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. Ever since, the old debate regarding “how welcoming is the valley” and “how keen are Pandits about their return” has restarted with new vigour.
There is no denying the fact that the return of Pandits to their homes is important to restive Himalayan region’s socio-cultural balance. Their homecoming will not only restore multi-cultural fabric of Kashmir’s society, it will also allow both Muslims and Pandits to have a dialogue with each other over Kashmir’s future despite their political and ideological divergence. Yes, they might not agree on everything or anything but they will at least talk to each other; not talk at each other. And that will make a good beginning.
To my understanding, there are three critical aspects to this debate.
1) CIVIL SOCIETY INITIATIVE
One, before the arrival of Pandits to the Valley it is important to instigate a civil society response. Rational and moderate voices from both communities ought to come together on a joint platform to address various anxieties of each side, rebuild trust and restore the shaken confidence. If everything is left to the government of the day, very little progress is possible on the ground.
To begin with, why is it not possible to have seminars on themes likes custodial disappearances, civilian killings, mass graves, juvenile justice system, and the use of pellets against civilian protesters organised by Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu, and debates on Pandit departures and their possible homecoming organised by Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley?
Civil society coalitions can also organise art exchange programmes, cultural initiatives, pilgrimage tourism and letter writing activities to develop more understanding between the two communities.
2) FIGHTING RHETORIC OF VOCAL MINORITY
Two, if one were to dispassionately analyse the Muslim-Pandit question, there are many positives which the self-styled spokespersons of both communities hesitate to talk about or discuss openly during live television debates. On social media space, one witnesses a lot of growing bonhomie between the two communities which the fuming film actors hesitate to talk about on television. Many develop friendly bonds on Facebook and Twitter and visit each other’s homes. Common Kashmiri Pandit families continue to have their trust in average Kashmiri Muslim to send them Kashmiri akhrot (walnuts), nadru (lotus stem) and saag (lettuce) on important holy occasions like Mahashivratri, etc. It is the normal Kashmiri Muslim making arrangements for a marriage function of an ordinary Kashmiri Pandit who never left the Valley. More can happen. A lot more can happen.
However, both communities must ensure that their true representatives represent them on live television, not those interested in firing verbal volleys for their own petty interests and short-term benefits.
3) DISPASSIONATE DEBATE ON ALL DEPARTURES
Three, we must not hesitate in asking some simple questions: do Pandits really see their economic future in a politically-volatile Kashmir? Is the new generation of the community ready for homecoming to a place which was shut for over five months not that long ago? Are they interested in returning to Kashmir, to their original homes, or temporarily settle in isolated summer homes for recreation purpose? Or, are they willing to come and settle in protected separate colonies, which the PDP-BJP government deviously refers to as ‘composite townships’? Do they want to live in Kashmir as civilians with Kashmiri Muslims, as their neighbours, or at the side of the protected political workers of pro-India parties in fortified settlements?
The Pandit community must also reflect on an important reality that the minority Sikh community is happily living and working shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the majority Muslim community in Kashmir. Therefore, any attempt to brand the majority community as “fanatic, radical or extremist” will not succeed. Peaceful coexistence is possible despite possible political differences.
Moreover, Pandits must initiate an internal debate on why this strong perception still exists that their community sides with the oppressor to prolong sufferings of the majority community all the time? Why the community is perceived as “privileged elite” whose migration is encouraged and departures used as a tool to deny political rights and aspirations of the majority?
A section of Kashmiri Pandits who never left the Valley argue that the demand for separate homeland for their community is akin to second partition, which will contribute nothing to socio-cultural ethos of Kashmir. Therefore, Pandits must fight the radical elements in their community so that their genuine issue of return and rehabilitation is not hijacked or lost in rhetorical utterances. A separate homeland for Pandits is no panacea. It is a cancer.
There is also a need to have a dispassionate debate on migration and possible return of all migrants, including those who migrated from the Valley from 1947 to 1953. That’s why a debate on Resettlement Bill introduced in the J&K Legislative Assembly is critically important. The bill was introduced in the House after former Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s resounding victory in 1977 elections. Five years later, in 1982, the same bill was passed again by Dr. Farooq Abdullah’s government in the House after B K Nehru, the then Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, had delayed assent to it.
Though the Governor did sign the bill in 1982, the Union Government took the case to the Supreme Court of India. There has been no forward movement on the issue ever since. According to contours of the bill, anyone outside Jammu and Kashmir who could establish that he/she was a subject of Jammu and Kashmir, between 1947 and 1953, or a descendant, earned the right to return. Former Governor Jagmohan Malhotra in his book My Frozen Turbulence in Kashmir asks: “would not the return of so called Kashmiri families cause social and economic disruption and also pose a serious threat to the security of the country.” “Who would guarantee that spies and saboteurs do not move in?,” he asks.
Rationality demands similar humane approach to all migrations, not just one migration of one community. Also, I am of the view that linking arrival of Pandits to conflict resolution is unfair. A dispassionate debate on departure and homecoming of Pandits is the need of the hour.