The issue of the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits has again hurtled to the centre stage in Valley. The terms of the debate are familiar: Pandits want separate enclaves where their security can be guaranteed. But Muslims oppose them as they see such enclaves as an attempt at “a demographic change”.
Media reports about the government identifying the land for such colonies renewed alarm in Valley. Separatist groups rushed to forge an alliance to resist centre’s moves to create not only exclusive Pandit settlements but also acquire land for a Sainik colony for ex-service men and their kin. They also took serious exception to the proposed construction of the houses for the floating population under National Urban Livelihood Mission at Jammu and Kupwara.
JKLF supremo Yasin Malik met hard line Hurriyat chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani and the chairman of the moderate faction Mirwaiz Umar Farooq to work out a joint strategy. Mirwaiz threatened 2008-like stir, so did Geelani and Malik. Now, the three have called for the shutdown on Thursday to protest against the centre’s attempts “to dilute the Muslim majority character of the state.”
The opposition National Conference too joined the chorus “Kashmiri Pandits are part and parcel of our culture. We welcome them. But creating ghettos or colonies is dangerous. Do you think Kashmir is colony of government of India? Do you want to make Kashmir a colony?” asked veteran NC leader Ali Muhammad Sagar.
This is a view which is also echoed by the separatist and civil society groups.
On May 22, JK Youth Council, a group launched by young students held a round table conference at a hotel which was attended by students, representatives of minorities comprising Pandits, Sikhs and separatist leaders like Yasin Malik. “Pandit groups which claim that a sizable number of their members were murdered by Kashmiri Muslims must come forward with the details,” Malik said. “We want our Pandit brethren back. But they will live among us like we have done for centuries”.
Some prominent Pandits who didn’t leave the Valley also spoke on the occasion.
“We reject the government’s idea of creating separate colonies for Pandits,” Prof CL Vishen, 82, said. “Co-existence is Kashmir’s culture. We want to coexist with all types of people like we used to before the migration”.
Pandits living outside Valley, however, justify segregated enclaves on “security reasons”. They apprehend that if they scatter around the Valley, they would once again become easy targets.
There are also some practical reasons for Pandit reservations about going back to their houses. According to Vinod Pandit of All Parties Migrant Coordination Committee about 80 percent of Pandits have sold off their houses and other properties in the Valley since nineties.
“There is nowhere to go now” says Pandit who has also sold his own house in Kulgam for a few lakh rupees in the nineties. “So, how can we go back and resettle into our old localities?”.
Pandits also points out how a new generation has grown in both communities which has no memory of having lived with the other community. “Our new generations don’t know each other. This makes living together suddenly a tough proposition,” says Pandit. “This makes separate townships a necessity”.
But such arguments hardly wash with separatist groups who find the idea of the segregated townships inherently dangerous.
“We have pledged to resist,” Mirwaiz said. “When ruling political parties will try to change the demography of the state, we will take to streets. We will offer sacrifices.”
He asked state government to come clean on the issue. “Press conferences and statements are only to dilute the issue. Government must come out with written order that they are not establishing Sainik colonies and Pandit townships,” Mirwaiz said while addressing a public gathering at Hawal Chowk in downtown Srinagar.
“The purpose of the return and rehabilitation of Pandits should have been the restoration of harmony and reconciliation between the communities rather than further driving a wedge between them,” said Ayaz Akber, the spokesman for Hurriyat faction led by Geelani. Akber said that there are places in the Valley where Pandits live with their Muslim neighbours. “Creating separate settlements is an exercise in complicating rather than resolving the problem”.
Though state government has denied that it is establishing Pandit or Sainik colonies, both civil society and the separatist groups aren’t ready to take it on the face value. “We can’t trust the government. Government spokespersons deny that the colonies are being set up, but the government documents and the orders tell a different story,” said Hameeda Nayeem, the chairperson of the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies. “Government has to do more to generate trust”.