Kashmiri Pundits one step closer to return, but a longer journey ahead

But a year after as the House unanimously passed a resolution for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to Valley, the prospect looks little nearer

Kashmiri Pundits one step closer to return, but a longer journey ahead

When presenting his maiden budget in Jammu Kashmir Assembly on March 22 last year, finance minister Haseeb Drabu proposed to construct model ethnographic villages across Valley to settleKashmiri Pandits, nobody in Kashmir objected. As a first village, the government selected Haal, a ruined Pandit village in South Kashmir where but for one all families fled in the first burst separatist violence in 1989.

“The Haal will be re-built to recreate aspects relating to the tradition and culture of Kashmiri Pandits,” Drabu told the house.

But a year after as the House unanimously passed a resolution for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to Valley, the prospect looks little nearer.

“A conducive atmosphere should be created for their safe return," Speaker LA Kavendra Gupta read in the house after passing the resolution.

Earlier, former Chief Minister and National Conference Working President Omar Abdullah had asked the government to pass a resolution to favour returning of all sections of people who had migrated from Kashmir since the outbreak of militancy in 1989. Omar said all the political parties should rise above their affiliations and pass a resolution to create an atmosphere so that all those people who have left Kashmir could return.

However, the resolution means little both in terms of its execution on the ground, and in terms of the political consensus which has always been there – albeit there are sharp political differences about the mode of their return. Both Kashmir based mainstream National Conference and the separatist groups have reservations about the resettlement of Pandits in exclusive enclaves, separatists more stridently so.

Last year, separatists had called for an agitation and a hartal after the home minister Rajnath Singh decided to go ahead with the “composite townships” in Kashmir for the Pandits. JKLF supremo Yasin Malik was quick to hold a press conference and give a call for hartal on April 11, which was supported by all separatist groups. And there was a complete shutdown on the day.

There is nothing surprising about the turn of events. This is a script that has been played out in the state over and over again over the past several years. The separatist demand - and which resonates with a large section of the population in Valley – is that Pandits should return to their ancestral places and reintegrate into Kashmiri society. This is a demand that also finds a tacit favour with the Valley-based mainstream parties like PDP and NC who are afraid of running afoul of their constituencies should they support separate settlements.

Far from resolving, the issue has thus become increasingly complex over time, mired in the competing paranoia of the two communities. While separatist groups fear an impending “demographic change and Israel type settlement plan in Valley, “Kashmiri Pandits have legitimate security reasons for seeking segregated colonies. There is the dread that if they scatter around the Valley, they would once again become the easy targets.

Most Pandit groups seek a separate settlement in the Valley — a demand opposed by Muslim parties, arguing it will create a perpetual communal divide — Muslims seek reintegration of the community into the Kashmiri society, a proposal viewed with suspicion by Pandits, who have legitimate security worries in such an arrangement. And the argument is far from settled.

And the resolution will do little to help the cause of the Pandit return either. Speaking, however, at the Assembly, the Parliamentary Affairs minister, Abdul Rahman Veeri accepted the need for a resolution on Kashmiri Pandits: “We all feel the need to bring our people back who left and thus a resolution is being passed here,” Veeri said. “They are our part, bringing them back is what keeps our conscience alive”.

But understandably, Veeri stopped short of talking about the politically contentious Government plan for the return of Pandits to the Valley.