A House, But No Home in Kashmir

Two weeks ago, on a hot summer day, I visited Jagti along with my father. Jagti is a village near Nagrota town in Jammu province, which straddles the national highway connecting Jammu and Srinagar. At present, Jagti gives shelter to around 4000 families; seeing the clustered structures, I couldn’t fathom how they must live. Families living in small two-room flats who once lived in large houses in Kashmir.

I spotted an under-construction temple to Goddess Kheer Bhawani, the celebrated deity of Kashmiri Pandits. The original temple is in Tulmul, in Ganderbal district, in Kashmir. Every year, thousands of Pandits still visit Kheer Bhawani temple on Jyeshth Ashtami, in accordance with the Kashmiri Hindu calendar. This year, it falls on June 12. The temple is a symbol of our uncompromising faith, which we would not give up on even after being rendered homeless.

In the ‘migrant township’, I was again reminded of my identity – a Pandit, a migrant, a refugee, an exile. One of my grandfather’s cousins lives here with his family. Among other things, my father and my relative talked about our house and the neighbours in Akura, a village in Anantnag district. According to the legend, when Shiva was going to Amarnath cave to tell Amar Katha to Parvati, he told Ganesha to leave his vehicle, Mushak, at a place that came to be known as Akurath (the other name of Mushak). Akurath was distorted to the present name, Akura. In colloquial Kashmiri, our village is called Okur.

Until 1990, before the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, my grandfather and his family, and this cousin and his family, all lived in the same house there. The larger part belonged to my grandfather. My father tells me that ‘Om’ and ‘Vikrami Samvat 2009’ are inscribed above the front door. Built in 1952, it was a typical village dwelling of bricks, wood and mud with tin roofs.

Our house had three storeys. The ground floor would be called wout, the first one kuth, the second one kaeni, and above it, there braer kaeni. The two portions of the house were segmented by an entrance hall known as the wuzz. There was the dub, a covered balcony above the first floor, protruding out of the entire structure.

In the courtyard, there was the gaan, the cowshed, on one side and daan kuth, a store house for grains, on the other. The whole area was enclosed by compound wall called dwous made of stones and mud, five or six feet high. The gate made of wood would be called baryen. Outside the house, a brook of the river Lidder would flow.

For me, it is an inherited memory. I often tell my friend Siddhartha Gigoo that at least you have your own memories – I don’t have a single one. Having never lived in Kashmir, I survive on inherited and borrowed memories, to which my Kashmiri identity is affixed. Sometimes, I wonder whether it is possible to inherit all their memories from my parents and relatives. I wish they were tangible so could keep count of them. I fear for loss of memory; I fear for loss of my Kashmiri identity.

My cousin visited Kashmir recently and shared a picture of our home in Akura. It was his maiden visit, though he had been to Kashmir a couple of times since 1990. He tells me he identified the place without anyone’s guidance, and was reminded of our uncle and grand-uncle who would take him to the river Lidder nearby. He met our immediate neighbours, who inquired about our whereabouts. Nobody asked him about coming back. The neighbours admitted that when Pandits used to live in Kashmir, their children were disciplined. From the photograph, it seemed like the conflict, the neighbours and the time had all taken their toll on our house.

I heard from my father that our farmland is being occupied by one of our neighbours. That person is supposedly my younger uncle’s friend. He had sent a message, my father tells me, asking us to sell our land to him. We declined. Now we heard that he has built a school there. A fellow Kashmiri, a friend, occupies our land and constructs a school. The betrayal that began in 1990 continues. I am told that we, the minority Hindus who were forced to exile in 1990, should move towards reconciliation with Kashmiri Muslims. What I should reconcile with? I fail to understand.

Still, I don’t feel any ill-will against the person who occupied our land. Maybe tomorrow someone will take our house too; I have doubts about reconciliation in such circumstances. My heart says that reconciliation is the way forward but my mind says that I am being asinine. My neighbours in Akura should have kept our home and land intact, if they were concerned about us. Betrayals don’t lead to reconciliation.

On how many fronts am I, an exile in my own country, supposed to fight? I am fighting the injustice to me and my community, which has prevailed for three decades. I am fighting for a right to a home in my own land. I am struggling to preserve a centuries-old culture. I am surviving, too.

There is a walnut tree in our courtyard which was sown by my father’s great-grandfather. That walnut tree is testimony to all that happened to my home and my homeland. I wish that tree could speak.

My cousin shared another photograph of him and his son, who is nearly three, inside the house. Will his generation, the progeny of our community, feel connected with Kashmir at all? If they won’t, what will become of us? Are some communities supposed to assimilate with other communities? Do some identities supposed to cease to exist, and cultures supposed to vanish? I don’t have answers.

Two months ago, my grand-aunt passed away in Jammu. She was the last of the old generation from my grandma’s side. We used to call her Byengash. She was not well in the months before and finally succumbed to her illness. While her pyre was being lit up, a thought struck me. The older guardians of our community are dying. What will happen to the memories that they possess and we don’t? Who will protect us from cultural extinction in exile? Will the generation of younger Pandits be able to become the sentinels of the community? I hope we will. The optimist in me won’t let me believe otherwise.

I find solace in my favourite Kashmiri poet Dina Nath Nadim’s lines –

Wushun wushun, wazul wazul, wazul wazul, wushun wushun
Wushun wazul, wazul wushun chu khoon myon
Jawan chus, toofan hyu junoon myon

(Warm warm, red red, red red, warm warm
Warm red, red warm is my blood
I am young, my zeal is like a storm.)

(Published in The Wire)

Where’s the promised land for Kashmiri Pandits?

For the past 26 years, every political party has played with the issue of resettling Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir for their own interests. And every time, once the votes have been counted, the issue goes into cold storage. Indian National Congress (INC), National Conference (NC) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) are especially guilty of this and as the nation celebrated two years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) joined this list.

The opposition to resettlement

When reports came in of land being identified in Kashmir for displaced Kashmiri Pandits, there were a lot of raucous voices from several quarters. Press Trust of India (PTI) recently reported that three sites have been identified in north, central and south Kashmir by the Jammu and Kashmir government for establishment of colonies for exiled Pandits. In North Kashmir, more than 200 kanals of land at Kanispora Johema on the outskirts of Baramulla district has been identified. The land is yet to be finalised in central and south Kashmir.

Separatist groups led by Yasin Malik, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani joined hands against the proposed colonies/townships and gave a call for shutdown and protest. They have alleged that India, like always, is trying to change the demography of Jammu and Kashmir with this move. The statement issued by separatists said,

“The policy makers of India fully know that sooner or later they have to accept the plebiscite demand of Jammu & Kashmir people and they (India) also understand that the end result of the referendum process will not be in their favour. So under a planned manner they are trying to change the demography of the state and convert Muslim majority into minorities in which the local pro-India parties, particularly the ruling party PDP, are extending their every possible support to them. The policy makers of India want to settle non-state subjects in the state. Creation of Sainik colonies and separate townships for Pandits is a part of this policy.”

Last year, in April, the same controversy was created by Kashmiri separatists when Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had reportedly asked then Chief Minister of J&K, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed to provide land for townships for Pandits in Kashmir.  Separatist groups responded in a similar fashion and the valley observed complete shutdown.

The voices from separatist groups are bolstered by the opposition – J&K National Conference – on the matter of separate colonies/townships for Pandits. National Conference has said that theseparate townships are unacceptable.  Congress echoed similar sentiments. Professor Saif-ud-Din Soz, former Union Minister and Congress leader, said that a separate colony is not going to solve problems of Kashmiri Pandits.

After strong objections from the separatists and the Opposition parties, the state government buckled and clarified that there won’t be any exclusive colonies for Pandits in Kashmir.  BJP’s member of legislative council (MLC) and sole representative of Kashmiri Pandits in the legislature said that it is the prerogative of Kashmiri Pandits to decide on the return module. However, he seems to be a lone voice countering the claims of his government.

What Kashmiri Pandits say?

Sushant Dhar, a young Kashmiri Pandit from Anantnag and currently living in Jammu, sounded infuriated with the recent proposal of townships for Pandits in Kashmir. He says, “I have become good in semantics over the years. Every year we have something to take away, a new word for our diary of words – ‘Satellite Townships’, ‘Cluster Structures’, ‘Composite Township’, ‘Dignified Return’, ‘Return and Rehabilitation’. Yes, the government has to start from somewhere and who knows if they are serious. They are constructing these townships for last five years. We can only wait.” Hinting at the current situation in Kashmir, he insists, “The Government of India must find an effective treatment for the growing disease. The gangrene is turning moist.”

The recent talk of resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits is a soap opera according to Siddharth Kaul, a Banglore-based Kashmiri Pandit originally from Baramulla. He is often found disapproving of Narendra Modi and BJP over social media. He says that the interesting part of this soap opera is how BJP, both at the centre and the state, handles this issue; to use the cliché – the real test of Modi.

However, another Kashmiri Pandit named Rahul Bagati, originally from Kupwara and presently based in Delhi, has welcomed the proposal of townships for Kashmiri Pandits. He says, “After 26 years, there is something concrete happening on the ground. But, a township will not solve the return issue. For resettlement to happen, there needs to be adequate arrangements for employment, health, education, and political representation of Pandits. Any step to make them return without these will be injustice. Think of a Pandit who runs a small shop in a camp or works with a local store. If they move to these townships what happens to their livelihood. If no steps are taken to help them, the resettlement will be temporary. Resettlement shouldn’t be building few buildings and expecting Kashmiri Pandits to move in.”

Is there any hope from current government – both state and centre – with respect to issues pertaining to Pandits? Bharatiya Janata Party and the current dispensation have said many a time that they are committed to bring back Kashmiri Pandits to Kashmir with dignity and honour. “Narendra Modi’s rise gave a glimmer of hope to KPs,” said Kaul. “But his government did not waste any time in making its strategy clear by getting into an alliance with PDP, a quasi-separatist party. BJP is looking at a larger picture – mass vote base. In that way, BJP policy is no different from Congress or National Conference vis-à-vis Pandits. For the sake of comparison, at present, the situation in Kashmir is how it was in 1989 – Narendra Modi is Rajiv Gandhi and Mehbooba Mufti is Farooq Abdullah. We know what followed.”

No blue-print for resettlement

Time and again, the government talks about resettlement of Pandits in Kashmir. However, there is no blueprint for their return. No plan has been shared with the Pandit community either. Above all, it is the right of Pandits as how they want to resettle back in their homeland.

NDA government, in its first budget of 2014-15, earmarked a fund of Rs. 500 crore for rehabilitation of displaced Kashmiri Pandits. In the Union Budget of 2015-16, Rs 580 crore was allocated for rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. However, only Rs 280 crore was provided while Rs 300 crore remained unutilised. Besides this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a package of over Rs 80,000 crore for the state during his visit to Kashmir Valley in November last year, of which Rs 5,263 crore was meant for security and welfare of displaced people of the state.

NDA is pursuing UPA’s approach by doling out packages and funds for Kashmiri Pandits instead of tackling the issue heads on. The UPA Government had announced a comprehensive package amounting to Rs 1618 crore in the year 2008 for return and rehabilitation of displaced Kashmiris. On May 28, 2016, the Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation Syed Basharat Bukhari informed the J&K Assembly that only two Pandit families have returned to Kashmir so far.

What is the best way to ensure Pandits the freedom to return in the long run? Will it be a separate homeland as demanded by section of Pandits or townships at different places? While talking about townships, how will the government ensure security of Pandits? Returning to a pre-1990 condition is not an option since there are no homes to return to if we talk about pre-1990 condition as many Pandit families have sold their properties. What about the employment of Pandits? Has the government thought about those Pandits who are making livelihood on their own outside Kashmir? What will happen to education of kids who are studying in Jammu schools or elsewhere? What about healthcare facilities? Has the government ensured Pandits won’t face any kind of backlash in Kashmir? Can there be a safe return if many sections of society are opposing the township plan? Is Kashmiri society willing to cede space to Pandits? What about representation of Pandits in the polity of the state? Given the complexity of issue, no one knows what can be the optimal way.

In a video released recently, Hizbul Mujahideen’s militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani has warned of attack if townships for Pandits are set up in Kashmir. The resettlement of Pandits is proposed at a time when there has been surge in new kind of militancy in Kashmir involving young local Muslims. What’s the government’s agenda? We are not moving herds of animals from one place to another. We are talking about human lives here. Sadly, there is not any light across the Jawahar tunnel for Kashmiri Pandits living in exile.

(Published in Newslaundry)

Interview with Deutsche Welle

Indian security forces battled for a third day Monday, February 22, amid heavy gunfire to clear militants who stormed a government building in the disputed Kashmir region. The attack began when militants shot at a bus carrying police reservists near Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, before breaking into a training institute. Three Indian army commandos, two policemen, a civilian and three militants have been killed in the fighting, according to Reuters news agency.

Muslim separatists have been fighting Indian forces in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir since 1989. India accuses Pakistan of training and arming the rebels in the portion it controls and sending them to the Indian side, a claim its neighbor denies. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two of their three wars since independence in 1947 over Muslim-majority Kashmir, which they both claim in full but rule in part.

n a DW interview, Varad Sharma, an expert on Jammu and Kashmir and co-editor of the book “A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits” talks about the latest violence in the area, the strength of the insurgency and the role he believes Pakistan plays in the conflict.

DW: What can you tell us about the latest standoff between terrorists and government troops?

Varad Sharma: In the evening of February 20th, terrorists attacked a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy in the Pampore area of Jammu and Kashmir in which two personnel were killed and 13 others suffered injuries. Later, the terrorists, suspected to be up to five in number, took refuge in the Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) building in the same area.

More than 100 civilians – trapped in the building at the time of the attack – were evacuated by the security forces. One civilian lost his life in the crossfire. Today is the third day of fierce gunfight between Indian security forces and terrorists.

The Indian Army has lost two captains and one lance corporal in the encounter – all three of whom belonged to an elite Para commando unit. The army has succeeded in eliminating three of the terrorists, all of whom were reportedly foreign nationals. In order to avoid any more casualties, the Indian Army has said that they are in no hurry and that there is no time limit for the counter-terror operation.

What does the latest violence in the area reveal about the strength of the secessionist movement?

India’s counter-terror operations have effectively marginalized the terrorist movement in Kashmir. The violence has drastically reduced over the past decade as compared to the 1990s. However, the militancy in Kashmir is quietly making a comeback.

Young local Kashmiris, from well-educated and sound financial backgrounds, are joining the armed fight against the Indian state. Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) police census last year put the strength of terrorists at 142 – 88 local Kashmiris and 54 foreign nationals.

It’s important to point out, however, that the Kashmir issue is not only a political one between India and Pakistan, but it also has its fundamentals in radical Islam. For instance, young Kashmiris joining the militants’ ranks are drawing inspiration from transnational Islamic extremism. The main effort of the terrorists has always been to cause maximum damage and loss of life, especially of Indian security forces.

What is currently fueling the decades-old secessionist movement?

It is known that the secessionist movement in J&K is fueled by Pakistan. Islamabad has always termed J&K as an unfinished business leftover from India’s partition in 1947 even though the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India on October 26, 1947 when its ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the Instrument of Accession with the Union of India.

Pakistan uses terror as a strategic policy despite facing several terror attacks itself and losing thousands of its people. The jihadi infrastructure continues to operate from Pakistani soil. History tells us that the militants who operate in J&K are, mostly, either local Kashmiri Muslims or Pakistanis.

Who is supporting the militants and how popular is their movement among the local population?

There are two ideologies as far as the secessionist movement is concerned – one favors the independence (Azadi) of Kashmir from India and the subsequent creation of an Islamic state, while the other advocates Kashmir becoming part of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

In late 1980s and 1990s, there was massive support for militancy, both overtly and covertly, by a majority of Kashmiri Muslims. Minority Kashmiri Hindus were ethnically cleansed in the process leading to their displacement from Kashmir. Over a period of time, many Kashmiris have realized that the militancy has done more harm to them than anybody else.

However, certain sections in Kashmir still support violent struggle for the so-called Azadi of Kashmir from India. The upsurge in militancy reflects that Kashmir has been deeply radicalized all these years.

In fact, the basic premise for armed struggle against the Indian state which started in 1990 has been the creation of an Islamic state of Jammu and Kashmir. The anti-India protests, the waiving of Pakistani, Lashkar and “Islamic State” flags, and the clashes with the security forces continue to happen in Kashmir now and then. Lately, there has been huge turnout in the funerals of terrorists killed by security forces in Kashmir.

In your view, what is Pakistan’s role in the conflict?

Pakistan, through its Army and military-operated Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), provides the necessary space, infrastructure and weapons for jihadi training at terrorist camps which thrive on its soil. Also, the launch pads to terrorists for infiltration along the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB) are provided by Pakistan.

We often hear Pakistani politicians, including the prime minister, and army generals saying that they will continue providing moral, political and diplomatic support to Kashmiris. I believe what they actually mean is that they will continue to fund terrorism in J&K, in fact in the whole of India.

In light of these problems, what can be done by both parties to stop the violence and reach an agreement?

The issue will persist as long as the terror infrastructure continues to exist across the border in Pakistan. Since coming to power in May 2014, Indian PM Narendra Modi has stressed the need for improving relations with Pakistan. However, we have seen no action from Pakistan on the November 26, 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

India’s most wanted terrorist Dawood Ibrahim continues to hide in Pakistan. Last year, we saw terror attacks in Udhampur in J&K and Gurdaspur in Punjab. In January this year, Pathankot Air Force Station in Punjab was attacked by terrorists.

All these terror attacks, like in the past, have been planned in Pakistan. India continues to engage diplomatically with Pakistan at different levels though there have been pauses for one reason or other. The engagements have not resulted in anything fruitful. I think strengthening the security and counter-terror mechanism should be a top priority for India.

(Published in Deutsche Welle)

26 years of exile: How successive government have failed Kashmiri Pandits

Every new year brings with it gory memories of the loss of home for Kashmiri Pandits, the aborigines of the valley with a history of 5,000 years. It reminds Pandits of the dark times of terror they witnessed in Kashmir in 1990. It was the night of 19 January, 1990, when the valley reverberated with anti-Pandit and anti-India slogans like Zalimo, O Kafiro, Kashmir Hamara Chhod Do (O! Merciless, O! Infidels, Leave our Kashmir); Kashmir Mein Agar Rehna Hai, Allah-O-Akbar Kehna Hai (if you want to stay in Kashmir, you have to say Allah-O-Akbar); Yahan Kya Chalega, Nizam-e-Mustafa (what do we want here? Rule of Shariah); Asi Gachchi Pakistan, Batav Roas Te Batanev Saan (we want Pakistan along with Pandit women but without their men). The killings of Pandits had already started a year earlier in 1989. As the Indian government and Jammu and Kashmir state government failed to protect its citizens, left with no choice, Kashmiri Pandits left their homeland in 1990.

Kashmiri Pandits commemorate 19 January as their displacement day worldwide, renewing their resolve every year to reclaim their homes in Kashmir. While working on my book, A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits, I talked to several Pandits including my relatives about their life in Kashmir and the loss of their homes. Pandits are infuriated with the government’s attitude towards their predicament. Though Pandits wish to return to their homes, they don’t see any hope of returning back to Kashmir, including my own family. It is because of the fact that the issue has lingered on for a quarter of a century. In the last 25 years, Pandits have only got assurances from various governments. They have been told and retold that Kashmir is incomplete without Kashmiri Pandits and that the government is committed to the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits to the valley. Governments have changed from time to time but the rhetoric hasn’t changed.

The Indian state has not even once tried to address the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits. The reversal of ethnic cleansing must begin with justice –- with the prosecution of the culprits of the 1990 Pandit exodus. However, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government, which has been in power for around 20 months, doesn’t seem to address the issue of ethnic cleansing. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seen as a party that has compromised on its agenda so as to get a power share in J&K. Narendra Modi gave hope to the Pandit community that is now flickering.

The issue of Kashmiri Pandits has been raised by political parties only when it suits them. The most parties in J&K – Congress, BJP, National Conference, and People’s Democratic Party – have done for Pandits is to have a minority cell unit of their respective parties headed by a Kashmiri Pandit. Truth be told, Kashmiri Pandit organisations and their self-styled leaders, have not done much good for their own community. The exile struggle of 1990s was different from what it has become now. Certain Pandit outfits indulge in jingoism that does not yield any substantial outcome.

Modi government has still three and half years more in power. It has to be seen if it will move forward in the right direction of resolving the issue of Pandits or, like past governments, merely announce financial packages that result in nothing. I hope for the former. As the new exile year begins, it is time for Kashmiri Pandits, especially the youth, to reflect as to how they want to take forward their struggle for reclamation of homeland.

(Published in Newslaundry)

The Persecution of Kashmir’s Minority Hindus

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Martin Niemöller’s words on German intellectuals who didn’t raise their voice against Nazis are pertinent for Indian intelligentsia when it comes to the issue of ethnic cleansing and persecution of minority Hindu community of Kashmir, known as Kashmiri Pandits. There has not been enough clamor for bringing to justice the perpetrators of 1990 mass exodus of Pandits from Kashmir.

The mass exodus

Kashmir is a seat of intellect and knowledge with a recorded history of 5000 years. It forms part of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), which is the only Indian state with a Muslim majority population and Hindus in the minority. Pakistan also claims the state, which it views as unfinished business leftover from India’s partition (even though the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India on October 26, 1947 when its ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed the Instrument of Accession with the Union of India).

In 1989-1990, thousands of Kashmiri Muslims, backed by Pakistan, rose against the Indian state with the aim of seceding J&K from the Union of India. The idea was to create an Islamic state of Jammu and Kashmir; a valley homogenous in its religious (read: Islamic) character.

The Hindu Pandits of Kashmir became the first target of the insurgency. They were viewed as living symbols, representing India in Kashmir. In order to spread fear among the Pandit community and oust them from Kashmir, the militants started targeting prominent Kashmiri Pandits in 1989. The first killing happened on September 14, 1989 when Tika Lal Taploo, a lawyer and the vice-president of J&K state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was shot dead in Srinagar.

On the night of January 19, 1990, Kashmir resonated with anti-India and anti-Pandit slogans, calling Pandits “infidels” and calling for sharia law. Mosques became planning centers for terrorist activities in Kashmir. Violent clashes between local protestors seeking freedom from India and security forces became the norm. The law and order situation in Kashmir collapsed; kidnappings, killings, and rapes became routine.

Terrorist organizations like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Hizb-ul Mujahideen issued open threats to Kashmiri Pandits. They were given three choices –convert to Islam, leave Kashmir, or perish. Left with no choice, the minority Kashmiri Pandits fled the valley, leaving behind their homes to save themselves from persecution. Half a million Pandits were displaced, marking the largest-ever exodus of people since India’s partition in 1947. By the end of 1990, all of Kashmir was almost cleansed of Pandits.

The prolonged exile

After being forced from their homes, Kashmiri Pandits sought refuge in different parts of India, especially Jammu and Delhi. The aura of horror was such that most of the Pandit families left without carrying any belongings. They left with the hope that the situation in Kashmir would return to normal soon, and allowing them to go back to their homes. But the situation deteriorated day by day, and the chance to go back to their homeland never came.

Some Pandits managed to get rented accommodations while many Pandits lived in squalid camps in Jammu. The state administration failed to provide dignified shelter to Pandit refugees. In the initial years of exile, in the early 1990s, thousands of Pandits succumbed to unaccustomed weather, sunstrokes, snake bites, and other ailments. The trauma of losing their home slowly and silently affected Kashmiri Pandits, particularly the elderly.

Thousands of Pandit families lived in these camps for almost two decades. Only in 2011 and 2012, were the Pandits living in the camps relocated to two-room tenements in Jagti, a town in Jammu province. Bit by bit, many Pandits have tried to rebuild their lives in Jammu and other parts of India, as their home in Kashmir has been lost.

Although most Pandit families left Kashmir in 1990, a few hundred families stayed. The horror of persecution always loomed over these Pandits. In 1997, 1998 and 2003, three major massacres happened in Sangrampora, Wandhama, and Nadimarg in which seven, twenty-three, and twenty-four Kashmiri Pandits, respectively, were brutally killed. These massacres signalled to other Pandits not to return to their homeland.

The continued injustice

Kashmir passed through turbulent times in the 1990s. The terrorism was at its peak then, but gradually it was controlled by Indian security forces. After the lifting of Governor’s Rule in 1996, the National Conference came to power, headed by Dr. Farooq Abdullah. Along with the democratic election process, the preparation of roadmaps for a peaceful Jammu and Kashmir commenced. With those plans came assurances that Kashmiri Pandits would be brought back to their homes. Those promises remain unfulfilled.

Around 700 Pandits have been killed in the valley due to terrorism. Neither the Indian government nor the J&K state government has tried to address the issue of the ethnic cleansing and the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits. To date, there has been no judicial inquiry and no prosecution. There has not been any hue and cry over the killings of Pandits or the rapes of Pandit women in Kashmir.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always claimed to be committed to the cause of justice for Kashmiri Pandits, including their return to their homes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his election rallies and otherwise, has spoken about the issue of Kashmiri Pandits; the Pandits were also mentioned in the BJP’s poll manifesto. However, no concrete steps have been taken by the Modi-led government. The government keeps talking about the return of Kashmiri Pandits without addressing the fundamental issue of ethnic cleansing. A safe environment in Kashmir is indispensable for the return of Pandits. That will necessitate punishing the culprits responsible for the exodus.

The year 2015 was the 25th anniversary of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir. Today, January 19 a new year of exile begins. Will the Modi government find a solution to the issue, which has dragged on for quarter of a century, or will the government behave like its predecessors?

(Published in The Diplomat)