Kashmir's Pandits face further exile or a return to ghettoes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am

From a time before the gunmen arrived, Pyare Lal Raina recalls enjoying the comforts of a large house and the shade of a garden full of walnut trees. It's clearly a painful memory for a man who has spent the past 15 years in exile, sweating out blistering Indian summers in a single-room hovel not more than 240km from his old home in the cool of the Kashmir valley.

Mr Raina is a Kashmiri Pandit, one of about 300,000 Hindus who fled their towns and villages across Indian Kashmir in January 1990, at a time of popular support among the majority Muslim community for a revolt against New Delhi's rule.

The killing of several high-profile Pandits - the name is derived from the Sanskrit for scholar and is a reference to their membership of the educated Brahmin caste - set off a chain reaction that devastated the community. Only 7,800 Pandits remain in the valley and a tradition of peaceful co-existence was shattered. Along with tens of thousands of others, Mr Raina ended up in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Jammu, the capital of the state's Hindu-dominated region, while others were accommodated in similar camps in Delhi.

While many among a traditionally well-educated society have built careers in a rapidly developing economy, 30,000 people still languish in hastily constructed shelters in Jammu alone, their leaders say. With few having meaningful employment, most live off government handouts of 3,000 rupees ($537) a month.

Among them are Mr Raina and his family, dreaming of a return but growing increasingly bitter over what he calls official indifference towards a politically marginal minority and mocking of the state government's attempts to bring the Pandits home.

'We want to go back, but we want to go back to our own homes, not the ghettoes the government is building,' he says angrily. 'It would be like living in a zoo.'

The fighting in Kashmir continues, despite a 19-month-old peace process between New Delhi and Islamabad, with militants, security personnel and civilians, mostly Muslims, still being killed in regular gun battles and occasional bomb blasts. But the situation is vastly improved since the height of the killing, the tourists are starting to come back and many hope the Pandits will soon follow.

The state government, led by chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, hopes to begin the process of resettling exiled Pandits in the next two months. Two hundred apartments in secure compounds near to the state's summer capital, Srinagar, are almost completed and those willing to come back are being promised one government job per family.

'We believe Kashmir has a secular ethos and won't be complete without a reunion with the Pandits,' says Vijay Bakaya, the chief minister's principal secretary. 'Pandits are already moving freely around the valley, but we feel the situation is conducive for their permanent return.'

The Pandits themselves are divided amid a proliferation of voices claiming to represent their interests. Shiban Dudha, political adviser to the All India Kashmiri Samaj, an umbrella body of Pandit organisations, accuses Mr Sayeed of attempting to climb to the top of the ladder before putting the lower rungs in place.

'We are asking Mr Sayeed, what are you doing for the Pandits still in Kashmir?' he says. 'Are you giving them jobs or making them feel secure? Are you listening to them? The answer is no. As a Kashmiri Pandit, I need my social and cultural rehabilitation, and I need my political and economic rehabilitation.' There has to be a series of confidence-building measures to banish deep mistrust, Mr Dudha says, starting with a statement from separatist groups that shows how the Pandits fit into the Muslim community's vision for Kashmir's future.

In contrast, Jatinder Bakshi says that what is needed is a debate involving Kashmiris of all religions. Mr Bakshi, head of the Action Committee for the Return of Migrants, is one of the few Pandits who stayed in Kashmir through the worst years of the militancy, spending each summer in his Srinagar home.

Along with other Pandits from Srinagar and Jammu, Mr Bakshi on July 19 held the first meeting between the community and the moderate wing of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a grouping of Muslim separatist parties that support either independence or joining Pakistan. Mr Bakshi, the chief engineer of Jammu and Kashmir until his retirement in 1994, described the talks as 'very positive' and said that the two sides would now hold meetings across the state involving community leaders, teachers and lawyers, and eventually the general public, in a bid to reassure Pandits it's safe to return.

'I find that Muslims here are more helpful than they were as they don't want us to feel isolated,' he says. 'Once Pandits start to come back to live, their fear will go.'

Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the leader of Srinagar's main mosque and Hurriyat chairman, says by holding out a hand to the Pandits, the parties are showing they want to deliver self-determination for all Kashmiris.

'We consider the Pandits constitute an integral part of our social unity,' says Professor Abdul Ghani Bhat, an influential Hurriyat moderate. 'The events that drove them away from Kashmir have their own perspective, but they belong to Kashmir.'

Analysts say this week's meeting augurs well for the future but that much remains to be done. The moderate Hurriyat leadership now understands that an independent Kashmir is not going to become a reality, says D. Suba Chandran, a director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi, and is reaching out from its traditional constituency. It has vowed to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict and is pushing for talks with the government in New Delhi.

'I think there is a genuine feeling that it is time to move forward. I don't see this as a publicity gimmick,' he says. 'But the Pandits have to be convinced that people in the valley are genuinely interested in getting them back. The wounds will take a long time to heal.'

Previous attempts to lure the Pandits back have been derailed by killings - including that of 24 Pandit men, women and children in the village of Nadimarg in March 2003, an act which led to 160 Hindu families fleeing their homes, according to Amnesty.

Both sides agree that there is a need for understanding. 'The roads to the heart must be opened,' says Mr Raina. But the battle for hearts and minds could be a long time in the winning as moderate separatists have to convince the Pandits that it's time to come home.

Following the talks in Srinagar, a statement issued on behalf of four little-known but active militant groups warned the Pandits to stay away until they are ready to apologise for abandoning their Muslim neighbours and join the 'freedom struggle'.