Few Kashmiri Pandits tempted by generous offers to return home

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 September, 2009, 12:00am

The memory of the day masked Muslim militants stormed into her house in Kashmir, tied up her elderly parents, and dragged her out into a gun battle with the police is fresh in Dr Shakti Khanna's mind, more than 19 years later - but still she longs to return to the home of her childhood.

'They used me as a human shield to get away,' said Khanna, whose family were among the 250,000 Kashmiri Hindus who fled the valley after a violent Muslim rebellion against Indian rule erupted in 1989.

Finding themselves in exile in their own country, Khanna's parents hated the heat of New Delhi. They spent their last years pining for the cool air and meadows of Kashmir.

'They died dreaming of going back. They had wanted us to take their ashes and bury them under their favourite cedar tree in the garden but we were too scared,' Khanna said. Yet despite the profound yearning to return, she has no intention of accepting the Kashmir government's recent invitation to Kashmiri Pandits - high-caste Hindus.

In a special package formally launched last week, the government offered 6,000 jobs, 750,000 rupees (HK$121,000) per family to renovate or rebuild homes, paid accommodation until those homes are ready, and financial help for two years until they have successfully resettled.

Until now, Kashmiri Pandits had refused to return for the same reason they fled in the first place - the fear of being killed by Islamic militants who will not tolerate any Hindus in their fight to create a Muslim state.

About 260 Pandits were killed in 1990, triggering a fear psychosis that led to the mass exodus, the largest migration since the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Most families ended up living in pitiful conditions in refugee camps, whole families existing in one makeshift room.

Now the Kashmir government believes that the threat of terrorist attacks has receded, hence the invitation to return to the homes they left in panic under cover of darkness, often with plates of half-eaten food left in the kitchen.

'I'm not going back, because I won't be safe. We're going to be used by the government to show that all is well in Kashmir. It's a gimmick,' Khanna said.

Analysts agreed that the return of a large number of Kashmiri Pandits - whose name means 'learned one' in Sanskrit and is the source of the English word 'pundit' - would be a public relations triumph for the Kashmir government. But Khanna's colleagues in Panun Kashmir, one of the groups that represent the migrants, have rejected the invitation.

'If the government is genuine, it should first create conditions of safety. What's the point of asking families to go back when they might be at risk?' asked Dr Ajay Chungroo, chairman of Panun Kashmir.

During hundreds of years of peaceful Hindu-Muslim co-existence in Kashmir, their contribution to what is known as Kashmiriyat - the special culture of Kashmir - has been acknowledged by Muslims.

Muslims in Kashmir have frequently lamented the disappearance of the largely prosperous and educated Pandit community.

A 2007 poll found that 84 per cent of people in Srinagar, the state capital, wanted to have them back. Various chief ministers over the years have urged them to return.

But the latest package is easily the most concrete and substantial attempt ever made to persuade the Pandits to return.

Some Pandits have reacted favourably. 'About 10,000 families have said they are willing to go back and have filled out the forms,' said Desh Rattan, president of the All Migrant Camps Co-ordination Committee.

Asha Matoo, a handicrafts exporter in the Indian capital, said her parents, although nervous, were considering the offer.

'What counts is not government reassurances about safety. What counts is ordinary Muslims - neighbours and friends there - making us feel that we will be safe,' she said.

Promises of safety are problematic. After a relatively long lull in separatist violence, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh recently spoke of Pakistan-based terrorists, who infiltrate the border between India and Pakistan, plotting fresh attacks.

'The only thing that can guarantee our safety is real Hindu-Muslim reconciliation in Kashmir. Until that happens, the idea of returning is a non-starter,' said Jatinder Bakshi, president of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.