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24 January, 2017

An empty political gesture

BRP Bhaskar

The Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly last week adopted, with a lone abstention, a resolution calling for the return of the Pandits who had fled the valley in 1990 after militants targeted members of the community.

The resolution was passed even as Pandits, living as refugees outside Kashmir, were marking the 27th anniversary of their forced exit from the valley. They had left as they felt insecure. In the absence of any steps to guarantee their safety, the resolution is an empty gesture.

Though a small minority in the population, Pandits, who form the Kashmiri cadre of the Brahmin order, wielded influence in many administrations by virtue of their educational attainments and ownership of land and faced hardship under rulers who promoted conversion to Islam.

When communal violence engulfed the northern parts of the subcontinent on the eve of Independence the state was calm and the slogan “Hindu Muslim Sikh unity” raised by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah’s Jammu and Kashmir National Conference reverberated in the valley. Muslims and Pandits worked together in the resistance against the 1947 tribal attack to force the state’s accession to Pakistan.

The idyllic atmosphere was shattered when militants shot dead Tika Lal Taploo, a lawyer and vice-president of the state Bharatiya Janata Party unit, in September 1989. Migration of Pandits in search of security which began as a trickle after this incident turned into a flood four months later with militants ordering them, on pain of death, to convert or quit.

Chilling accounts of the night of January 19, 1990 when loudspeakers blared out threats and youths wielding Kalashnikovs roamed the streets of Srinagar have been provided by some who lived through the nightmare. “By morning,” Tej Kumar Tikoo, a retired colonel, wrote, “it became apparent to Pandits that Kashmiri Muslims had decided to throw them out from the Valley.” According to Rahul Pandita, a journalist, in the next few months hundreds of Pandits were tortured, killed and raped, and by the end of the year all but a few families had left the valley.

There is no authentic figure of the Pandit population in the valley at that time since there has been no mention of caste in the state census since 1941. Pandita put the number of migrants at about 350,000.

When the developments of the period are viewed in a wider perspective, it will be seen that the militants terrorised the Muslims too, targeting members of the community whose conduct they did not approve of.

VP Singh’s government at the Centre and Farooq Abdullah’s in the state also share the blame for the Pandit exodus. In the summer of 1989 militants had started serving notices asking prominent Pandits to quit Kashmir. On January 4, 1990, the Urdu daily Aftab published a press release of the militant outfit Hizbul Mujahideen asking all Pandits to leave immediately. Neither the Centre nor the state acted to protect the threatened minority.

The VP Singh government, in which Mufti Mohammed Sayeed was the Home Minister, had a disastrous start with the J and K Liberation Front kidnapping his daughter Rubaiya in Srinagar, obliging the government to free five jailed militants to secure her release.

The fateful January 19 saw more ominous developments. The Centre sent Jagmohan, a former bureaucrat with a dubious Emergency rule record, to the state to serve a second term as Governor and he took over the administration following Farooq Abdullah’s resignation. Many Kashmiris suspect he facilitated the Pandit exodus.

There are 60,452 registered Kashmiri migrant families in the country, according to the Centre. Of them, 38,119 are in Jammu, 19,338 in Delhi and 1,996 in other states. The Jammu figure includes 2,168 Muslim and 1,749 Sikh families, who too left the valley following threats from militants.

The state government gives to each member of 17,428 “eligible” families in Jammu Rs 1,650 (subject to a maximum of Rs 6,600 per family) and specified quantities of rice, wheat flour and sugar. The Centre bears the cost of Rs 1.36 billion a year. Other states provide similar assistance to the Pandit refugees at their own cost.

This is not the first time that the Pandits fled to escape forced conversion. The last such migration occurred under an Afghan ruler in the 15th century. A later ruler allowed those who were forcibly converted to return to their original faith. He also sent emissaries as far away as Maharashtra to bring back those who had fled.
The return of the Pandits and ensuring their security cannot be divorced from the wider issue of restoration of normalcy in Kashmir and creation of conditions in which the entire population feels secure. That calls for a meaningful political process. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 24, 2017.

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