Denial of justice and fading away of people: Day that saw beginning of unending exile of Kashmiri Pandits

19 January 2022 marks the beginning of the 32nd year of exile of the Pandits. This day in 1990 brought misery to the community and subsequently led to their ethnic cleansing from Kashmir

Varad Sharma January 19, 2022 10:46:03 IST
Denial of justice and fading away of people: Day that saw beginning of unending exile of Kashmiri Pandits

Kashmiri Pandits. AP

How do you deal with the losses which are so many that the efforts of salvaging do not seem to be effectual? How do you preserve memories which gradually fade each passing day and vanish with each death? Should you just give up and surrender to fate? How do you deal with hope and despair at the same time? Is it possible to do that? I grapple with many such questions as the forced exile of my community — the Kashmiri Pandits — continues to prolong.

19 January 2022 marks the beginning of the 32nd year of exile of the Pandits. This day in 1990 brought misery to the community and subsequently led to their ethnic cleansing from Kashmir at the hands of Islamist separatists and terrorists.

Eight years ago, on 19 January 2014, a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits met the then prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, in Delhi and submitted a memorandum seeking his intervention for justice to the community. Expressing concern for the Pandits, Modi tweeted, “No words will ever explain the extent of suffering Kashmiri Pandits experienced. Justice towards the community remains our firm commitment. Injustice to Kashmiri Pandits is not only an attack on their rights but an attack on our national ideal of Sarva Pantha Sambhav.”

Five months later, Modi became the Prime Minister of India on 26 May 2014 and has remained in power since then (by getting elected for the second time on 30 May 2019). In the last eight years, several political developments have taken place in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) with the most significant being the invalidation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India. Amid all the developments and policy measures, the question of Pandits is not settled yet. Pandits await justice for the crimes committed against them in 1989-90 and afterwards. The community seeks a dignified return to and safe rehabilitation in their homeland.

What happened to Pandits in Kashmir in 1990 was the massive betrayal of trust and colossal loss of life thereafter. For the sake of Kashmir’s azadi — an Islamist movement with the guiding principle of La ilaha illa Allah — the Muslims turned against Pandits all of a sudden. Pandits were told that they must leave their homes for their own safety. The ethnic cleansing of Pandits started with the selective killings of Pandits in 1989 and by the end of 1990, the entire Kashmir was almost emptied of Pandits.

The acute sense of betrayal is felt from time to time, most recently in October 2021 when the minorities (including Pandits) were targeted by Islamists in Kashmir. Notably, when thousands of Pandit families left Kashmir in 1990, a few hundred families stayed back in Kashmir and went through the turbulent 1990s. The recent killings brought complexities of the ground situation to the fore and indicated that mere policy changes will not usher any considerable change unless the implementation is not thought through by the government of the day.

Back in Kashmir, Pandits had their own culture and traditions, festivals and rituals, and language and dialect — a unique way of life deeply rooted in their native land. That way of life no longer exists now. The people who spent most part of life in Kashmir — and were forced out of their homes — are no longer alive. Only bits and pieces remain now of the Pandit way of life in and outside of Kashmir.

In 2008, the Government of India, headed by then prime minister Manmohan Singh, announced a return and rehabilitation package for Kashmiri Pandits worth Rs 1,168.4 crore. It included 6,000 jobs for unemployed Pandit youth in the J&K government (of which the Government of India will bear the cost towards salary for 3,000 youth till they are regularised in the J&K government). Congress government’s policy, set in motion in 2010, was furthered by the Modi government and formed part of the prime minister’s development package for J&K worth Rs 80,068 crore announced in 2015.

However, the reality of the return and rehabilitation of Pandits is way different from the policies announced by the governments (both Congress and BJP). After more than a decade, the government has failed to fully rehabilitate 6,000 Pandits (and their families) in Kashmir. On 28 July 2021, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Nityanand Rai, informed the Rajya Sabha that 3,841 Pandits have been working in different districts of Kashmir under the package and another 1,997 Pandits are selected and expected to join government services.

The ministry further stated that 1,025 dwelling units have been constructed in Kashmir (in the districts of Budgam, Kulgam, Kupwara, Anantnag, and Pulwama), 1,488 units are under construction and land has been identified for approximately 2,444 units. It is ironic that many Pandits, who were supposedly getting rehabilitated in their native land under the employment package, are living in rental accommodations in Kashmir. Clearly, the prime minister’s package has failed to address the issue of Pandits.

Justice should be the first and foremost step for the return and rehabilitation of Pandits which has been denied to them by successive governments and the judiciary. To date, no government has set up a commission to investigate the crimes committed against Pandits — the killings, the rapes of womenfolk, the loss of properties, the desecration of temples, etc — and prosecute the perpetrators who were behind the ethnic cleansing of Pandits.

The Supreme Court of India closed its doors for the Pandit community in July 2017 by rejecting public interest litigation related to the killings of Pandits in 1989-90. The apex court said, “We decline to entertain this petition under Article 32 of the Constitution of India, for the simple reason that the instances referred to in the present petition pertain to the year 1989-90, and more than 27 years have passed by since then. No fruitful purpose would emerge, as evidence is unlikely to be available at this late juncture.”

The Government of India must understand that economics was not the reason behind the forced expulsion of Pandits from Kashmir. Hence, economics will not define the return and rehabilitation of Pandits back in their homeland. It is incumbent upon the government to provide a safe and conducive environment for Pandits in Kashmir.

The recent spate of minority killings last October put a spotlight on the looming security threat over Pandits despite assurances by the government and civil society. Beyond the hollow welcome notes in the press and on social media, bear in mind that most of the Muslim populace perceives the homecoming of Pandits (and their empowerment) as a threat to their space in Kashmir even though Pandits are no ‘outsiders’ in their lexicon.

In Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi writes, “Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” There is a wilful denial of justice to the Pandits even after 32 years. The exile of the Pandit community seems eternal while their men and women fade away into nothingness.

The author is a writer and political commentator. He is the co-editor of book on Kashmir’s ethnic minority community titled ‘A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits’, published by Bloomsbury India. Views expressed are personal.​

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