While return of Kashmiri Pandits is a prominent poll issue, refugee community in Jammu is more pragmatic

There are around 1.2 lakh registered Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu. During elections, the government sets up polling booths for them in migrant colonies — in Jammu, Delhi and Udhampur — so they can elect leaders for the Kashmir Valley.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Jammu: Hobbling around on crutches, 75-year-old BN Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit who is put up in a government-established colony in Jammu district's Jagti area, gets angry when asked if he is willing to go back to Kashmir.

"Do you think that's even possible? When armed soldiers are not safe in the Valley, how can we of all people think of going back?" he fumes, referring to the killing of over 40 CRPF jawans in Pulwama on 14 February.

"What will the government do to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in their homeland? Well, I suppose it will construct colonies and deploy some security personnel outside the townships. But who will protect us en route to offices, markets, schools, colleges and our religious shrines? Until and unless other communities in Kashmir accept us with open arms, the Kashmir Valley is not safe for Kashmiri Pandits."

When asked about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent speech at Jammu's Vijaypur area, wherein he claimed that his government was committed toward rehabilitating Kashmiri Pandits, Bhat says, "What else can he say? Every government since the 1990s, when we were forced to leave Kashmir, has promised to resettle us. But how many of us have been rehabilitated till date? Governments, media and NGOs know the answer to that."

Government quarters in Jagti township house displaced Kashmiri Pandits. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

Government quarters in Jagti township house displaced Kashmiri Pandits. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

What has the government done for Kashmiri Pandits?

Dr Ajay Churngoo, a prominent Kashmiri Pandit leader who heads Panun Kashmir — an organisation that represents displaced Kashmiri Pandits and has been demanding for long a separate Union Territory carved out of Kashmir for them and administered by the Centre by reorganising the state — has the figures down pat. He says that until late 1989, there were 3.5 lakh to 4 lakh Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley, and by the end of 1991, 98 percent of them had left Kashmir because of threats from Islamic insurgents and separatist organisation Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF).

Dr Churngoo says that after this exodus, 75 percent of them (around 60,000 families) took refuge in temporary sheds set up by the Jammu and Kashmir government across Jammu district, while the rest moved to other states, and some even settled abroad.

Every unemployed Kashmiri Pandit in a family is provided Rs 3,250 under a relief package, and only four members per family are eligible for this relief. From 2015, every Kashmiri Pandits was given relief of Rs 2,500 with a limit of Rs 10,000 per family per month; in June 2018, Home Minister Rajnath Singh increased the amount by 30 percent. Every Kashmiri Pandit family also gets 36 kilogram of rice — 9 kilogram per head — and 8 kilogram flour — 2 kilogram per head — besides a total of 1 kilogram sugar per month.

"Now, the ratio of Kashmiri Pandits settled in Jammu and other states is 60:40. They are fast moving to other states due to the ongoing tension and turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir," Dr Churngoo adds.

There are around 1.2 lakh registered Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu. During elections, the government sets up polling booths for them in migrant colonies — in Jammu, Delhi and Udhampur — so they can elect leaders for the Kashmir Valley.

In some parliamentary and Assembly constituencies in the Valley, particularly in South Kashmir, from where a majority of Kashmiri Pandits had to flee, their votes can make a significant difference. And even though government after government has disappointed them with regard to rehabilitation, they continue to vote in the hope that the Valley will be peaceful again.

Remembering the terror of the 90s

As Bharat Bhushan (name changed on request) — a Kashmiri Pandit in his 80s in the Jagti township who migrated from Bandipora district — remembers the 90s, tears start to roll down his cheeks.

"Between 1988 and 1989, JKLF started demanding Kashmir's independence from India and targeted Kashmiri Hindus. JKLF and Hizbul Mujahideen insurgents would threaten Kashmiri Hindu men to leave the Valley but without their women. And then, one dreadful day, I heard about the killing of Girija Tickoo, a teacher who was a regular customer at my shop," he says.

"Soon after, armed terrorists kidnapped my brother-in-law, Kanhaiya Lal, from Pazalpora area of Bandipora. They put him in a bag and murdered him."

Koushalya Devi started a tailoring shop after her husband died post their flight from the Valley. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

Koushalya Devi started a tailoring shop after her husband died post their flight from the Valley. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

Bhushan adds that the vicious spate of killings of Kashmiri Pandits instilled in him and others from the community a paralysing fear and, under such circumstances, they were left with no choice but to leave.

"My heart still beats for Kashmir, but I know that my family won't be safe there. So I prefer to stay put in Jammu," he weeps.

Crammed together in tight quarters

Another octogenarian, Sona Batni, whose home used to be in Anantnag's Nanial in South Kashmir, has been staying with her son and grandsons' families in a two-room government quarter in Jagti. She has undergone eight surgeries so far and suffers from multiple ailments, including high blood pressure, diabetes and thyroid issues.

Remembering the nightmarish days of the 90s, she says, "My husband was a grocer in Anantnag. After militancy spread its tentacles in the Valley, one horrible day, insurgents set a branch of Punjab National Bank in Lal Chowk on fire. As news of the fire spread, Kashmiri Pandits across Kashmir feared attacks on them.

"A few days later, when one of the Pandits in our vicinity was vacating his shop, some Pheran-clad (a traditional Kashmiri dress that covers the body from neck to knee) youths shot him dead. I saw it all from my house. When I discussed it with my husband, he asked me to stay silent."

Batni, however, has now spent so many decades being silent that she can no longer hold the past in and the details just spill out: "One night, a local mosque announced that all Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley would be killed. Two days later, we approached the army for help and asked them to arrange some trucks for us, so that we could relocate to Jammu. I carried with me one bedding, two plates, a pressure cooker and some clothes. We had to leave everything else behind."

Asked whether she would return to Kashmir if the situation became conducive, she talks about the kidnapping of late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's daughter. "No, not a chance. Kashmir wasn't safe even for late Mufti Sayeed's child; what makes you think it would be safe for Kashmiri Pandits? And who should we go to the Valley with? Our grandchildren know nothing about Kashmir, other than the fact that they were born there. Jammu is better for us."

Children play at the cramped government quarters in Jagti township, where displaced Kashmiri Pandits live. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

Children play at the cramped government quarters in Jagti township, where displaced Kashmiri Pandits live. Alok Pathania/101Reporters

Batni's son, Chaman Lal Pandit, who is a heart patient, isn't happy with their living situation though. "My family members, including my ailing mother, three sons, two of whom are married, and their children, all stay in a two-room government quarter, while smaller four-member families have been allotted quarters of the same size. We have been requesting the (migrant) relief commissioner for long to allot us one more quarter, but all our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. And this despite the fact that there are plenty of empty quarters in Jagti," he says, also complaining about water shortage and the dilapidated condition of the quarters.

Some Kashmiri Pandits this reporter spoke to demanded that the Central and state governments provide jobs to all overage, educated Kashmiri Pandit youths who had to migrate to Jammu.

In comparison

In November 2016, the home ministry approved sanctioning Rs 2,000 crore from the relief package for refugees from Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) and Chhamb, who migrated during the 1965-71 period — under this, every refugee family was entitled to financial assistance of Rs 5.5 lakh.

There are a total of 31,619 PoK refugees; 5,300 of them settled in other states with no voting rights and are also not entitled to relief under the prime minister's package.

According to Rajiv Chunni, chairman of SOS International, which represents PoJK and Chhamb refugees, the Centre has, so far, released Rs 550 crore for 16,200 refugees of the total 26,319 eligible.

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In 1954, the Jammu and Kashmir government had constructed some colonies for these refugees — those opting for urban colonies were allotted one-room-kitchen set-ups in cities, while those opting for rural lands were given either 36 kanals irrigated or 48 kanals unirrigated; they have yet to get possession of the plots.

With respect to West Pakistan refugees, who migrated after the Partition, community leader Labha Ram Gandhi says they, too, demanded permanent settlement from the Indian government, which it had agreed to. Around 85 files for compensation have been sent to the Centre for sanctioning release of funds, he adds.

According to Gandhi, in 1954, the Jammu and Kashmir government had also allotted these refugees four acres per family. They don't have possession rights either, and since it's their third generation now, land per family has dropped to 1 to 2 kanals.

The West Pakistan refugees are entitled to vote in parliamentary polls but can't in Assembly, municipal and panchayat polls.

The author is a Jammu-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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