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Kashmir to acquire ‘Israel-style settlements’

Homes in Srinagar

Homes in Srinagar, Kashmir. Returning Pandits should move back into their old homes, not be put in 'ghettos', say opponents to the Indian government's plans. Varun Shiv Kapur under a Creative Commons Licence

I spent my childhood amid the presence of many absences. In the intimate and warm neighbourhood of my home in Srinagar, in Indian-administered Kashmir, stood a few beautiful but abandoned houses. As children we believed they were haunted and grew accustomed to this desolation. These houses belonged to Kashmiri Pandits (or Batte) – Hindus who had fled amidst armed insurgency against India’s rule in the region.

The ‘clandestine’ migration of Pandits in January 1990 raised many questions. Why was an emergency Governor’s rule imposed in the Valley on 19 January preceded and followed by curfews? Why did Pandits leave on that wintry night? There are many who offered answers to these questions. But, as is true of Kashmir’s many tragedies, the answers offer no sense of closure. The massacres of 21, 22 and 25 January 1990, in which more than 80 Muslims were killed and many more injured, are further disquieting.

The mainstream Indian narrative propounds that Pandits faced persecution from the ‘radical Islamists’, who, in their eyes, were targeting the minorities. This narrative was embraced by many migrant Hindus and influenced by rightwing Hindu ideology, along with New Delhi’s strategy aimed at crushing Kashmir’s resistance movement.

But if the Mujahideen, who were fighting for Kashmir’s freedom from India, were targeting minorities, why didn’t Sikhs and Christians leave, too? And why did thousands of Hindus stay behind?

Jagmohan Malhotra, then governor of the region, who looked at Kashmir from a communal prism, is accused of orchestrating the ‘planned’ migration of Pandits in January 1990 which was followed by a massive crackdown on Kashmir’s Muslims – curfews, search operations, killings, arbitrary arrests.

After more than two decades, the government in New Delhi, led by the Hindu Right and its regional coalition, has announced a plan to return Pandits to ‘separate zones’ in the Kashmir Valley. While the government calls these separate clusters ‘composite townships’, the pro-freedom camps and various dissenting groups, including Hindus who live here, oppose the announcement, arguing that ‘composite township’ is a euphemism for ‘ghettos’, ‘fortified zones’, ‘Israel-style settlements’ and ‘townships of hatred’.

New Delhi revealed that the Kashmir government will start, as soon as possible, to ‘acquire’ land for these townships, which are to be built on ‘land acquired from farmers’.

Resistance leaders welcomed the return of migrant Pandits, but maintained that they should return to their native places rather than demarcated zones created on religious lines. ‘In the garb of the return of Kashmiri Pandits, a state within a state is being created,’ says a senior resistance leader. He alleges that in the pretext of rehabilitation, New Delhi plans to change the demographics of the Valley, settling ‘non-residents’ and ‘rightwing armed activists’ in these ‘isolated’ zones. The pro-freedom camps called it a rightwing ploy to turn ‘Kashmir into Palestine’ and ‘rob the people of their land’.

Hizbul Mujahideen, an indigenous insurgent outfit, said that creating a ‘separate homeland for Kashmir Pandits’ is an ‘agenda of fascist forces in India’.

On 10 April, various resistance camps took to streets, joined by educationists, businesspeople, and social workers from the Hindu community, rallying together against New Delhi’s decision. The protesters shouted: ‘We will not accept the separate colonies’. The government resorted to teargas and batons, which resulted in disruption of the protests and left many injured.

Many Kashmiri Hindus living outside the Valley termed the plans to create composite townships as ‘cosmetic’ and accused the government of using the ‘community for political expediency’.

‘It’s a dummy move which will marginalize the community already coming to terms with their exile. The communities should live like they used to, without ghettoization,’ says Ritika, a young Pandit girl living in Delhi.

A group representing the interests of Kashmiri Pandits who never migrated from the Valley believes that the government is using the community to further their interests and that ‘this will benefit none but the state itself’. They termed the plan as ‘unfeasible’ and ‘the mode of execution dangerous’.  

Many activists see this move as a tactic of ‘undermining the Kashmir freedom struggle’, while others also raised concern over possible Muslim migrations over this period.

A shutdown in opposition to the proposed townships, called by the Kashmir resistance leadership, was observed in the region on 11 April.

Amid the strike, I walked up to Trilok’s grocery shop, near a Hindu temple, a few metres away from my house. Trilok – a Kashmiri Hindu from south Kashmir, who is in the city to earn his living, never left the Valley. Whenever he visits his village, he gets beans and lentils from his farm for his Muslim neighbours in the city. He says his relatives who live outside Kashmir visit him every year. In his soft voice, but with a mild smirk, he questions India’s plan to create separate zones for Pandits: ‘Who will live in those ghost towns?’ he asks.

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