he Kashmir Pandits are refugees in their own nation — another potent statistic for those in power — a number and a cause that comes in handy as election rhetoric but remains an inconvenient presence once power has been achieved. Displaced Pandits seek homeland in the valley with union territory status. Sitting in a hut at Jagti camp on the outskirts of Jammu city, the seven lakh-odd Kashmiri Pandits who had to flee Kashmir Valley in the wake of spread of terrorism in 1989-90, says that they are living as “refugees in their own country” for three decades but “nothing” is being done for their return and rehabilitation. They have completed 30 years in exile. They still await a call for return from their homeland.
The community in Kashmir wants to live with each other as they used to before 1990. They want to die in their homeland. Promises made and policies adopted by successive governments for our rehabilitation have fallen flat due to opposition from Kashmir. The displaced Kashmiri Pandits say that the biggest hurdles in their return to their roots were concerns for their “safety and security” and the government’s incapability to implement its return and rehabilitation package of 2008 on the ground.
In 2008, the then Congress-led government at the Centre announced a package for the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri migrants, offering maximum assistance of Rs 7.5 lakh each family for construction of houses. However, the then state government led by Omar Abdullah of the National Conference requested the Centre to enhance the package to Rs 20 lakh per family, following feedback from affected families. The plan has not since moved forward.
In September 2017, then the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh announced in Srinagar that the central government had decided to construct 6,000 transit accommodations for Kashmiri Pandits. The plan to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits in three composite townships in North, South and Central Kashmir was opposed by the National Conference and separatists. Even employment schemes for Kashmiri Pandit youths failed to yield desired results. Over 1,900 educated youths were given employment in Kashmir under the Prime Minister’s job package and put up in four different transit accommodations. However, they fled following stone pelting on their camps in Kashmir after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen division commander Burhan Wani in July 2016.
As the families fled the valley, protection of immovable properties of Kashmiri Pandits became an issue that required government intervention within months. “We want the government to remove massive encroachments of lands and properties of displaced Kashmiri Pandits in the valley. However, nothing is being done. Their hopes for a return to Kashmir was rekindled after the formation of the PDP-BJP government in March 2015 as the two parties had talked about protecting and fostering ethnic and religious diversity by ensuring the return of Kashmiri Pandits with dignity based on their rights as state subjects and reintegrating as well as absorbing them in the Kashmiri milieu.
BJP’s foundation in the valley was being laid. In 1998, the BJP came to the power at the Centre and Modi was appointed party in-charge for Jammu and Kashmir. Modi grew stronger in 1999 during the Kargil War. By this time, the party had enrolled the support of over a hundred local Muslims in the valley. Few among them also contested Assembly elections in 1996 on a BJP ticket. Though all the BJP candidates in Kashmir lost, in Jammu, the party’s tally rose from two seats in 1987 to 8 seats in 1996.
While the BJP was looking to expand its base in the country, it was difficult to find active members who would enrol to work fulltime for the party. The rigged polls of 1987 that gave birth to militancy in Kashmir and the problems were compounded when ‘government-sponsored militia’, the Ikhwanis, began committing atrocities. Behind all of this was the Congress. The governments came and got changed but the situation has not changed much for the Kashmiris.
The counter-militancy operations were at their peak in Kashmir. Nobody was carrying the party flags around. However, the door-to-door conversations were being done in hushed tones. The Congress-led alliance came to power in the Centre, PDP-Congress and National Conference-Congress coalition governments were formed. All through these BJP loyalists in the valley kept working silently. The party sensed a great opportunity right after 2008 when the state government agreed to transfer 99 acres of land to Amarnath Yatra Board to set up shelters for pilgrims.
The Amarnath Land Row created a rift between the state’s Muslim population in the valley and the Hindus based in Jammu. Six people died and hundreds were injured during the 61-day row, which had brought the state down on its knees. More candidates were fielded in the 2008 Assembly polls, almost from every seat. Though the party did not win a single seat, the fact that people were openly contesting on BJP tickets from some very hostile areas in the valley for the first time was another sign of the party’s growing confidence.
Being a BJP worker in Kashmir has arguably been the toughest political assignment, and continues to be so, for any young neta. Several party workers have been publicly identified, attacked, kidnapped, tortured and killed those days and they were mostly the Muslim youth. Though political workers from almost every party have been attacked in Kashmir, BJP workers were marked more often than others. In November 2017, the 30-year-old BJP youth president of Shopian, Gowhar Hussain Bhat was kidnapped from his home by militants in the evening. His body was found later with a slit throat. The Srinagar office of the BJP still bears marks of the last grenade attack. Window panes shattered in the blast are yet to be replaced.
In 2014, the PDP was touted as the party that could almost sweep the Assembly elections that year. The ruling NC was battling anti-incumbency, its prospect of doing well in the polls was further hampered by the public anger over the hanging of Afzal Guru and the civilian protests of 2010, which saw the deaths of around 120 people. The Congress was barely trying to stay alive in the contest.
The PDP made to win big time. However, the most startling statistic from the 2014 results was the fact that the BJP had a larger vote share than any other party in the state. What boosted the BJP’s vote share was its impressive showing in the Hindu-dominated seats of the Jammu region. Of these 25 seats, it won 22 and garnered a vote share of a staggering 48.1 per cent in the region, enough to make the party’s state-wide share reach a healthy figure.
The Modi wave, which had swept the rest of the country in 2014 travelled further north to Jammu and Kashmir a few months later. Again in 2019, BJP won seats and some confidence of people but still, they cannot guarantee the return of Kashmiri Pandits and abolishing article 370, which gives autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The article is drafted in Part XXI of the Constitution: Temporary, Transitional and Special Provisions. Let’s hope, BJP back to power and Amit Shah as the Home Minister may fulfil the promises that they made to people of Kashmir.
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