Slow Eviction of Pandits from Kashmir

Slow Eviction of Pandits from Kashmir

by M. Rasgotra

At the turn of the century, the population of the Kashmir Valley's Pandits was close to a million. Today, no more than a few thousand remain. More than 300,000, driven out by Muslim fanatics at gunpoint in 1990-91, are living precariously in refugee camps in Jammu, Delhi and elsewhere.

Cleansing the Valley of its Pandits has been going on since July 1931 when the first Muslim- Hindu riot took place there. Even under the Dogra rule, the Kashmiri Pandits were not favoured in the matter of recruitment to government service. Feeling vulnerable and neglected following the riot, they started moving out to Indian cities. A few adventurous ones left for foreign lands. Some 30,000 to 40,000 families are said to have moved out of Kashmir in the 1931-41 decade.

According to the 1941 census, the Kashmir Valley's population comprised 15 per cent Pandits as against 83 per cent Muslims. Twenty-five or even 30 per cent would be a more realistic figure for the Pandits at that time. Kashmir's censuses, conducted by junior, local Muslim officials are, notorious for describing Pandit households as Muslim families. The 1941 census marks the beginning of a statistical assault on the Pandits' numbers.

India's independence and Kashmir's accession did little to improve the fortunes of the Valley's Pandits numbering about 800,000 at that time. They remained as vulnerable as before. Virtually none of the billions in so-called development funds poured into the State by the Union Government reached them. For that matter, nor did much of that bounty reach the backward Muslim communities, such as Gujjars and Bakarwals.

At the time of Pakistan's invasion of Kashmir in 1947, some Pandit families did flee to safety in India, but most of them returned to their homes after the raiders were expelled. In a curious development, the State administration floated figures varying from 80,000 to 120,000 as representing the number of the Pandits remaining in the Valley. After visiting Kashmir, Ram Manohar Lohia mentioned in a letter to Nehru that no more than 80,000 Pandits were left in the Valley.

The effect of all this was to deny the Pandits their due representation in the state legislature. The design was further advanced by gerrymandering the constituencies in the Pandit-dominated areas of Srinagar, Anantnag, etc. to eliminate any possibility of the community putting up and electing candidates of its choice. To create an illusion of fairness in the matter, the administration did, however, ensure that one - but never more than one - Pandit found his way to the State legislature, often with Muslim voters' support. This also helped to justify to some extent the statistical violence on the Pandits' numbers.

The 1981 census put the Pandits' number at a little over 124,000 in a total population of 3.1 million. Their share in the Valley's population was down to five per cent as against 15 per cent in the 1941 census with a corresponding rise in the-percentage of Muslims, up from 83 per cent in 1941 to 95 per cent in 1981. The enormity of this injustice perpetrated by a supposedly secular and democratic government on this hapless community stood exposed in 1990, when 300,000 Pandits- men, women and children- fled the Valley under threat of the terrorists' guns and poured into hastily-organised refugee camps in Jammu and other places.

The statistical assault continued, this exposure notwithstanding. The 1991 census places the Pandits' share of the Valley's population at 0.1 per cent which would translate into a head count of 3,000. I believe some 50,000 or more are still in the Valley and another unaccounted 100,000 or so temporarily sheltered with relatives in Jammu and elsewhere in India.

Our own human rights enthusiasts, ever ready to smear the image of our armed-forces engaged in fighting Pakistan's dirty proxy war in Kashmir, have done little to highlight the Pandits' plight. Worse still, our media's casual, almost cynical, treatment of this slow-motion tragedy, thoughtless and repeated description of these victims of denial, deprivation and terror as 'migrants', has inured the country to this grievous wrong. It has dulled the nation's sense of responsibility towards an abused and aggrieved minority and lulled the authorities into complacency and inaction.

In all the current fuss in New Delhi concerning economic and political packages for Kashmir and plans to conduct elections to normalise the situation there, no one seems to spare a thought for the Pandits. The modalities of their participation in the elections, and the question of the rehabilitation in Kashmir, ought to figure in these packages and electoral plans.

The Pandits' lives in the 'camps' are not in the least enviable. Because of the generally bad living conditions, the death rate in the camps is high and rising; the birth rate has fallen steeply. Back in Kashmir their houses have been destroyed, their shrines torched, their land, businesses and other assets purloined by faceless marauders. There is nothing for them to go back to. Nobody seems to give much thought to their present fate or their future. As internally displaced persons they are entitled to the fullest possible financial and political support from the Government of India and from international organisations. What have we done to ensure that they get it?

For any future election in the Valley to have validity, it must be ensured that every Kashmiri Pandit adult of voting age, no matter where he or she is presently stationed, has the opportunity to vote. The displaced Pandits, deprived of their homes and properties, cannot be deemed to belong to and vote from their old constituencies in the Valley. A system of voting from their present locations must be devised. Their camps and other temporary locations should be organised into notional constituencies from which candidates can present themselves.

Equally important, it has to be ensured that their representation in the Assembly bears correspondence to their real numbers. In my reckoning they are entitled to a minimum of eight uut of the Valley's 48 seats in the Assembly. A seat or two out of these should be allotted to the Pandits temporarily residing abroad, who should be allowed the facility of postal voting.

The Pandits' rehabilitation in the Kashmir Valley will, obviously, have to await restoration of normalcy there. Equally obviously they cannot go back to their old homes and be subjected, once again, to old vulnerabilities. Their anguish, which has given rise to the demand for Panun, or a separate 'homeland' withing the Valley, north- east of the Jhelum river, is to be understood.

I must, however, add that I personally have no sympathy with this demand. Partitions do not resolve problems; they tend to multiply them. Security of life for the Pandits can be ensured in more pragmatic ways. In several towns and cities of India, there are whole mohallas inhabited exclusively by one or another community. Similarly, there are whole villages, inhabited wholly or largely by particular communities. We should think in terms of resettling the Pandits in separate, secure mohallas in some of Kashmir's existing towns and in new villages and towns to be established at suitable locations all over the Valley, with adequate educational and health faci1ities and self- generating opportunities for productive employment.

Government agencies involved in the preparation of financial and political packages for Kashmir should bear in mind these unavoidable needs of the immediate future. It is high time some responsible people in Government started talking these matters over with representatives of the Pandit community.

(CourtesyIndian Express: August 26 & 27,1995)

Source: Koshur Samachar

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