For nearly three decades, Kashmiri Pandit refugees, holed up in tents and elsewhere, have been wondering… is it time to go home? These days, the Pandits have few opportunities to visit what was once their home — the Kheer Bhawani festival being one such occasion. As is the annual tradition, the Pandits thronged to the Kheer Bhawani shrines located in Tulmulla (Ganderbal) and Tikker (Kupwara), on 20 June.
More than signifying a spiritual homecoming, this year’s yatra had political connotations too.
Disillusioned with the protracted governmental indifference and political gimmicks of different parties, the pilgrims gave their journey a name: ‘Back to your homes’.
Most of the assemblage comprised the lower and middle classes, who, with their meagre incomes, cannot afford to visit the Valley every year. A call from their homeland to connect with their roots is what drives them to battle with their paltry earnings. To help these pilgrims, the government provides transport.
What Keeps Some Pandits from Returning?
Unlike previous years, the festival at Kheer Bhawani Shrine, Kupwara witnessed low Muslim participation, possibly due to increased security. Nevertheless, many Muslim men and women were seen chatting with their old friends in the courtyard. We took the opportunity to interact with some of the pilgrims to get insights into their dislocated lives.
A question that is often hurled at them is if they really want to come and stay in the violence-ridden Valley. “Why won’t we?” responded Rakesh Pandita, originally a resident of the village of Drugmulla in Kupwara.
This is our home. For long, our return has been eluded on the pretext of the chaotic situation here. Normalcy, however, is still a distant dream but our three generations have been ruined in refugee camps. The inability of some to return must not be construed as their unwillingness.Rakesh Pandita, resident of Kupwara
Pertinently, for want of momentary financial security, numerous Pandits disposed of their immovable properties. With no hopeful signs of their return, chunks of land and other immovable property were encroached upon by their Muslim neighbours. “In many cases, documents were forged and land mutations were carried out with official complicity,” claimed Anil Kapoor, an erstwhile resident of Handwara. This situation has deprived many émigrés of the incentive to resettle in the district.
The Case of Satellite Townships
As a move toward their rehabilitation, the government, in 2011, proposed the so-called satellite townships or cluster structures. A few have been established, including one at Nutnoosa in Kupwara. Terming them as ‘walls of hate’ and replicas of Jewish settlements in Palestine, a section of Kashmiri Muslims, including the separatist camp, not only see these structures as ‘sinister designs’ of the Indian state but also an obstruction to the re-integration of Kashmiri Pandits into the larger, modern-day Kashmiri society. Even some mainstream parties do not favour the idea since it does not conform to their policies.
But the inhabitants of these townships have mixed tales to tell.
Townships, you see, are not part of a permanent solution. Right now we need concrete buildings; not makeshift arrangements to settle here.Pawan Bhatt, a resident of Nutnoosa township
To this Rakesh Pandita adds, “Due to space constraint, there is no privacy―sexual privacy, to be precise! Although better than the one-room-tenements at Jammu, we still feel like we’ve been piled up on one another in a single room.”
However, all of them consider the townships as a stepping-stone towards returning to their homes. They reject the notion prevalent among the Muslims that the colonies are deliberately built near army camps. It is the inability to find sufficient land that forces the government to establish these colonies in such locations.
Why would we want to stay isolated or near army camps when we want to stay here forever? Why would we sabotage our chances of assimilating with our Muslim brothers?Rakesh Pandita
Pandita proudly says that he has had countless meals with his Muslim friends in the recent past.
A Risk Worth Taking
Furthermore, community ties, social customs and most importantly religious rituals demand close-knit colonies or mohallas. Presently, such facilities are afforded only by these townships.
Once familiarisation with the Muslim locals takes places, the Pandits could purchase land, or those who already possess land, could move to those locations.
The apprehension, that the townships may become soft-targets, is something they don’t contest. Yet they consider it a risk worth taking.
This may be equated with the situation at the time of the exodus. The differences in language, culture, and social norms, aggravated by sporadic incidents of community tension, prevented them for long in integrating with the Jammu locals. However, regular interactions and acculturation led them to shun those differences and convert them into societal accommodations. Now most of them live as mutually-supportive neighbours.
A similar reassurance flows from the attitude of Muslims towards the ‘sojourners’, and those who have been working here for several years. Pandits insist that they still share the pre-exodus bonds and emotions with the older generations. Both the communities persistently strive to sensitise the youth with Kashmiri syncretism and communal harmony by narrating pre-exodus stories.
Our informants dismissed the perceived radicalisation of Kashmir’s Muslim youth as a ‘construction’.
“That can never be us! It is just a perception that we need to counter. Random incidents are bound to happen in any society and need not be generalised,” they retorted.
The Way Forward
Conclusively, it is not the government but the people from both the communities who ought to take the lead. Whatever be the forces behind the exodus, the blame-game needs to be knocked off. While the Pandits need to shun their ‘wait-and-watch’ approach, concrete steps must be taken from all quarters to facilitate their resettlement. The onus does not only lie on the Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits to embrace each other, but the separatist camp too, which needs to revisit their perception about townships.
Village communities need to identify the encroachments and respectfully resume the properties to their owners. Moreover, the public should also extend a helping hand to the government in providing land for resettlement wherever the Pandits wish to settle. Confidence-building measures need to be developed especially by taking the newer generations on board.
An answer to this may be the organisation of seminars, interactive camps, and even cultural fests by civil society and the government. As they say, baat karne se baat banti hai!