“When I look ahead, I only look back, when I stare at the paper, I only see the past.”
— Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child
These lines from the Hungarian Nobel laureate and holocaust survivor appear in ‘A Long Dream of Home’, an edited volume of the memoirs of Kashmiri Pandits under exile.
Kashmiri Pandit employees under a Prime Minister employment package have been protesting since Rahul Bhat was killed in his office in Budgam after being shot at by local terrorists on 12 May. These employees have a single demand – being transferred to locations not affected by terrorism. There are about 5,000 employees living in unsecured accommodations in the Valley.
Heartbreaking pleas by Kashmiri Pandit children, women and employees have been doing rounds on social media, where they can be seen questioning the government’s intention regarding their safety and well-being. The community has increasingly expressed its discontent against the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre.
Kashmiri Pandit employees under a Prime Minister employment package have been protesting since Rahul Bhat was killed in his office in Budgam after being shot at by local terrorists on 12 May.
These employees have a single demand – being transferred to locations not affected by terrorism.
Pandits say no location in the Valley is safe; Rahul Bhat was killed in his own office, which is not far from a police station.
KPs are Scapegoats of Politics
This is for the first time that Kashmiri Pandits are protesting across the Valley for their rights as a citizen, including their right to live. “The community is tired of being the scapegoat of politics,” says one of the employees under the PM package. “You have not seen this kind of protest from the community before. This is for the first time we are out on the streets to demand our rights … we will not believe their ashwaasans [assurances]. When something happens for the first time, it leaves its impact. We want our right to live with dignity to be respected,” he says.
The ongoing protests sparked by Rahul Bhat’s killing have seemingly broken the Pandits’ much-questioned silence. “I need to be able to tell my children that I did not stay silent”, read some placards at the protests. “Our parents still ask us not to go out and protest. They are scared for our lives but we have nothing more to lose. We were not born and raised in our home in Kashmir. We are not like our parents. Past 30 years of humiliation weren’t easy on us,” says another package employee posted in Srinagar. He wishes to stay anonymous. “Maybe living with Dogras has changed us,” he laughs. “We know the government will not take us back to Jammu. We were given these jobs to live in Kashmir. The Centre’s failure to protect us will be proved if we are transferred back to Jammu,” he says.
“We are not willing to be sacrificed on the altar of Kashmir politics. How many Pandits need to be killed before we are taken seriously? We have lived our lives in those death camps in Jammu. Now, we are living in the Valley in constant fear of death. We want justice,” says a protester.
In an open letter being circulated among the employees and other stakeholders, the employees address Manoj Sinha, Lieutenant-Governor, Kashmir, saying, “Rahul Bhat was killed by the terrorists because he was a Kashmiri Pandit; not because he was a government employee. The KP community has lost two generations to terrorism, thousands killed by the terrorists over the years and many thousands died in exile in camps. These employees are the third-generation KPs who are still facing persecution at the hands of terrorists and the administration.”
No 'Return' In Sight for Pandits
The BJP government at the Centre has been vocal about the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. The party won the hearts of this community by promising them in its 2014 manifesto their return with ‘full dignity’.
The PDP-BJP coalition government in the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir in 2016 tried to push the idea of building colonies for the return of displaced Kashmiri Pandits. The proposal was met with immediate protests led by separatists and civil society. The then-state government succumbed to the pressure and did not take the matter forward.
In August 2019, the BJP government revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir by abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution. The controversial move by the government raised hopes for the Pandit community to return home. Almost three years have passed since then, but the government has not been able to move forward to pave the way for the much-awaited return.
The incidents of targeted killings of Kashmiri Hindus, Sikhs, and non-locals have increased after the abrogation of Article 370. More than 15 Hindus and Pandits have been killed since August 2019.
The office of the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, on 18 May 2022, held a meeting to discuss the demands of Kashmiri Pandits. In the meeting, he directed that “all the migrant employees shall be immediately transferred as per their request/consent to the district HQ city at first instance on priority and then in the Municipal cities or in 3 km radius of the Municipal City (barring the MCs of Yaripora and Frisal of Kulgam district).”
The Centre's Conundrum
Migrant employees’ demand for fair seniority list and promotion was also taken into account. The minority employees have been complaining of intra-departmental discrimination in service matters such as promotions, leave approvals, GPF, etc.
Yet, the Pandits continue to protest. They are not sure how the government plans to protect them by transferring them within the Valley. For them, they say, no location in the Valley is safe; Rahul Bhat was killed in his own office, which is not far from a police station. They do not trust the government anymore. Their single-point demand is to be transferred to safer places outside the Kashmir division. “All the employees across the Valley are protesting and will not back down,” says one of the protesters.
The open letter to L-G Sinha reads, “These protests are purely driven by trauma, fear, anger and criminal apathy of the administration towards addressing the genuine concerns of the employees over the last 12 years.”
But the government is now in a fix. If these employees are transferred outside the Valley, it will be seen as another exodus and a blemish on the government, which has historically targeted the Congress party for what happened to the Pandits in the 1990s.
Fear of Demographic Change
Republic TV recently reported that some Kashmiri Muslims also joined the candlelight march taken out against the killing of Rahul Bhat. The BJP’s Nirmal Singh, the former Deputy Chief Minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, sees it as a ray of hope.
But some employees protesting against the killing are slowly growing disenchanted with any ‘ideals’ of brotherhood. “Nobody from the majority community is coming out to support us. They’ll never do that. There are only some onlookers and some politically affiliated persons in Srinagar [with us],” one of the protesting Kashmiri Pandits says. “They remained silent. They’ll always be.”
Anyone who knows Kashmir knows how every incident is followed by multiple narratives in different communities and circles. One popular and always floating narrative is to blame everything on the agencies. The recent killings have also been blamed upon agencies.
The other narrative that is doing the rounds is demographic change. Terrorist groups are targeting non-locals and Pandits to shun the government away from its efforts to change the demography of the Valley. “Rahul Bhat was killed because he was a corrupt employee from the Land Revenue Department. The government is posting Hindu employees in departments that can bring about demographic changes.”
When Trauma Is Subject to Doubt
“The division of Kashmiris on religious lines and the isolation of the Pandits from the [Kashmiri] society will not be tolerated by the people of Jammu & Kashmir. Both the communities collectively will not let this happen. Pandits are a vital part of our society,” late separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani said in 2016 about the government’s proposal to build colonies for Kashmiri Pandits. But the idea of “both communities living collectively” has been put to question on the ground.
But on Pandits’ victimhood, scholar Ankur Datta writes, “Even before a claim for victimhood can be heard, the overall history of migration is subjected to doubt.”
Thus, for a community whose trauma is up for questioning, the struggle for their rights and dignity is not going to be easy.
(Pradeepika Saraswat is an author and independent journalist. She is the author of the novella Gar Firdaus. This is a blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
(Since you have taken an interest in reading about Kashmir, I have a request for you. The Quint has been working on a documentary regarding the plight of Kashmiri Pandits. We would be grateful if you could support our upcoming special project, 'Uprooted - Stories of Kashmiri Pandits' - Anthony S Rozario, Associate Editor, Special Projects.)