New Delhi: It was the year 1990 when Kashmiri Pandits were forced to move out of their homes in Kashmir valley. And what was their crime? They were punished for belonging to a particular community which was a religious minority in the valley and the Kashmiri separatists, aided and funded by Pakistan, believed that it was time for their ethnic cleansing so that Nizam-E-Mustafa (Rule of Muhammad) could be introduced in the state.
According to government figures, at least 219 Kashmiri Pandits were brutally killed by terrorists who advocated cessation of Kashmir valley from India. Unofficial figures, however, point out at more than 400 killings. The pogrom unleashed by Pakistan backed terrorists witnessed the exodus of around 3.5 lakh Kashmiri Pandits from their motherland. Faced with threats of murder of their men and rape of their women, the Kashmiri Pandits took asylum in camps in Jammu and national capital Delhi. They were reduced to hapless refugees in their own country.
What appeared more astonishing and shocking was the silence of that section of the political class and intelligentsia that boasted of their unflinching commitment to the cause of ‘secularism' under which there could be no discrimination on the basis of religion. Here was a case in which an entire community was being persecuted because they belonged to a particular religion and still the secular establishment, dominant in every strata of Indian society including government at that time, turned a blind eye to the plight of a religious minority.
Kashmiri Pandits were forced to run from pillar to the post for their survival in those makeshift camps. The ‘secular' political parties and intellectuals sympathised with them privately but refused to put their disapproval on record. Publically, they were not even willing to concede that Kashmiri pundits were forced to move out of their motherland. Crossing all levels of decency and civility, they went to the extent of accusing them of moving out deliberately of their homes at the behest of the then Governor Jagmohan who they abhorred because of divergence in political ideologies.
For 26 long years, those who were in corridors of power, both in Delhi and Srinagar refused to hear the cries of these helpless Kashmiri Pandits.
However, things appear to have changed in 2016. If the arrival of 1990 ushered in an era of despondency for Kashmiri Pandits then it can be said that the arrival of 2016 has generated new hopes besides recognition of the pain and trauma that they went though in last 26 years.
What has brought about this change? Why is it that today's India appears ready to listen to the grievances of Kashmiri Pandits who were almost ignored and abandoned for last 26 years?
An overwhelming majority of exiled Kashmiri pandits believe that the credit for giving voice to their pain and agony goes to the Narendra Modi government.
“I was forced to leave my home at the age of 14 when I was a student of ninth standard. Many of my relatives were killed and nobody was ready to listen to our tragic story. We were reduced to a garbage item because we were a small group which lacked numerical strength to matter as a political force of any significance,” says Yajin Bhat, a displaced Kashmiri Pandit who lives in New Delhi.
“The credit for giving voice to our pain and agony definitely goes to Narendra Modi government. It was Modi who always talked about the plight of Kashmiri pundits and today our voice is being heard across the country,” Yajin added.
Jawaharlal Kaul, a Kashmiri pandit and veteran journalist whose name figures in the list of 2016 Padma Shri awardees, agrees that the arrival of Modi government at the centre and formation of BJP-PDP government in Jammu and Kashmir has definitely helped the cause of Kashmiri pandits.
“The previous governments failed in raising this issue because of their political compulsions, nature of alliances and vote-bank preferences. They did not pay any attention to it because they did not find any electoral benefit. Modi government is slightly different because it doesn't have the same vote-bank preferences although this government too has its own share of political compulsions,” says Jawaharlal Kaul.
Interestingly, the change in approach of Kashmiri pandits with regard to their cause also forced Indians to take notice of their sufferings. They realised that raising issues that were directly political in nature was not paying desired results.
Kashmiri pundits, of late, changed their strategy and decided to focus more on constitutional and socio-cultural issues. The change in approach has started paying rich dividends,” Jawaharlal Kaul pointed out.
Surinder Ambardar, BJP MLC and the lone Kashmiri pandit representative in the entire Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, reveals that a delegation of Kashmiri pandits had met Narendra Modi in January 2014, prior to the general elections, and requested him to take up their cause as they were ignored for quite a long time.
“ Narendra Modi assured them that he will definitely take up their cause and he has lived true to his promise. It's because of PM Modi and his government that our plight is being debated across the country,” said Surinder Ambardar.
Kashmiri pandits want to return but with conditions
An overwhelming majority of displaced Kashmiri pandits want to return back to their homes in Kashmir valley but they want guarantee for their safety and security. They want clear-cut and satisfactory answers to a few questions before they make up their minds for actually returning to the valley.
Leaders of Kashmiri Pandits agree that late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was interested in the return of Kashmiri pandits, at least in principle.
In fact, just a few months before his death, Sayeed met a delegation of Kashmiri pandits, listened to their conditions for return and agreed with those demands in principle.
“We asked two straight questions to him – 1. Can you remove the encroachment on the properties of Kashmiri pandits in valley? 2. Can you release the property of Kahmiri pandit's temples? Sayeed agreed on both counts in principle. Perhaps he realised at the fag end of his life that these demands were genuine,” Kaul revealed.
A majority of Kashmiri pundits point out that they will return to Kashmir valley only if they are allowed to settled in exclusive townships for them although they have no problems with Muslims also residing in that area.
“It's important to assure them of their safety. They will feel safe if they are rehabilitated in large groups where they will enjoy religious and economic freedom,” points out Jawaharlal Kaul.
Ambardar goes one step further and believes that Kashmiri pandits should also be provided with some political leverage and it is possible only when their presence is made electorally significant in at least 2-3 Assembly constituencies.
“If rehabilitation is done in a way that around 20-25 thousand Kashmiri pandits are present in 2-3 constituencies then they will feel empowered politically. Mufti sahab was sympathetic to our demands. He used to say that you take one step, we'll move two steps. Unfortunately, he passed away in the middle,” Surinder Ambardar said.