Three words that haunt Kashmiri Pandit migrants — home, livelihood and safety

Arun Sharma
Three words that haunt Kashmiri Pandit migrants — home, livelihood and safety

The gated colony at Haal in south Kashmir's Shopian houses around 70 families. But in winters most of the families shift back to Jammu Express Photo By Shuaib Masoodi 30-01-2020

“ISN’T THERE any way to get back our house?” Shyama Sahib, 72, often asks her son Amarjit Sahib. It was in 1987 that her husband Chaman Lal Sahib, then a staffer at the Divisional Commissioner’s office in Srinagar, constructed a single-storeyed house in an upcoming neighbourhood. But just three years later, as the militancy erupted, they sold it to a Kashmiri Muslim — and left.

Over the years, Chaman Lal constructed a single-storey house in Jammu’s Durga Nagar, and Amarjit bought a flat in Delhi-NCR where the family now lives. Last November, after the government revoked J&K’s special status, Amarjit left his job with a pharma company and moved to Kashmir in the hope of setting up his own interior decoration business.

And, to see if he could fulfill his mother’s wish to return.

On his first recce, Amarjit says, he noticed “a sea change”. The Kashmiris, according to him, were no longer talking of India as another country. “Earlier, when I visited the Valley, I would be treated as a foreigner from India. This time, it was surprising to see the same people treating me as a local,’’ he said.

Even at the hotel where he stayed, the staff spoke about the contribution of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley. And yet, he complains, the central government is dragging its feet to help them return. “To set up an office and a workshop in the Valley, I approached various banks for a Rs 10-lakh loan, but they told me to bring papers to prove my credit value. How can I have a record of transactions when I am yet to set up the business? There are no central schemes yet for migrant Kashmiri Pandits who wish to return and set up their own ventures,” he said.

Express Series: 'Homeless At Home' Part 1 | Kashmiri Pandits In Kashmir: Those who stayed back have a home — and a roomful of regret

Although Amarjit appears hopeful, three words continue to haunt Kashmiri Pandit migrants who wish to return: Home, livelihood and safety. And Pandits who never left the Valley say there is no change since August 5 last year — if anything, life has become more uncertain.

“When the lava inside the majority community bursts, what will be the implications? The youth feel betrayed and suppressed by a ‘Hindu’ government. The pro-India constituency has disappeared, and there is uneasiness and unhappiness everywhere. If anything happens, what will be the situation of the minority community in the Valley?” asked Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Srinagar-based Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti.

Kashmiri Pandits In Kashmir: Those who stayed back have a home — and a roomful of regret

Ashish Ganjoo, 26, with his sisters

Tickoo says he “never felt so scared even in 1990” as he had on August 5, 2019. He packed all his important papers and documents and handed them to a neighbour for safekeeping.

Express Series: 'Homeless At Home' Part 2 | Kashmiri Pandit colonies in Valley safe, fenced and gated: ‘It’s like dividing us again’

Ashwani Chrungoo, Jammu-based state BJP spokesperson, who claimed there had been “considerable improvement” in the situation in Kashmir after August 5, says “the time is still not appropriate” for the migrants to return. “The idea is to settle them at one place as it will address their geo-political aspirations as well,” he said.

Vinod Pandit, chairman of All Party Migrants Coordination Committee, says the chances of return and rehabilitation of migrant Kashmiri Pandits in the near future are “bleak”. He says the main problem is for those people who were in their 20s when the exodus took place. They “became overage” for government employment in the first decade of finding their feet in the migrant camps in Jammu.

The government’s efforts in “resettlement and rehabilitation” of around 750 migrants, who were taken on as teachers and given other junior government jobs in the Valley, and accommodated in portacabins, do not inspire hope.

“Even after 10 years of staying there, we are virtually living in barracks,’’ said Sanjay Koul, 43, who lives in a pre-fab Pandit colony in Visoo, Anantnag. Nothing remains of the house his father had built at Larkipora in Anantnag, though the family still owns three kanals of land there.

Koul, who has constructed a house in Jammu’s Durga Nagar, has no plans of building another in the Valley because of the “uncertainty”. In Jammu, a vast stretch is now predominantly inhabited by migrant Kashmiri Pandits who have built houses and become an integral part of local civil society. Among them, there is no palpable drive to return to the Valley.

Explained | The Kashmir Pandit tragedy

Of the over two dozen houses in Haal village, only Omkarnath's house is inhabited by people. (Express Photo By Shuaib Masoodi)

The PDP-BJP coalition government had in 2015 spoken about self-contained and heavily guarded separate townships for Kashmiri Pandits with schools, shopping malls, hospitals and playgrounds in various parts of Kashmir. Last July, then Governor Satya Pal Malik said that locations for such townships had been identified and work was underway, triggering opposition from mainstream and separatist politicians in the Valley.

Relief Commissioner Tej Krishan Bhat, however, told The Indian Express that there was no such plan on the ground. He said the construction of transit accommodation for migrant government employees under the Prime Minister’s 2009 job package was confused for separate townships.

Of the 3,000 vacancies announced at the time, 2,905 have been filled. The Relief Commission is awaiting government permission to collect details of property still owned by migrants in the Valley, including ones in litigation following encroachment.

At present, the central government is providing migrant Pandits relief at Rs 3,250 per person and 11 kg of ration, including 9 kg rice per month. In case of a family of four members and more, it is paid cash relief of Rs 13,000 a month along with ration. However, King C Bharti, a 50-year-old Kashmiri Pandit, who lives in Jammu’s Talab Tillo area, says the township plan must go ahead, and the government must create sources of private employment in the Valley for migrants.

The gated colony at Haal in south Kashmir's Shopian houses around 70 families. In winters most of the families shift back to Jammu (Express Photo By Shuaib Masoodi)

Bharti’s wife is posted as a teacher in Kulgam, while he brings up a son studying in Class 8, and a daughter who is pursuing her post-graduation. In 2009, when the Centre announced the job scheme for Kashmiri Pandit migrants, he did not qualify as he was overage. Neither did he get the Rs 7.5 lakh that the government announced for Pandit youth as part of a rehabilitation scheme.

Many second-generation migrants, however, had the advantage of educational and job opportunities, and are now qualified professionals. “The government needs to ensure similar employment opportunities for them in the Valley,” said Amarjit Sahib, whose daughter is a law graduate from Mumbai, and wants to live where she can find a job in line with her qualifications.

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