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Since late 1989, the Indian State of Jammu and
Kashmir (J&K) has been in the grip of a vicious movement of
Islamist extremist terrorism. As many as 36,289 [till December
30, 2003, Source: www.satp.org]
lives have been lost in this conflict over nearly 14 years of
a sub-conventional war that has inflicted enormous suffering on
the people of the State, and transformed this confrontation between
South Asias traditional rivals into a potential nuclear flashpoint.

 

Among the worst victims of this conflict are
the Kashmiri Pandits, descendents of Hindu priests and among the
original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley, with a recorded history
of over 5,000 years. Over the millennia, this community has been
integral not only to the cultural and intellectual life of the
people of this region, but the bulwark of its administration and
economic development as well. The Pandits have now become the
targets and victims of one of the most successful, though little-known,
campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the world. Pogroms of a far lesser
magnitude in other parts of the world have attracted international
attention, censure and action in support of the victim communities,
but this is an insidious campaign that has passed virtually unnoticed,
and on which the world remains silent. Among the complex reasons
for this neglect is, perhaps, the nature of this community itself:
where other campaigns of ethnic cleansing have invariably provoked
at least some retaliatory violence, the deep tradition and culture
of non-violence among the Kashmiri Pandits has made them accept
their suffering in silence, with not a single act of retaliatory
violence on record.

 

January 19, 2003, marked thirteen years since
what is generally recognized as the beginning of this process
of ethnic cleansing as a result of which the Kashmiri Pandits
were hounded out of the Kashmir Valley. On this day in 1990, a
Kashmiri Pandit nurse working at the Soura Medical College Hospital
in Srinagar was raped and later killed by Pakistan-backed terrorists.
The incident was preceded by massacres of Pandit families in the
Telwani and Sangrama villages of Budgam district and other places
in the Kashmir Valley. While the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation
Front (JKLF)
claimed a ‘secular’ agenda of liberation from Indian rule, the
terrorist intent was clearly to drive non-Muslim ‘infidels’ out
of the State and establish Nizam-e-Mustafa (literally,
the Order of the Prophet; government according to the Shariah).
Accounts of Pandits from this traumatic period reveal that it
was not unusual to see posters and announcements including many
articles and declarations in local newspapers telling them to
leave the Valley. Pandit properties were either destroyed or taken
over by terrorists or by local Muslims, and there was a continuous
succession of brutal killings, a trend that continues even today.

 

Ethnic cleansing was evidently a systematic component
of the terrorists strategic agenda in J&K, and estimates
suggest that, just between February and March 1990, 140,000 to
160,000 Pandits had fled the Kashmir Valley to Jammu, Delhi, or
other parts of the country. Simultaneously, there were a number
of high-profile killings of senior Hindu officials, intellectuals
and prominent personalities. Eventually, an estimated 400,000
Pandits over 95 per cent of their original population in the
Valley became part of the neglected statistic of ‘internal refugees’
who were pushed out of their homes as a result of this campaign
of terror. Not only did the Indian state fail to protect them
in their homes, successive governments have provided little more
than minimal humanitarian relief, and this exiled community seldom
features in the discourse on the Kashmir issue and its resolution.

 

A majority of the Pandit refugees live in squalid
camps with spiralling health and economic problems. Approximately
2,17,000 Pandits still live in abysmal conditions in Jammu with
families of five to six people often huddled into a small room.
Social workers and psychologists working among them testify that
living as refugees in such conditions has taken a severe toll
on their physical and mental health. Confronted with the spectre
of cultural extinction, the incidence of problems such as insomnia,
depression and hypertension have increased and birth rates have
declined significantly. A 1997 study based on inquiries at various
migrant camps in Jammu and Delhi revealed that there had been
only 16 births compared to 49 deaths in about 300 families between
1990 and 1995, a period during which terrorist violence in J&K
was at a peak. The deaths were mostly of people in the age group
of 20 to 45. Causes for the low birth rates were primarily identified
as premature menopause in women, hypo-function of the reproductive
system and lack of adequate accommodation and privacy. Doctors
treating various Kashmiri Pandit patients assert that they had
aged physically and mentally by 10 to 15 years beyond their natural
age, and that there was a risk that the Pandits could face extinction
if current trends persist. On the conditions at the camps, one
report stated that, at the Muthi camp on the outskirts of Jammu
where a large number of the Pandits stayed after migration from
the Valley, a single room was being shared by three generations.
In certain cases at other places, six families lived in a hall
separated by partitions of blankets or bed sheets.

 

Worse, the dangers of this ethnic cleansing are
also making inroads into the Muslim dominated areas along the
Line of Control and the international border in the Jammu region
as well, with Islamist terrorists specifically targeting Hindus
in these areas. There is now a steady flow of migration of Hindus
from the rural and remote areas of the Jammu region towards Jammu
city, and these trends accelerate after each major terrorist outrage.

 

The Pandits have rejected rehabilitation proposals
that envision provision of jobs if the displaced people returned
to the Valley, indicating that they were not willing to become
cannon-fodder for politicians who cannot guarantee their security.
The Pandits insist that they will return to the Valley only when
they and not these others are able to determine that the
situation is conducive to their safety. “We cannot go back
in the conditions prevailing in Kashmir. We will go back on our
own terms,” Kashmiri Samiti president Sunil Shakdher said
in August 2002 in response to the then Farooq Abdullah regimes
proposed rehabilitation agenda. At the minimum level, these terms
would include security to life and property and, at a broader
level, a consensual rehabilitation scheme.

 

The Pandits appear fully justified in their
reluctance to fall for the succession of rehabilitation schemes
that are periodically announced. Any proposal to return the Pandits
to the Valley in the past has usually been followed by targeted
terrorist attacks. Whenever any attempt to facilitate their return
to the Valley has been initiated, a major incident of terrorist
violence against them has occurred. The massacre of 26 Pandits
at Wandhama, a hamlet in the Ganderbal area of the Valley on the
intervening night of January 25-26, 1998; the earlier killing
of eight others at Sangrampora in Budgam district on March 22,
1997; the massacre of 26 Hindus at Prankote in Udhampur District
on April 21, 1998; and the killing of 24 Kashmir Pandits at the
Nadimarg Village, District Pulwama, on March 23, 2003; these are
the worst of the many examples of the terrorists tactic to block
any proposal for the return of migrants to the Valley. These massacres
and a continuous succession of targeted individual killings have
ensured the failure of every proposal to resolve the problem of
the exiled Pandits. It was, again, this pervasive insecurity that
led to the collapse of the proposal to create 13 clusters of residential
houses in secure zones in different parts of Anantnag for the
return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandit migrants from outside
the Valley in April 2001.

 

The current Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed,
addressing his maiden press conference at Srinagar on November
3, 2002, said that the rehabilitation of migrant Pandits was one
of his governments top priorities. The Pandits, however, regard
the Sayeed regimes healing touch policy with great scepticism.
The regimes decision to release a number of terrorists and secessionists
on bail and the proposal to hold talks “without any pre-conditions”
with a mélange of groups actively pursuing the agenda of
violence has led a section of the Pandit community to believe
that the State government, “is turning a blind eye to our
plight”

 

For a majority of the displaced Kashmiris, the
recent State Legislative Assembly elections held little meaning.
Panun Kashmir (Our Kashmir a leading organisation of the displaced
Kashmiri Pandits), during the run-up to the State Legislative
Assembly elections in year 2002, had dismissed the exercise as
meaningless. They said the Election Commissions decision to
make arrangements for Hindu migrants to vote from outside J&K
would institutionalise their migrant status. “The move to
allow migrant Hindu Pandits to vote at their respective refugee
camps only reinforces the mindset that there are no chances for
them to return to their homes, ever,” said Shakdher.

 

A section of the Pandits have demanded a geo-political
re-organisation of the State and the carving of a separate homeland
for them. While such an extreme suggestion may arise out of the
increasing desperation of a people whose plight has been ignored
for nearly a decade and a half, the idea itself is fraught with
the imminent danger of playing into the hands of religious extremists
who seek a division of the State along religious lines.

 

Their relatively small numbers, coupled with
a tradition of non-violent protest, has made the Pandits largely
irrelevant in the political discourse both within the country
and internationally on Kashmir. It should be clear, however,
that the many peace processes and political solutions that
are initiated in J&K from time to time have little meaning
until these include some steps to correct the grave injustices
done to this unfortunate community.