The long way home

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The summer of 2011 has been kind to Kashmir. It has spared the Valley the violence that led to the deaths of over a hundred young stone-pelters last summer. The mood in the Valley is turning: touristsare back, the army has largely retreated to its barracks and the necklace of stalls that rings the banks of Dal Lake does brisk business late into the evening. The number of tourists this year (7,54,588) has for the first time surpassed the number in 1988 (7,22,035) – the year before militancy hijacked the Valley.

Exactly seven years ago, in August 2004, on my way to interview the then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed at his heavily guarded Srinagar residence, the roads were deser-ted except for grim-faced armymen with assault rifles. Much has changed for the better in the Valley since. Many shops in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, shuttered last summer, are now open till midnight. And yet serious problems continue to blight the Valley. The first, much debated, is granting greater autonomy to Kashmir within the elastic boundaries of the Indian Constitution. The second, much ignored, is the question of Kashmir’s exiled Pandits.

A three-judge Supreme Court bench, headed by chief justice Sarosh Kapadia, is hearing a petition against the Jammu & Kashmir government on the plight of Kashmiri Pandits forced to flee the Valley. The apex court is focussing on two issues: one, jobs promised to the Pandits by the J&K government; two, rebuilding their vandalised homes. Visibly annoyed with the senior counsel representing the J&K government, the Supreme Court bench observed acidly: “We didn’t want to go by your dream proposals, but want firm action. Can you show us even one instance where you have set aside the sale (of a Pandit home) and given it back to the victim?”

With the Supreme Court likely to pass a seminal order on their rehabilitation and return to the Valley, Kashmir’s Pandits have new hope that they will receive justice after 22 years of the most devastating ethnic cleansing in post-Independence India. Under legal pressure, a special employment package announced by the prime minister has already led to a trickle of Pandits flowing back into the Valley. In a significant if symbolic move, the US House of Representatives recently introduced a resolution highlighting the plight of the dispossessed Pandits.

India prides itself on its absolute commitment to protect minorities. In federal India, Muslims, Christians, dalits and others receive that protection, constitutionally and legally. Sharia, not India’s civil code, is the basis for Muslim personal law. Other faiths, including Parsis and Jews, have similar ecumenical rights and guarantees. Today, while Jews have their homeland in Israel and Bosnia’s Muslims have been resettled from where they were driven out by the Serbs, nearly three lakh Kashmiri Pandits remain in exile. Hurriyat separatist leaders publicly ask them to return and offer them fraternal protection – but in a Valley they say must be a part of Pakistan.

Kashmir is historically a plural land: Islam became its majority religion only in the 13 {+t} {+h} century. Sufi Islam and the gentle rishi tradition of the Valley’s Hindus were complementary. Pandits and Muslims prayed at the same shrines. Later rulers were a mixed brew: Sikhs, Britons and Dogras. The key moment in the region’s his-tory came when the British sold Kashmir, which they had annexed from the Sikhs in 1846 after the first Anglo-Sikh war, for Rs 75 lakh to Gulab Singh, the Dogra Raja of Jammu and the great-grandfather of Maharaja Hari Singh who a century later would sign the instrument of accession of J&K to India.

By the early 1900s, the Dogra rulers had become unpopular across the region. J&K at the time had a population of 3.20 million – 2.5 million Muslims and 0.70 million Hindus. Today the state’s population is around 11 million with Muslims comprising 7.50 million (67%) and Hindus 3.40 million (31%) of the total – a demography that has remained relatively unchanged for over 100 years except for the near-elimination of Hindus from the Valley.

Despite being such a large minority (more than double the Muslim minority of 13.50% in India), 3.40 million Hindus in J&K have a muted political voice. The Congress does not espouse their cause for fear of losing its federal Muslim vote. The BJP is supportive but has limited political influence in the Valley. The National Conference plays to the gallery, the PDP to the separatists and the separatists to Pakistan.

Opinion polls have shown that less than 3% of J&K’s 11 million people want to be a part of Pakistan. The rest are divided between independence and continued union with India. The silent majority of the Valley’s Muslims rejects Islamist radicalism and supports the return of the Pandits. The broadening dialogue between India and Pakistan on trade across the LoC and confidence-building measures in the Valley are positive signs of a new spirit of reconciliation among Kashmir’s stakeholders.

Good governance, infrastructural development, non-intrusive policing and greater political autonomy can help integrate Kashmir constitutionally and emotionally into the Indian Union. In this enabled environment, a way to end the exile of the Valley’s peace-loving Pandits must be found.

The writer is an author and chairman of a media group.



Written by THE LAWFILE

August 22, 2011 at 7:21 pm

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