A woman walks past apartment blocks built by the Indian government in Jammu for displaced Kashmiri Hindu, known as Pandits, who fled their homes 25 years ago. Most of the displaced have now left the migrant housing developments and built their own homes (Photo by Umar Shah)
At the age of 60, Mohan Lal fled the peaceful landscape and cool breeze of his birthplace in the Kashmir Valley for a refugee camp on the plains of Jammu. He has always planned to return, but 25 years later, that continues to be an elusive dream for an elderly man.
Lal was among some 250,000 Kashmiri Hindus who fled their homeland to find shelter in refugee camps 300 kilometers away. They were fleeing a heated conflict after 1989, with militant organizations rebelling against Indian rule in the Kashmir Valley. As tensions simmered, Hindus living in the majority-Muslim state say they were targeted by Islamic groups.
“Some members of our community were killed and panic gripped us,” Lal recalled. “Posters used to be glued outside our homes, warning us to leave or get killed. We preferred the former.”
Now, a quarter-century later, India’s federal government is promising Kashmir’s displaced Hindu communities that they will soon return home.
This month, the government announced a proposal that would establish separate residential areas for Kashmiri Pandits, as Hindus from Kashmir are known, in the southern region of the valley, about 40 kilometers away from Kashmir’s capital, Srinagar.
The move is inherently political. The Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir as part of its successful election campaign last year. The BJP campaigned on the issue with Kashmir’s Hindu community during the polls, and it took three of six seats up for grabs in Jammu and Kashmir on the back of this support.
But the plan is divisive: some critics say large-scale resettlements may only exacerbate still-existing tensions.
Aamir Rasool, who is researching a book on Kashmiri Hindus, said the plan is “rubbing salt in the wounds of the migrant Hindus".
Sending Hindus to effectively live in separate colonies, apart from the state’s majority Muslim populations, will only further divide the communities along religious lines, said Rasool, who studies militancy and Kashmiri Hindu migration issues at Kashmir University.
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a Muslim cleric and pro-separation political leader in Kashmir, said that displaced Hindus should live alongside Muslim communities rather than in separate enclaves.
“We are not against the return of Kashmiri Pandits as has been portrayed by some news channels,” Mirwaiz told ucanews.com in an interview. “Kashmiri Pandits belong to this land and it’s a humanitarian issue which should not be politically exploited.”
Militant Islamic organizations have come out strongly against the proposal. The United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella group, issued a warning after the resettlement plan emerged.
“This move is a conspiracy, which involves settling non-locals in the valley in the garb of separate townships and ultimately harms the Muslim-majority status of the state. This cannot be allowed at any cost," UJC chief Syed Salahuddin said earlier this month in a press statement.
At least 19 people were injured in violent clashes with police when Muslim groups in the valley publicly protested the proposal earlier this month.
Kashmiri Hindus, known as Pandits, light candles during the annual Hindu festival at the Khearbhawani temple in Tullamulla village, some 30 kilometers east of Srinagar in 2012 (AFP Photo/Rouf Bhat)
It’s unclear exactly how the government will implement its plan, or how it will ensure security in any new communities.
However, Nirmal Singh, the state government’s deputy chief minister, told ucanews.com that authorities are committed to ensuring the return of Kashmiri Hindus to the valley.
“I appeal to the community to provide full cooperation to the government so that it can return to the valley with dignity,” Singh said.
When asked when the government would implement the scheme, Singh said that "serious efforts" with the federal government are being made for its “earliest” implementation.
“Things are taking their final shape,” he added.
'I must not be coerced again'
For Kashmiri Hindus themselves, the question of returning home can be a complicated one.
Hadayinath Raina was displaced during the conflict. His children have all settled abroad now, but he still hopes to leave the refugee settlement where he still lives and one day return to the valley.
“Nobody knew us here,” he said. “The schools of our children were lost, our livelihoods were lost, but we unanimously resolved to survive, come what may.”
Raina said it is the Kashmiri Pandits themselves who must decide when — and to where — they will return.
“I was forced to leave and now I must not be coerced again to return,” he said. “My emotions are with Kashmir and I will return with dignity.”
Many young Kashmiri Hindus believe that militancy in Kashmir has not died down and that it remains too dangerous to return to the valley.
“We do not want to live in garrisons. We want to move freely and live like others in Kashmir,” said Krishan Lal, a 28-year-old who works as an engineer in a Delhi software firm.
Neha Koul, as well, plans to wait for a more stable environment.
“We know one day the situation will turn peaceful forever in the valley so that we could return without fear,” Koul told ucanews.com. “We have the patience to wait and we will wait till that day when we do not need the police to protect us.”
But for the elderly Mohan Lal, who fled when he was 60 and still yearns for home, the BJP’s resettlement plan may offer his final chance to be cremated in his homeland.
“If I am given an opportunity, I will return to the valley,” he said. “If the government gives me a home in Kashmir, I am ready to live there.”