The Kashmiri Pandits: An Ethnic Cleansing
the World Forgot
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 Asia’s 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 regime’s 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 government’s ‘top priorities’. The Pandits, however, regard the Sayeed regime’s ‘healing touch’ policy with great scepticism. The regime’s 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 Commission’s 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.