India’s planned resettlement of Hindus in Kashmir Valley won’t be smooth
His two-room apartment in a run-down township is a far cry from Chand Pandita’s hometown of Anantnag, 150 miles away, in the disputed territory of Kashmir, where pristine agricultural fields spread to the horizon.
“Not a day goes by when we do not miss our home,” said Pandita, sitting in his two-room apartment in Jagdi Township, a poorly maintained Indian government-run housing complex with about 4,200 apartments for Hindus who fled Kashmir 25 years ago after deadly attacks by radical Islamists. Several men around him nodded in agreement.
Now Indian officials have offered a plan to allow Pandita and tens of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, known as Pandits, to return to their homeland. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative government, which has close ties to Hindu nationalist groups and has championed the Pandits’ cause, has proposed resettling them in dedicated townships in the portion of Kashmir that India controls, which Indians refer to as the valley.
Most of the estimated 60,000 Pandit families that fled their homes have sold their property in the valley, which is predominantly Muslim and, although under Indian control, claimed in its entirety by India and rival Pakistan. Despite the Indian government proposal, many are not prepared to return to the area, which is beset by insecurity and unemployment.
“Kashmiri Muslims are terrorists,” said Pandita, who was 26 when he fled the valley with his family. “They killed and terrorized our brethren, drove us out of our homes, captured our lands and are now roaming freely.”
The exodus of Pandits was one of the bloodiest chapters of the decades-long battle over the ruggedly beautiful Kashmir Valley. An Islamist uprising against Indian control in the late 1980s put the Hindu minority under siege, and one night in January 1990, with extremist Muslim leaders egging them on, militants killed more than 700 Pandits, destroyed countless homes and accelerated the flight of Hindus.
Most Pandits now live in government-built townships in Jammu, the most populous district in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and were given jobs and other benefits. The perceived special treatment rankles Kashmir’s Muslim majority and has aggravated the deep resentment between the groups.
“How many riots have transpired in India and how many of the persecuted have got as much as the Pandits have?” said Parvez Imroz, a human rights lawyer based in Srinagar, the state’s capital. He compared the prospect of Pandit-only townships to Israeli settlements on land claimed by Palestinians.
The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir said the state would “acquire and provide land at the earliest for composite townships in the valley.” The three townships are expected to be built on agricultural land, but no date has been set to start construction.
After India and Pakistan were partitioned at independence in 1947, Pakistani raiders captured a part of the border territory of Kashmir but the majority remained in Indian hands. The India-administered Kashmir Valley comprises eight districts, including Anantnag, which is about 30 miles southeast of Srinagar.
Although a minority in India-held Kashmir, Pandits for decades were as much a part of the area’s flowering culture as Muslims. The communities mingled with one another. But now the trust deficit is greater than ever, said Imroz, who believes the Pandits are “allowing themselves to be used” by radical Hindu groups who have seized on the resettlement issue for their own political gain.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella organization of political and Islamic religious groups that advocate for Kashmir to secede from India, accused Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, of “dividing Kashmir on religious lines.”
BJP leaders counter that bringing the Pandits back will help heal division between Hindus and Muslims. Hina Bhat, a BJP politician from Srinagar, said the government’s plan calls for schools and hospitals to be established alongside the new townships that would be run by Muslims as well as Hindus.
“The trust deficit will go once they come back and live shoulder to shoulder,” Bhat said. “They will start attending each other’s functions. They will start interacting with each other like the old days.”
Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Rising Kashmir, an independent newspaper, says the resettlement of Pandits must be part of a broader political plan to improve India-Pakistan ties. But a little more than a year after Modi raised hope of a rapprochement with Pakistan by inviting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration in New Delhi, there has been scant progress on the many political and economic issues dividing the nuclear-armed neighbors.
“Nobody is against the idea of bringing [Pandits] back. But it has to be part of a holistic package,” Bukhari said. “We need to create an atmosphere of peace and normality here before we think of re-assimilating Pandits. And that can only happen if the government engages with Pakistan and the discontented separatist groups. At the moment, there is a total deadlock.”
Many Muslims in the valley don’t consider themselves part of India. A common question locals ask of Indian visitors is, “Where in India do you live?” as if it is a foreign country.
Ashoke Pandit, a filmmaker, said Pandits should have a separate homeland because reintegration is beyond consideration.
“No government has ever asked us what we want,” Pandit said. “How do we trust them [Muslims] after what happened in the valley 25 years ago?”
A new generation of Pandits has grown up with no ties to the valley and expresses little desire to go there. The region is facing an unemployment crisis and lacks reputable colleges and universities such as those in New Delhi, Mumbai or other major Indian cities.
Thousands of educated young people languish without jobs or settle for work in the main industry, tourism.
“I have been living here since birth. This is my home,” said Pandita’s 17-year-old daughter, Payal. She is awaiting exam results that will decide where she will attend university.
“Once my results are out, I will go to Mumbai or Gujarat [state] for further education,” she said. “What am I going to do in Kashmir?”
The Peoples Democratic Party, which rules Jammu and Kashmir in a coalition with the BJP, says it is “committed” to reintegrating the Pandits, and party spokesman Waheed-Ur-Rehman Parra says all issues will be “worked out.”
But Bukhari, the editor, says the government plan would ghettoize Hindus and further divide the communities.
“If you want to give summer houses to Pandits who are now well settled outside Kashmir, then it is fine. But do not call it integration,” he said. “With townships, Pandits will merely return to Kashmir. Not to their homes.”
Parth M.N. is special correspondent.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.