While the return of Kashmiri Pandits is a prominent poll issue, the refugee community in Jammu is more pragmatic

While the return of Kashmiri Pandits is a prominent poll issue, the refugee community in Jammu is more pragmatic

While the return of Kashmiri Pandits is a prominent poll issue, the refugee community in Jammu is more pragmatic

Hobbling around on crutches, 75-year-old B N Bhat, a Kashmiri Pandit (KP), who is put up in a government established colony in Jammu district’s Jagti area, gets angry when asked if he is willing to go back to Kashmir.

“Do you think that’s even possible? When armed soldiers are not safe in the Valley, how can we of all people think of going back?” he fumes, obviously referring to the killing of over 40 CRPF jawans in Pulwama on February 14.

“What will the government do to resettle KPs in their homeland? Well, I suppose it will construct colonies and deploy some security personnel outside the townships. But who will protect us en route to offices, markets, schools, colleges, and our religious shrines? Until and unless the other community living in Kashmir does not accept us with open arms, Kashmir Valley is not safe for KPs.”

Asked about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent speech at Jammu’s Vijaypur area, wherein he [Modi] claimed that his government was committed towards rehabilitating KPs, Bhat says, “What else can he say? Every government since the 90s, when we were forced to leave Kashmir, has promised to resettle us. But how many of us [KPs] have been rehabilitated till date? Governments, media, and NGOs know the answer to that.”


What has the government done for KPs?

Dr Ajay Churngoo, a prominent KP leader who heads Panun Kashmir, an organisation that represents displaced KPs and has been demanding since long a separate union territory for them carved out of Kashmir and administered by the Union government by reorganising the state, has the figures down pat. According to him, until late 1989, there were 3.5 lakh to 4 lakh KPs in the Valley and, by the end of 1991, 98% of them had left Kashmir due to threats from Islamic insurgents and separatist organisation JKLF.

Dr Churngoo says that after this exodus 75% of them (around 60,000 families) took refuge in temporary sheds set up by the J&K government across Jammu province, while the rest moved to other states and some even settled abroad.

Every unemployed KP in a family is provided Rs 3,250 under a relief package and only four members per family are eligible for this relief. A few years ago, 2015 onwards, the relief given to KPs was Rs 2,500 per person with a limit of Rs 10,000 per family per month; in June 2018, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh increased the amount by 30%. Every KP family is also getting 36 kg rice — 9 kg per head — and 8 kg flour — 2 kg per head — besides a total of 1 kg sugar per month.

“Now, the ratio of KPs settled in Jammu and other states is 60:40. They are fast moving to other states due to the ongoing tension and turmoil in J&K,” Dr Churngoo adds.

As per estimates, there are around 1.2 lakh registered KPs in Jammu. During elections, the government sets up polling booths for them in migrant colonies — in Jammu, Delhi, and Udhampur — so that they can elect leaders for Kashmir Valley.

In some parliamentary as well as legislative assembly constituencies of Kashmir Valley, particularly in South Kashmir, from where a majority of KPs had to flee, their votes can make a difference. And despite government after government disappointing them with respect to rehabilitation, they continue to vote in the hope that the Valley will be peaceful again.


Remembering the terror of the 90s

As Bharat Bhushan (name changed on request), another KP in his 80s in the Jagti township who migrated from Kashmir’s Bandipora district, remembers the 90s, tears start to roll down his cheeks.

“Between 1988 and 1989, JKLF started demanding Kashmir’s independence from India and targeted Kashmiri Hindus. JKLF and Hizb insurgents would threaten Kashmiri Hindu men to leave the Valley but without taking their women along. And then, one dreadful day, I heard about the killing of Girija Tickoo, a teacher who was a regular customer at my shop,” he says.

“Soon after, armed terrorists kidnapped my brother-in-law, Kanhaiya Lal, from Pazalpora area of Bandipora. They put him in a bag and murdered him.”

Bhushan adds the vicious spate of killings of KPs instilled in him and others from the community a paralysing fear and, under such circumstances, they were left with no choice but to leave.

“My heart still beats for Kashmir, but I know that my family won’t be safe there. So, I prefer to stay put in Jammu,” he weeps.


Crammed together in cramped quarters

Another octogenarian, Sona Batni, whose home used to be in Nanial, Anantnag, in South Kashmir, has been staying with her son’s and grandsons’ families in a two-room government quarter in Jagti. She has undergone eight surgeries so far and is suffering from multiple ailments, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and thyroid issues.

Remembering the nightmarish days of the 90s, she says, “My husband was a grocer in Anantnag. After militancy spread its tentacles in the Valley, one horrible day, insurgents set a PNB branch in Lal Chowk on fire. As news of the fire spread, KPs across Kashmir feared attacks on them.

“A few days later, when one of the Pandits in our vicinity was vacating his shop, some Pheran-clad (a traditional Kashmiri dress that covers the body from neck to knee) youths shot him dead. I saw it all from my house. When I discussed it with my husband, he asked me to remain silent.”

Batni, however, has now spent so many decades being silent that she can no longer hold the past in and the details just spill out, as she continues: “One night, a local mosque announced that all KPs in the Valley would be killed. Two days later, we approached the army for help and asked them to arrange some trucks for us, so that we could relocate to Jammu. I carried with me one bedding, two plates, a pressure cooker and some clothes. We had to leave everything else behind.”

Asked if she would return to Kashmir if the situation is conducive, she talks about the kidnapping of late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s daughter. “No, not a chance. Kashmir wasn’t safe even for late Mufti Sayeed’s child; what makes you think it would be safe for KPs? Moreover, who should we go to the Valley with? Our grandchildren know nothing about Kashmir, other than the fact that they were born there. Jammu is better for us.”

Batni’s son, Chaman Lal Pandit, who is a heart patient, isn’t happy with their living situation though. “My family members, including my ailing mother, three sons, two of whom are married, and their children, are all staying in a two-room government quarter, while smaller — four-member — families have been allotted same-sized quarters. We’ve been requesting the relief commissioner (migrant) since long to allot us one more quarter, but all our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. And this despite the fact that there are plenty of empty quarters in Jagti,” he says, also complaining about water shortage and the dilapidated condition of the quarters.

Some KPs this reporter spoke to demanded that the central and state governments provide jobs to all overage educated KP youths, who had to migrate to Jammu.


In comparison

After the 2014 flood, Modi had, on November 7, 2015, announced a Rs 80,068-crore relief package under Prime Minister’s Development Package for J&K. In November 2016, the Union Home Ministry gave its approval for sanctioning Rs 2,000 crore from the relief package for (Pakistan-occupied J&K) PoJK and Chhamb refugees, who migrated during the 1965-71 period — under this, every refugee family was entitled to a financial assistance of Rs 5.5 lakh.

There are a total of 31,619 PoJK refugees; 5,300 of them settled in other states having no voting rights and aren’t entitled for relief under the PM package either.

According to Rajiv Chunni, chairman of SOS International, which represents PoJK and Chhamb refugees, the Centre has, so far, released Rs 550 crore for 16,200 refugees of the total 26,319 eligible.

In 1954, the J&K government had constructed some colonies for these refugees — those opting for urban colonies were allotted one-room-kitchen set-ups in cities, while those opting for rural lands were given either 36 kanals irrigated or 48 kanals un-irrigated; they are yet to get possession of it though.

With respect to West Pakistan refugees (WPRs), who migrated after the Partition, community leader Labha Ram Gandhi says they, too, demanded permanent settlement from the Indian government, which it agreed to. Around 85 files for compensation have been sent to the Centre for sanctioning release of funds, he adds.

The WPRs, according to Gandhi, also were allotted four acres of land per family by the J&K government in 1954; they don’t have possession rights yet, and since its their third generation now, land per family comes to 1-2 kanals.

The WPRs are entitled to vote in parliamentary polls but can’t in legislative assembly and municipal and panchayat polls.


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