India's plan to resettle Hindus in Muslim-majority Kashmir

A view of Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir, a tourist destination nearby the popular Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath caves. Creative Commons photo.

A view of Pahalgam Valley, Kashmir, a tourist destination nearby the popular Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath caves. Creative Commons photo.

Kashmiri Pandit Babita in her two room tenement at Kashmiri Pandit Colony in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Kashmiri Pandit Babita in her two room tenement at Kashmiri Pandit Colony in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

BUDGAM, Kashmir, India — Fifty-year-old Babita and her husband benefit from Indian government welfare intended to bring Kashmiri Hindus back to their native Muslim-majority homeland with stable government employment. They live in a small, cramped apartment at Sheikpora in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Her son attends college in Jammu.

Around 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Pandits, fled Kashmir starting in 1989, when armed insurgencies led by Kashmiri Muslim militants began revolting against India’s rule of the region. Hundreds of Hindus died in the attacks. In 2016, less than 3,000 Hindus remained in Kashmir. Many settled only a little further south in Jammu.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming the territory in full. India rules the Muslim-dominated valley of Kashmir and the Hindu-dominated Jammu and Ladakh regions in the south and northeast of the territory. The west of Kashmir is ruled by Pakistan. Nearly 7 million people live in the Kashmir Valley, 97 percent of them Muslim.  This week, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan invited U.S. President Donald Trump to mediate the Kashmir conflict, which India immediately opposed.

But life for Kashmiri Pandits who returned to Kashmir, despite security concerns, is not any better, they say. They have to go to Jammu to the relief commissioner’s office for getting even their basic things done like a ration card and a voter card. Their biggest sense of loss is living in isolation away from their community.

“We are at a great disadvantage by living in Kashmir away from our friends and relatives who don’t live here and are settled outside the valley. We miss our social circle all the time,” Babita said.

Babita’s neighbor, 48-year-old Babli, took the same scheme and returned to Kashmir with her husband from Jammu 10 years ago. But a lack of government accommodation forced the family of six to live in a shared apartment with four other Kashmiri Pandit families for four years. Babli says these government apartments are dilapidated and unhygienic.

The  Amarnath pilgrimage  draws thousands of Hindus from around India to Kashmir each year in July. Creative Commons photo.

The Amarnath pilgrimage draws thousands of Hindus from around India to Kashmir each year in July. Creative Commons photo.

The scheme for resettling Kashmiri Hindus, launched during India’s long-established Congress Party-led government 10 years ago, gave 3,000 Kashmiri Pandits government jobs, esteemed in India for their secure paychecks and respectability, to resettle with their families in colonies guarded by the police. That plan has been seen as the most significant effort made for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the valley— perhaps until now.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, the BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party, reportedly is planning to finish what their rival Congress Party started and bring back hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus to the region. The move would very likely inflame Muslim-Hindu tensions. Ahead of his reelection this past May, Modi said India would never forget the atrocities done to Kashmiri Pandits.

“They had to leave their homes and flee out of fear and terrorism,” he said in February in a video by the Economic Times, an Indian outlet. “India can never forget this.”

Eleven days later, a Pakistan-based armed Islamist group killed 40 Indian soldiers, and Modi’s campaign rode on his promises to stand strong against Pakistan in Kashmir.

A Kashmiri Pandit showing how his walls are sopping wet due to leaking sewage pipes in his apartment in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

A Kashmiri Pandit showing how his walls are sopping wet due to leaking sewage pipes in his apartment in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Any mention of the struggles of Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir conjures comparisons to the death toll and disappearances of Kashmiri Muslims, including unarmed civilians protesting, by the Indian army and police. About 50,000 people have been killed in the past three decades of the conflict. This month, the United Nations reported that 586 people (160 civilians) died in the Kashmir conflict in 2018, the highest count in a decade. Their 43-page report details atrocities by the Indian government, from torture to censorship to the frequent use of pellet guns for crowd control that have blinded children and injured thousands, killing some. The Indian government dismissed the report as a “false and motivated narrative… in violation of India’s sovereignty” and ignoring “the core issue of cross-border terrorism.”

The proposal to settle down the Hindu population in secure colonies in Kashmir has the backing of the New Delhi-appointed governor of the state Satya Pal Malik. Malik said the migrant Kashmiri Pandits would require separate townships of their choice and setting up such habitations is “not a matter of choice but out of necessity.”

A colony constructed by the Indian government for settling Kashmiri Pandits in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

A colony constructed by the Indian government for settling Kashmiri Pandits in Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

And while all political groups in Kashmir favor the return of Kashmiri Hindus, opinions differ whether they should be settled in exclusive conclaves or live alongside the Kashmiri Muslim population. In the past, proposals to bring back Kashmiri Hindus have been discussed when the BJP ruled the state in a coalition government with a regional Kashmiri party, the PDP or the People’s Democratic Party. But such a move always faced resistance from the majority of Kashmir-based parties. These parties favor the return of Hindus to Kashmir but are against settling them in separate townships, seen as granting special favors.

Even the Pandits have mixed responses about returning to the Valley. 52-year-old Kiran Chowdhary has said a goodbye to Kashmir forever. She can’t forget when the military conflict was at its peak in the early nineties, and she moved to Jammu from Srinagar. She says jobs or no jobs, she is not going back to Kashmir.

“I will never send my children back to Kashmir. We have gone through hell,” Choudhary said. “My brother who was a policeman received three bullets. Somehow he survived. There are some people there, but we can’t imagine that situation can return to the peaceful times of pre-militancy.”

A Kashmiri Hindu woman collecting tap water in Kashmiri Pandit colony at Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

A Kashmiri Hindu woman collecting tap water in Kashmiri Pandit colony at Budgam, Kashmir. Photo by Taha Zahoor.

Migrants in their own country and with no clarity about their resettlement in Kashmir, Kashmiri Pandits are feeling abandoned by the Indian government at society at large. Most say their return has been reduced to mere electoral politics with political parties talking about their return in their election manifestos but doing nothing practically.

“If somebody asks me about my address, I don’t have it,” said AK Pandita, a Kashmiri Pandit who lives in a migrant colony in Jammu. “Four years ago I was living in one township for Kashmiri Pandits, two years ago we were living in a second township, but now we have moved to a third place. I don’t know where I exactly belong to.”

Thirty-year-old Shivali completed her bachelor’s in computer applications in 2011 but couldn’t afford the master’s course she wanted. For the last eight years, she has worked in a car showroom with a monthly salary of 8,000 rupees ($116) in Jammu.

“Going to Kashmir is like a dream for me,” she said. “If I get a job in Kashmir, I will never leave that option. It is a place of my ancestors. If I get the chance to go there, I will never turn back.”

But still, Shivali knows that this is unlikely. Large numbers of both Pandit youth in Jammu and Kashmiri Muslim youth in Kashmir are unemployed or underemployed, preventing Pandits’ return to the Valley even if they want to go.

“In 2014 we were promised [by the BJP government] many things like old-age pension, an increase in the relief package, more jobs, but nothing happened,” she added. “The things are the same like they were five years ago. There are a large number of unemployed Pandit youth, but politicians will return with and use the same issue for gathering votes.”