The basic and core flaw with an acutely vague, ambiguous and as yet still mysterious policy for return of Kashmir Pandits to the Valley does not lie as much in the sharp difference of perception between the two alliance partners – BJP and PDP – but more in the myopic vision of drafting a plan arbitrarily without even consulting the communities, both the displaced Pandits as well as the majority Muslims of the Valley.
The controversy regarding the return plan, stemming from a sinister stated proposal to identify land and settle displaced Kashmiri Pandits, willing to go back, in secluded secure zones, is not new. It started months ago when union home ministry sent a letter to Jammu and Kashmir government, then headed by Omar Abdullah, to identify land for the proposed townships within stipulated period. Omar, at that time, maintained that he had not even been consulted. The present PDP government makes a similar contention; though not quite denying the consultations going on between the state government and the Centre on the issue, chief minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed has assured that there would be no case of secluded colonies or ghettos for Kashmiri Pandits. The BJP, however, is adamant on taking ownership of the plan of secluded colonies that it now chooses to call ‘composite’, whatever it is supposed to mean. This shows there is a serious lack of understanding between the state government and the Centre as well as between the two ruling coalition partners in Jammu and Kashmir.
The greater problem, however, is that in framing a policy of return neither the Kashmiri Pandits, both those displaced and those living in the Valley, nor the Muslims have been taken on board. This is the greatest imperative for the safe return of Pandits and for restoring the plural culture of Kashmir Valley. If Pandits have to return, it cannot be in ghettos with barbed fences patrolled by gun totting men in uniform. This is neither feasible nor does it serve any purpose other than adding to the already acute trust deficit between the two communities. There are serious political, social and economic ramifications of any ghetto-isation plan. Settling Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley would require a planning also of the economic quotient. The previous government plan to bring back Pandits with the bait of jobs is already a failed project with not many takers. Providing them land and houses, with no vision of the economic aspect, is only likely to end up in the ghettotised colonies becoming a colony of summer houses for holidays. To make the exercise more meaningful socially, politically and economically would require Pandits to mingle with their Muslim counterparts and the secluded colonies are a major hindrance to that end.
The feasibility angle apart, the plan for isolated secure zones for Pandits is likely to offset more trouble. On a larger level, it is a bad precedent to set with inherent dangers of leading to balkanisation of the state. On a more direct level, it serves to sharpen polarization not ensure pluralism. There is an acute trust deficit between the two communities which has remained unaddressed since the flight of the Pandits two and a half decades ago. There is mistrust on both sides and there are extreme views on both sides. While Pandits mistrust their Muslim friends and neighbours for their inability to protect them or for aligning with militants, the Muslims have a grudge against the Pandits for allegedly collaborating with the State and its security agencies. Both are highly generalized perceptions. The move for secluded colonies where Muslims may have little or no access also increases the apprehensions in their minds about a Hindutva plan of creating Israeli type ghettos and settling outsiders in the garb of Kashmiri Pandits. The plan is fraught with the dangers of further fracturing the society and widening the gulf between the two communities.
The situation is far too complex for even the best of arbitrarily drafted plans to deal with ably. Any return policy would be impossible to implement unless it is preceded by consultations between the two communities. If the government is really serious in bringing back Pandits to the Valley and restoring the secular and plural character of Kashmir, it must begin with taking on board all sections of society – displaced Pandits, Pandits living in the Valley, Muslims, Sikhs and other minorities. After all, return of Pandits is not about shifting one community from one place to another, it is about living together with other communities. The government, therefore, must begin by facilitating interactions between various groups of these communities so that some level of trust and confidence can be built up and suggestions for a return plan can come up naturally and in a way that is agreeable to the communities. A committee called Action Plan Committee for Return of Kashmiri Migrants, on similar lines, with community members and government representatives as its members, was earlier formed during the previous UPA regime but was forgotten about after a few meetings. The government should revive that committee and make the consultations more meaningful and regular.
In any situation where trust deficit between communities is damaged, the onus of restoring confidence apart from on the government is greater on the majority community. However, the majority community of the Valley today, battered and shattered by the conflict, is extremely powerless amid a stifling atmosphere of excessive militarization and it would not be easy for the Muslims to play that role with much ability without extra and genuine efforts by the government. However, the Muslims ought to show the magnanimity of accepting Pandits warmly irrespective of what their ideologies are. Pandits have been and continue to be a part and parcel of Kashmiri society. The Pandits willing to return may also need to keep the limitations of Muslims in mind rather than being hamstrung with their own victimhood. They have suffered immensely but they are not the only sufferers. The two communities need to come together on an equal relationship, start from minimal level of trust and build on from there, not view each other in the equation of perpetrator and victim, as some hardliners right wing KPs are trying to project. Such ‘othering’ and demonising of an entire community is a dangerous start to take.
The Pandits should not go back with a mindset of victims to reclaim a territory; they should go back with a sense of ownership – ownership of everything that Kashmir stands for today – its land, its natural beauty, its rich culture, its warmth and hospitality, the nature of conflict, the violence, the bleeding hearts, excessive militarization, fear and anxiety. The Muslims need to welcome them with open hearts without a condition. That should be the spirit and the way forward to talking, interactions and intermingling.