Those monitoring the world news – and most Kashmiri Pandits (KP’s) do – will note that the security situation in Iraq, and especially in Baghdad, has improved to the point that many Iraqis are steadily returning back to their home country. In fact, the United Nations (UN) data show that in October 2007, nearly a thousand people returned every day from neighboring Jordan and Syria. What makes this fact even more fascinating is that most returning Iraqis initially fled from neighborhoods where they were in a minority (e.g., Sunnis living in Shia majority neighborhoods or vice versa), and most families on their return find their homes either destroyed or occupied by members of the opposite sect. However, this has not slowed the process of return especially for Iraqis yearning to go home at the earliest opportunity even though it is fraught with considerable risk and uncertainty regarding their future. Security situation in Iraq may have improved, but peace is still distant, if not impossible, at this time.
The unsaid corollary from this fact is: why does not this model apply to KP’s since both the security situation and peace have improved considerably in Kashmir valley? In one way KP’s have returned – sometimes in very large numbers (in proportion to their total size) – but only temporarily to participate in one religious event or the other or to make brief visits just like other Indian tourists visiting the valley, but have not returned for good. However, there are valid reasons why the Iraqi model is inappropriate for Kashmir. First, the host countries – Jordan and Syria – treated Iraqi as unwanted refugees, which is a far cry from the situation with displaced KP’s south of the Jawahar Tunnel. Second, displaced Iraqis were not in a position to sell or transfer deeds to their properties to potential buyers in Iraq and hence did not lose legal title to their properties or holdings in Iraq while they were away. Third, there was hope for returning Iraqis since there is a concerted effort underway to rebuild a pluralistic society in Iraq, whereas in Jammu and Kashmir, the plight of KPs who never left the valley has gone from bad to worse with time.
But the biggest factor against any large scale return by internally displaced KP’s is the burden of history. History repeats itself, and for KP’s the history has been repeating since the advent of Islam in Kashmir since the 14th century. The facts are brief and telling. KP’s, once having left the valley find exciting new economic, social and human development opportunities in the rest of India, and now, all over the world. Families that lives in remote villages in Kashmir, and who considered trips to Srinagar as a “luxury” are today living in countries like Switzerland, Singapore or Brazil. In India itself, the intellectual and commercial productivity of KP’s have confounded most business gurus – KP’s have a much higher percentage representation in arts, culture, education, engineering, medicine, law, business entrepreneurship, marketing and a host of top tier professions. Therefore it is no surprise that KP’s, feeling economically and socially liberated outside of the valley, do not wish to put themselves and their progeny through the same upheaval and uncertainty that they faced while living in the valley.
KP’s who settled outside of the valley during the current exodus (beginning in 1989) have more or less traveled the same path that their predecessors did in previous expulsions. First, they enter a self-denial state by asserting to one and all that they are in a transitory status and wish to return home at the earliest opportunity. Second, they make pronouncements about reforming the political situation in J&K as a condition for their return to the valley while resettling comfortably in places far removed from J&K. Third, they rightfully demand government assistance to alleviate the misery of their forced exodus which eventually grows into an entitlement program since demands on the Central government keep growing even as displaced people get more and more settled over time. And finally, those who settle outside of the valley see themselves as the true torch-bearers of their culture and heritage, viewing those who stayed back in the valley with a mixture of unease and doubt about whether continuing presence of Pandits in the valley is ensuring our stake in the valley or providing undesirable publicity that favors militants and separatists in Kashmir.
Based on past trends borne by the history, it is easy to assume that most Pandits that left the valley in 1989, and thereafter, will not return to the valley for permanent resettlement. There will be exceptions, but that is the extent of the return, not withstanding various grandiose declarations by the government officials or politicians, who too know (and have expressed such views in private) that very few, if any, Pandits will ever return for good. Public declarations by most Pandit organizations follow the same pattern, but that does not mean displaced KP’s should have any less interest in the future of J&K then if they were personally returning to the valley. Indeed, it is essential that displaced KP’s start de-emphasizing declarations about their own future plans regarding return (which are uncertain in any case) and start asserting their immediate concerns about the plight and fate of the miniscule Pandit community that continues to live in the land of their ancestors.
The chasm between Pandits living in the valley and those outside of the valley has never been deeper than what it is today. For a large part, those who have left the valley do not understand or even comprehend the isolation and despondency in the valley Pandits. Ignored by the official machinery of the State, forgotten by economically thriving non-valley Pandits, opportunistically exploited by political leaders of the majority community, Pandits living in the valley today are dejected, confused and depressed.
Displaced Pandits who have chosen to make political demands regarding the future of the valley from the safety of their new residences in towns all over India and abroad seem to have forgotten Pandits living in the valley today. It is a sad commentary of the collective judgment of our community to accept “feel good” political diatribes by so-called community leaders whose political prescriptions are long on “theory” and short on “practicals.”
The State government, particularly under the coalition government headed by Mr. G. N. Azad, a perennial outsider who knows very little about intra-community relations in the valley, has fueled additional uncertainty among the Pandit community in the valley. Going against the tradition of recognizing Pandits as a political entity, he has successfully managed to keep Pandit representation out of the State cabinet, and has systematically ignored Pandit presence or their economic needs in the valley while harnessing their plight in Jammu to his political advantage. In fact, there is a pattern of decision making about Pandits emanating from him and his advisors which points to a subtle nudge to the residual valley Pandits (estimated to be around 5,000 to 6,000) to leave the valley and resettle in the Jammu region. The State government has announced plans to develop a satellite colony for displaced Pandits in Jagati, and the Azad government considers it as a crowning achievement with respect to settlement of displaced Pandits that left the valley in the last decade or so. Many observers, after noting the presence of certain Pandit leaders at the Prime Minister’s ceremonial ground breaking ceremony in Jagati on 10th July 2007, commented that perhaps “Saun Jagati” may not be a bad consolation prize after all for these leaders who have made zero progress on their lofty goals announced as early as in 1991. Even Srinagar newspapers have started calling the remnant Pandit population in the valley today as “migrants”. It is anyone’s guess if the Pandit issue will be considered a closed chapter after Jagati township is completed.
Kashmiri Pandit diaspora has the ability to affect the future of remaining Pandits in the valley, but does it have the will to do so? The first step in any meaningful campaign is to put the needs of others before the self, which in this case means putting aside personal hardships to focus on the plight of Pandits in the valley today. Pandits usually compare their grief to Jews, and yet displaced Jews hardly talk about their personal welfare or about shortcomings in various countries where they were or are settled. They only talk about the safety and well-being of the “real Jews” that are living in Israel, surrounded by hordes wanting to exterminate Jewish presence in Muslim dominated lands. There are some regions in the world where Jews have higher population/population density than in the entire Israel, but Jews never talk about their own return journey to Israel to feel part of that sacred land. A majority of Jews have neither the inclination, nor any interest, in settling in Israel, but that does not affect their desire to help their community in Israel. In fact, their convictions are so strong that Jews have not allowed any “fake temples” (meaning copies of their sacrosanct icons and religious places of worship that exist in biblical lands) to be built outside of Israel.
How can the Pandit diaspora help? We need to copy what Jews did in Israel, which is to buy back land from Muslims. There is virtually no chance that Pandits can reclaim the properties they sold off as “fire sales”, but if that happens, it will only add to the momentum of enlarging Pandit stake in the valley. A large number of Pandits who have done well in their business ventures both in India and overseas can afford to buy land in Kashmir, even though the land prices have lately gone through the roof. Mixed-use property purchases in the near-term are the best instruments for ensuring Pandit presence in the valley, though a strategy will be eventually needed for maximizing the good from such deals. The window of opportunity for such purchases is limited and narrowing, the state subject rules are still linked to property ownership in 1989 and if the legal point of reference is shifted to the present (which will be at some stage in not too distant future) it may severely affect the state subject rights of those who sold away their real estate properties in the post-1989 era and would drastically curtail any new property ownership in the valley.
Another focus for the diaspora is to keep the plight of the community (not only the displaced community but also those in the valley) in the forefront and not allow the story of Kashmiri Pandits struggling for a future to wither away. Historically, this goal has been accomplished with a great degree of success, but there is a tendency these days to confuse initiatives supporting an effective communications campaign with political advocacy. I have noted the same people who do an excellent job of presenting the problems of the community to world media and the global civil society also fall into the temptation of seeing themselves as political operatives who can decide on community’s political agenda. Even worse, they start engaging political opponents in debates thinking that a victory in such skirmishes adds to the political stature of the community. Unfortunately, scoring points against a political adversary and engaging with an adversary in a political process are as different as day and night. It is important to realize that politics does not work in isolation, and internet is not the medium that shapes the political discourse – it is still the “back rooms” (used to be smoke-filled once, but times have changed) where political horse trading is done, and will continue to be done. But most of all, while a communications campaign does not require one to know or have access to principal players involved in Kashmir’s future, it is virtually impossible to make a sound and mature political judgment without personally interacting with various principals involved.
Last, but not the least, the community needs to do an introspection of how and why we ended up in such a dire situation that forced us to leave so quickly from the valley. What have we learned from the history? Why does the community lack a long-term focus? How come the community lacks the spirit of volunteerism and support for community activities? Why is there such an obsessive dependency on government favors and dole? Many years back when there was a meeting of the community leadership from Jammu and Delhi in London, we made a deliberate effort to get Jewish social leaders from U.K. to meet with them. The picture that Jews painted was very different from what our community leaders perceive them to be. The Jewish groups were exclusively focused on social matters – particularly fund raising and social welfare – and leaders of such organizations were selected on the basis of their personal fund-raising abilities. In fact, the leaders would spend most of their available time personally calling well-off Jews for donations and convincing aged Jews to include the organization in their Wills. Most (but not all) of our community leaders however see themselves as political leaders, and no sooner do they occupy the high seat, political pronouncements (usually dire warnings and threats to the government) start coming off their fax machines and internet messages.
Many years back I wrote an article for a monthly community journal from New Delhi in which I said that it is our collective fate that we should spring from the valley and then leave it for good to do better elsewhere. This paradigm is unlikely to shift soon. But it is a myth to believe that we can continue with Pandit culture and heritage (beyond 3 or 4 generations) unless the culture is constantly replenished from the source in terms of continuing migration of Pandits from the valley. We need to protect the source – the land that Rishi Keshyap dedicated for a civilization and culture as unique as ours. We must not waiver from our commitment to save the source and all those Pandits who are living there today. Because what is there today will be tomorrow’s infusion in societies far removed from Kashmir so that everyone – no matter where they live - feel every bit a part of the land of the Vitasta.
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