(Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior journalist and analyst.)
The involuntary exile of virtually the entire Pandit community from the Kashmir valley in the wake of the separatist insurgency that broke out in the state in 1988 is one of the great tragedies of independent India. It is also an integral part of the story of human suffering writ large across Jammu and Kashmir, a story of murder and displacement, terrorism, torture and custodial killings that has left virtually no family - Hindu, Muslim or Sikh - unaffected.
As the level of violence in the valley has gradually abated, successive governments at the Centre and in Srinagar have committed themselves to facilitating the safe return of the Pandits to their homeland. Sadly, much like the stillborn political initiatives intended to address the grievances of Kashmiris living in the Valley, there has been hardly any progress on the resettlement front either. Barely 200 families have made the trip back so far.
The reasons for this are complex. For one, some Pandit families in exile remain fearful about continuing threats, and wonder about the wisdom of relocating themselves for a second time when the outcome is uncertain, and their children have developed roots elsewhere in India. The indecisiveness of the Central and State governments in adopting a proper resettlement policy has added to the confusion, as have community organisations like Panun Kashmir which have built their career around the demand for the creation of a Pandit 'homeland' within the Valley.
Keen to demonstrate its commitment to the Kashmiri Pandits, the Modi government in Delhi has sought to give a fresh push to the resettlement project. But its preferred policy - building "composite townships for Kashmiri Pandits" in the Valley, to quote from the Ministry of Home Affairs press release of April 7 - has triggered a controversy as soon as it was announced. Officially, Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, who heads the PDP-BJP coalition government in the state, is committed to acquiring land for these "composite townships". But in the face of criticism from several quarters, including the Congress, the National Conference, Hurriyat leaders and also a section of the Pandit community itself, the PDP is at pains to emphasise that what is envisaged are not ghettos where only Kashmiri Pandits (KPs) will live, but mixed townships that will include Muslims as well, in keeping with the state's traditional pattern of settlement.
The idea of resettling KPs in new townships appeals to the Centre for reasons of administrative convenience and security. Instead of contending with the challenge of making individual Pandit families secure in hundreds or thousands of locations, the government would obviously prefer looking after a finite number of fortified settlements. Administratively, making arrangements for land acquisition and construction of flats for Pandits is much easier if done via the township route rather than by helping families acquire individual dwellings in the neighbourhood of their choice. The overwhelming number of Pandit families who are looking for government help to return to their homeland no longer have dwellings or land of their own. Perhaps some still do, but most disposed of their property in the 1990s.
On the flip side, it is possible that a Pandit township may seem like a more attractive, high-profile target for terrorist groups than dispersed dwellings, and this threat perception is likely to turn these settlements into not just ghettos but heavily militarized compounds, further compromising the prospect for "normal" life as far its resettled residents are concerned.
Anecdotal evidence from the KP housing complex established in 2008 in Sheikhpora, Budgam, also suggests some Pandit families have mixed feelings about being clustered together in this manner. From a political, social and cultural standpoint, the pitfalls of de facto segregation - even if for administrative and military convenience - are obvious. What Kashmir needs is a bridging of its various divides; the move to bring Pandit families back home is a necessary condition for that process, but it must be handled in a well-thought out manner.
Perhaps what the Mufti government should do is commission a proper sociological study of how the Sheikhpora experiment has worked so far. Do its Pandit residents feel secure? Do they feel they have finally come back home? Do they feel integrated with the life that goes on around them? Have their children settled into the wider cultural environment of the Valley? Do they have friends outside their settlement or are they restricted to merely interacting with each other? The Muslim residents of Budgam should also be asked about their degree of interaction with the Pandit returnees, and whether there are any obstacles or barriers that they perceive or face.
The answers to these questions will help policymakers design a better resettlement policy than what they may have considered so far. Rushing to acquire land and hand out contracts for building flats may make the Modi government at the Centre look decisive, but Mufti sahib must proceed on the basis of a well-formulated plan. If new housing is the only option, then the proposed townships must mirror the composite nature of Kashmiri society the way it was before the Pandits were forced to flee. They must provide ample physical and social space for the process of cultural reconnection.
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