The proposal to build “composite townships” for Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir Valley has sparked widespread uproar. While some fear that plan, if implemented, will create a “state within a state”, others are apprehensive of ghettoisation of Pandits.

Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed clarified on Thursday that he will not allow “Israeli-type settlements” in the state and that “everyone will stay together” in the townships. Still, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who had asked Sayeed to identify land to create townships for the return of Pandits, insisted the plan will go ahead.

Sanjay Tickoo, who heads the Kashmiri Pandit Sangarsh Samiti, said the plan to create “composite townships” was half-baked and unfeasible. “It will simply make Pandits vulnerable and under such circumstances nobody will come back,” he said of the government plan. “At present we have no idea what this composite colony will look like. Will there be people of other cultures or religions in it or will it be specific to Kashmiri Pandits? In the latter case, it won’t be composite.”

Tickoo was among the 2% of Kashmiri Pandits who stayed back in the Valley despite the mass migration in the 1990s. Despite their complex plight, the Kashmiri Pandits living in the Valley often invoke the culture and history shared with their Muslim counterparts. For many of them, it was the support of Muslim friends and neighbours that gave them the confidence to stay. Segregation, they feel, is not the solution to anything.

Commenting on the plan, Minister of Finance and Culture Haseeb Drabu said, “It is a composite cultural and multi-faith township, which will include Pandits, Muslims and others. It will showcase composition and architecture, Kashmiri culture and try to bring an element of diversity.” This he said is different from the ethnographic villages, showcasing live cultures, which he had announced a while back.

Segregation is not the solution

Another Kashmiri Pandit who stayed back in Srinagar said: “The ones who left would want to come back as they were. Putting Kashmiri Pandits in ghettos will make them targets and exoticise them. They will live in specific locations and the large chunk of Muslim population that has never really seen Pandits around them will look at us as the ‘other’.”

He added: “In the colony, they’d celebrate Herath [Shivratri] but what of the Baisakhi and Eid that we once celebrated together?”

Remembering his old neighbourhood, he said, “Around me was a Dhar [Kashmiri Pandit], a Singh [Sikh] and a Dar [Muslim]. That was how the migrants remember Kashmir in their nostalgia. Their houses are now sold or burnt and their neighbourhoods now alien. You put them 10 kilometres away and very soon you will be pointing and telling your kids stories about their habits and lives as a completely different community. This arrangement makes us feel like the Gaza Strip.”

A statement issued on Thursday by Sayeed clarified that Pandits will not be required to live in separate clusters but together with other communities. “We don’t want to create an Israel,” he said, “We want people of all communities to live together.”

Retirement homes

Although the idea of a non-segregated, composite colony seems like a good step, most were sceptical about its success. To those in their 20s and 30s who migrated out of the Valley, Kashmir holds little promise in terms of employment or educational opportunities. However, for the elderly and the retired, the attraction of going home is great, and they may look to make the shift.

KPSS estimates that 10-15% of all Kashmiri Pandits may return to the Valley and the figure appears generally accurate from conservations with a few Kashmiri Pandits living in the state and outside.

“People who left the state have seen scores of opportunity,” said a Kashmiri Pandit. “They have little to look forward to coming back here. Yes, for people who are retired, whose children are settled abroad or in other parts of the country...they’d come back due to a yearning for the motherland.”

The Kashmiri Pandit added: “They’ll come, take houses, stay during summer and then go back. Of course, there will be those who stayed in Jammu and took government jobs. Once appointed in roles, they’ll be forcefully transferred to districts like Kulgam and Budgam for a fixed period, given studio accommodation as token candidates for this scheme, and then put up in safe zones. All this doesn’t really solve the purpose. Why just Kashmiri Pandits, I ask you. What about Muslim students who leave the Valley? How many of those will come back?”

What the plan really does then is raise questions about the attractiveness of Kashmir in terms of employment and standard of living.

“Take me back to Eidgah if you can,” said the Kashmiri Pandit. “Find a way to bring us, those of us who had their homes burnt down or taken away, back to our home and we shall.”