A cacophony of conflicting opinions has broken out in Jammu and Kashmir following reports that the Central government, with the Mehbooba Mufti-led Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party government, is one step closer to resettling Kashmiri Pandits in secure townships in the Valley.

Though the general sentiment is that Kashmiri Pandits – who left the Valley following the outbreak of militancy in 1989 – are welcome to return to their homeland, the plan to settle the minority community in separate, secure townships is polarising the Valley.

One section of opinion, which includes separatists, is strongly opposed to the idea of separate colonies for Kashmiri Pandits. But another section of people, including some Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits, said Pandit families have the right to stay wherever they chose – whether in specially constructed townships or their ancestral homes.

There is also concern that the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits is turning into a political issue, rather than a humanitarian one.

‘Townships not acceptable’

An estimated one lakh Pandits left the Valley in the early 1990s following violence – according to state government records, 219 Kashmiri Pandits were killed from 1989 to 2004. At present, there are about 62,000 registered Kashmiri Pandit families in India. While around 40,000 of them live in Jammu, 20,000 live in Delhi and its satellite cities. Another 2,000 families live in other parts of the country. Though Kashmiri Pandits have settled across India and some have prospered, their longing for their homeland continues.

Several recent reports have indicated that the state government has identified land for the purpose of resettling Kashmiri Pandits following a request by the Centre. While the Press Trust of India reported that the government has identified three sites in North, Central and South Kashmir, officials quoted by The Indian Express said that the state revenue department has zeroed in on a chunk of land spread over more than 200 kanals in Baramulla, in North Kashmir, for a transit colony.

One argument made against separate, secure townships for Kashmiri Pandits is that such colonies will divide communities along religious lines.

“We are not against the return of migrant Pandits,” said Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, at a press conference recently. “They are like our brothers and sisters and they have every right to live here like we have. But we won’t allow Israeli-type colonies to be established in Kashmir.”

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the leader of the hardline Hurriyat Conference, said that composite townships would be misused to act as safe zones for communal agents and members of the Sangh Parivar.

A spokesperson for Geelani’s faction of the Hurriyat said in a statement: “Hurriyat cautions that the division of Kashmiris on religious lines and the isolation of Pandits from society will not be allowed and both the communities collectively will not let this to happen.”

The statement added:

“We are in no way against the return and rehabilitation of the Pandit community in the Valley but the Indian government and its policy makers want to play a very dangerous game under its garb and they not only want to divide Kashmiri society on religious lines but they also want to harm the freedom struggle of the Kashmiris.”

The case for integration

But there is another argument against such special townships – that Kashmiri Pandits formed an important part of Kashmiri society and must live with other communities in their ancestral areas as they did earlier. This would revive the composite culture that existed before 1990.

“They should come back and live in existing residential areas, so that they become part of the composite culture,” said Dr Suhail Masoodi, who heads the Centre for Research and Development Policy in Kashmir. “Many Pandits working here live in rental accommodations in different parts of the state. So security should not be a concern.”

Faizaan Bhat, a student from Kashmir, also supported this view. “Pandits are our brothers and sisters,” said Bhat. “We [Kashmiris] welcome them to live with us. Without Pandits we [our society] are incomplete. Many Pandits are living with us now like they used to live as always. The new government policy on Pandits is trash. It wants to widen the gap between them and us.”

It wasn't just Kashmiri Muslims who were in favour of integration.

Shuvait Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit living in Delhi, described the proposed townships as “ghettos”, adding that they were not a solution to the community’s longstanding grievances. “We welcome the initiative taken by the government,” said Kaul. “But it is imperative that we are made a part of the composite culture, and not settled in army cantonments in the name of rehabilitation.”

Others pointed out the contradiction inherent in the government’s efforts to build special, secure housing for returning Pandits. On one hand, the government projected Kashmir as a safe destination for tourists, but then it also wanted to create secure areas for certain citizens, said Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, a reputed artist and the owner of Goodfellas café in Srinagar.

“This gives a negative impression of the people that they claim to be elected by,” said Rizvi. He added that “only a fool would deny” that the rehabilitation issue had become a political tool to play communal politics over Kashmir.

The case for special townships

The argument in favour of the construction of special townships for Pandits seems based on practical considerations. One, that it was impossible for Pandits to return to their ancestral homes because their families have grown larger in the decades since they fled the Valley. Also, in the intervening years, many Pandit families sold their homes, while other locked Pandit homes were illegally taken over by others in the locality. Thus, many Pandits don’t have homes to return to.

Vivek Raina, a Kashmir Pandit who now lives in Delhi, said that Pandits should not be told where, or how, to live. He added that Kashmiri Muslims who were keen that Pandits resettle in old areas needed to explain how this could be done. “It is quite difficult to return to old areas when Pandits have sold their old houses,” said Raina. “If the idea was to get those houses vacated by their new owners, I would say it is not a good idea. Though the houses may have been sold in distress, they have been sold nonetheless.”

But some argue that the government could provide land to each family in their ancestral areas and help them build houses.

The artist, Rizvi, suggested that Pandit properties illegally occupied by Kashmiri Muslims should be returned to their original owners as a sign of goodwill. “Pro-freedom leaders should facilitate the release of such wrongly-occupied properties,” he said. “If people do it on their own, it will send out a strong message that ‘We are not a threat to you, we want to be your neighbours again’.”

Next generation?

But there is concern that the younger generation – who have been born and raised outside the Valley – may feel disconnected from Kashmir, and find it hard to return. “The new generation of both Pandits and Muslims is disconnected from their past, but the longing to understand it better and own it is there,” said Raina.

But Shuvait Kaul disagreed. “On the contrary, it [the new generation] is more aware and connected to its roots,” said Kaul. “Staying away from the Valley has only emboldened this connection due to a sense of longing.”

Kaul admitted that it was true that purely due to economic and career-oriented reasons, the younger breed of Pandits may find it difficult to permanently settle in Kashmir. But he compared this scenario to that of young Kashmiri Muslims, many of whom live in other parts of India and even abroad, but stay connected to their homeland. “For Pandits, the scenario will not be any different,” he said.