Raj Kumar is a Pandit or Hindu from Kashmir, but he has never visited his ancestral home in the troubled region.
“Fear of religious persecution, or worse, being killed, has prevented my family from settling down, or even going there,” said Kumar, 23, a pharmacy student based in Chandigarh, which lies some 650 km (404 miles) from Baramulla, a district in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir from where his Pandit family hails.
The family moved to Chandigarh, in the northern state of Punjab, in January 1990, just months after an insurgency broke out in the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, as separatist factions picked up arms to demand freedom from Indian rule.
Kumar’s family is among some 300,000 Kashmiri Pandits – Hindu natives of the region – who were forced to migrate en masse to various parts of India on Jan. 19, 1990, after facing repeated threats and bouts of violence from Kashmiri Muslims.
A total of 219 Kashmiri Pandits were killed by Muslim militants before the minority group’s exodus from the Kashmir Valley, government records show. But the Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a group of migrant Pandits, puts the figure at around 400.
An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 people have died since the insurgency broke out in Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed by both India and Pakistan, according to Indian government figures.
“Chandigarh is a nice city, but it has never felt like home. Our home is Kashmir,” said Kumar, who was born three years after his family was forced out of the valley.
“My parents tell me our house was destroyed by some people just days after they left Kashmir. But they say we can rebuild our house if the government facilitates our return,” he said.
For the last 26 years, Kashmiri Pandits have regularly held protests and rallies in New Delhi, demanding measures from the Indian government for their safe return to and resettlement in Kashmir.
One such rally took place in Delhi on Jan. 19, the 26th anniversary of the exodus.
During the rally dozens of young Kashmiri Pandits, like Kumar, held placards that read, “I am a Kashmiri but I have yet to see my home,” and “I’m lost, please take me home.”
The protesters also submitted a five-point memorandum of demands to Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
Among their demands, the Pandits are seeking assistance for resettlement, punishment for those who committed violence against Pandits, and revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir.
Article 370 grants special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but is considered a major roadblock in the resettlement of Pandits, because it prohibits people who live outside the state to settle there.
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“We are hopeful that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government will take immediate steps to help Kashmiri Pandits resettle in their homeland,” Bhushan Lal, a member of the All Parties Migrants Coordination Committee (APMCC), which is spearheading the rehabilitation cause for Kashmiri Pandits, told BenarNews.
He was referring to the Hindu nationalist party that heads India’s ruling coalition.
“Several promises have been made, but neither the previous Congress government nor the current BJP government has taken any significant steps to address the demands of Kashmir’s minority community,” he added.
Multi-billion dollar rehab package
In November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a package worth 800 billion rupees (U.S. $11.7 billion) for Jammu and Kashmir, which included money earmarked for the resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits.
But members of the minority group say the government needs to do more.
“Our primary demand is of justice. Punish the killers of Kashmiri Pandits as only this can restore our confidence to go back. All steps for rehabilitation and relief will fall flat without it,” Pandit Rashneek Kher told reporters at last month’s rally in the Indian capital.
“The government should recognize it as genocide, an ethnic cleansing, and seriously order a probe into it,” another protester, Vijay Tikku, said.
“Rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits was one of BJP’s election manifestos, but since coming to power it has turned a deaf ear to our issues,” Roshan Kumar, a 25-year-old Pandit who runs an electronics store in Delhi, told BenarNews.
BJP member R.P. Singh said his government was taking all possible steps toward rehabilitating Pandits.
“The Prime Minister has already allocated funds for the relief and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. But the process will take time,” he said while trying to pacify the protesters.
During a news show on NDTV on Jan. 19, former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah had said: “The onus lies with them (Pandits) to return. No one is going to go to them with a begging bowl.”
However, a day later, he clarified that he did not intend to hurt the sentiments of Kashmiri Pandits, who are an “essential component of the pluralistic ethos of Kashmir.”
“It is sad that the Kashmiri Pandits had to leave their homes and hearths in 1990. I always wanted them to return but, at the same time, we can’t force them to return,” Abdullah said at a gathering in Jammu city.
‘No danger from separatists’
Kashmir separatist groups, too, said they would be happy to have the Pandits return to the state and that the minority group should not fear them.
“We are fighting for Kashmir’s freedom. That is our only agenda. The return of Pandits has nothing to do with our fight,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of 32 Kashmiri separatist groups, told BenarNews.
Farooq said that more than 3,000 Kashmiri Pandits were already living in the state and his group had been in constant touch with them to reassure them of their safety.
“I can assure the Pandits they are safe here. And if they want I am even willing to help them safely resettle in Kashmir,” Farooq said. (Benarnews)