Indian-administered Kashmir

25 Years After Islamists Drove Out Hindus, Kashmiris Debate Repatriation Incentives

Hindu Brahmins, known as pandits, coexisted with immigrant and converted Muslim settlers in Kashmir for generations until Islamist insurgents ordered them – under pain of death – to convert or leave in 1990. Tens of thousands of fleeing pandits took refuge in nearby Jammu and in Delhi, India’s capital. Jammu and Kashmir state, the Indian state that includes Kashmir, is urging the Indian central government to encourage these exiles to return, but Kashmiri Muslims have resisted efforts to establish separate townships for security-conscious pandits.

25 Years After Islamists Drove Out Hindus, Kashmiris Debate Repatriation Incentives

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

Bhushan Lal Shah, a pandit, or Hindu Brahmin, recalls when Hindu families predominated in his neighborhood in the Ganpatyar area of Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir. Most pandits fled Kashmir in 1990 when violent Islamists ordered them to convert or leave.

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR – Bhushan Lal Shah vividly recalls the fear that struck him and his family on a dark winter night a quarter-century ago when a nearby mosque broadcast an order for Hindus to leave Kashmir or die.

Interreligious relations hadn’t always been hostile.

“We used to celebrate each other’s festivals,” recalls Shah, 50, a pandit – a Hindu of the highest, most learned caste, the Brahmins. “The Muslims and the Hindus used to hug each other. Whenever a neighbor cooked a special variety, he used to share it with the others also.”

Cultural diversity seemed like a natural aspect of the region.

“We all lived in peace,” Shah says. “I didn’t realize that one day it was all going to end.”

That day came with the announcement broadcast by mosques in January 1990. An armed insurgency that threatened Hindus with death if they did not convert to Islam spurred a mass exodus of pandits – pronounced pundits – from the Kashmir Valley.

“The announcement changed the outlines of the relationship between Hindus and Muslims,” he says.

We will not allow the government to build separate townships for the pandits.

Shah’s neighborhood in Ganpatyar in the old city of Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, had been filled with Hindu families. Shah’s extended family and most of his pandit neighbors and friends left the valley in the exodus of 1990.

“It was heart-wrenching to see them go,” he says. “We remained here as we didn’t want to leave our motherland.”

Today, only seven pandit families live in his neighborhood, Shah says. Before the exodus, only two Muslim families lived in the neighborhood, but now Muslim families own many of the spacious British colonial houses built by pandits to house their large extended families, he says.

Shah fervently hopes the government will implement a pending state proposal to encourage pandits to return to the valley.

In April, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, India’s northernmost state, proposed that the Indian central government establish separate townships for returning pandits.

Kashmiri Muslims protested that proposal, and the government quickly rejected it. The state government immediately submitted a revised proposal that omits the call for separate townships.

India and Pakistan have fought over the Kashmir region off and on since the partition of 1947 – at the end of British rule. A Line of Control divides the region into two administrations.

In Indian-administered Kashmir, armed groups have fought Indian security forces for decades; some push for Pakistani rule and others seek establishment of an independent state.

Hindus, the original inhabitants of the Kashmir Valley, have lived here for thousands of years, says a historian who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from armed groups that discourage discussion of pandit issues.

Kashmiri Muslims are descendants of Afghan invaders and families converted to Islam by Afghans in the 18th and 19th centuries, the historian says.

Armed groups began an insurgency against Indian rule in the mid-1980s. Muslim insurgents also targeted minority pandits, whom they believed supported Indian rule in Kashmir, the historian says.

Islamists committed hundreds of violent attacks on pandits. The violence culminated in the 1990 order to evacuate.

On Jan. 4 of that year, a local Urdu-language newspaper, Daily Aftab, published the armed group Hizb-ul-Mujahideen’s demand that all Hindus of the Kashmir Valley either convert to Islam or leave, the historian says. The group also put up posters ordering pandits to leave. Masked men carrying Kalashnikov rifles roamed the streets. On Jan. 19, Srinagar mosques began playing taped messages warning pandits to convert or depart.

Tens of thousands of pandits fled Srinagar on Jan. 19 and 20, the historian says. Reports of the extent of the violence varied.

Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, an association working for the rights of Kashmiri pandits, says 357 pandits were killed in Kashmir in 1990. However, Jammu and Kashmir Police report that 209 pandits were killed from 1989 to 2007.

The pandit population plummeted in the exodus.

An estimated 140,000 pandits lived in Kashmir in 1980, according to Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, which loosely translates to Kashmiri Pandit Struggle Association. In 2010 the government of Jammu and Kashmir recorded fewer than 3,500 pandits in the Kashmir Valley.

The diaspora left remaining Hindus bereft.

Shah recalls a time when all his relatives lived close by. They shared their day-to-day joys and sorrows.

“There was pain when all of them left one by one and we felt all alone here,” Shah says. “There was no one with whom we could share our problems. We felt like birds in the cage.”

Today, Islam is the dominant religion in Jammu and Kashmir state, an Indian state that includes a disputed portion of Kashmir; 67 percent of the state’s population is Muslim, according to the 2001 Census, the most recent state census that noted religious identity. Pandits, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Jains make up the balance.

Muslims comprise more than 90 percent of the state’s Kashmir region, experts consulted for this article say.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir is keen to see the pandits return to the Kashmir Valley. However, the state’s April proposal encountered strong resistance.

Kashmiri Muslims took to the streets of Srinagar to protest the call for separate townships. The central government rejected the proposal in May.

Days later, the state proposed a package of incentives that did not include separate townships. The new proposal calls for giving each returning pandit family a grant of 2 million rupees ($31,600) to buy land and build a house in Kashmir, says Nasir Naqash, special secretary to the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation Jammu and Kashmir.

To help ensure employment opportunities, the state also calls on the government to set aside 3,000 government sector jobs and provide subsidized self-employment loans.

In addition, the state proposes raising the monthly allowance for exiled pandit families to 10,000 rupees ($157) from 6,000 rupees ($94).

“We are hopeful that the package gets a green light from the central government in a month or two, so that we can start the rehabilitation program as soon as possible,” Naqash says.

Kashmiri pandits call these proposals a good start.

Photos by Raihana Maqbool, GPJ Indian-administered Kashmir

The lanes of Bar Bar Shah, an area in Srinagar that was home to many pandit families before radical Islamists forced them to flee.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a hardline Muslim leader in Kashmir, supports the Indian government’s intention to draw pandits back to the region, but he does not want the government to grant them townships of their own.

A few fleeing pandit families chose not to sell their houses, leaving them to deteriorate.

Sanjay Tickoo, president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti, a pandit rights group, chose to stay in Kashmir when radical Islamists ordered pandits to convert to Islam or leave under threat of death in 1990.

“If the pandits return, they should be given special facilities to return because they’re the original inhabitants of Kashmir Valley,” says Sanjay Tickoo, president of Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti. “Government has to provide land and compensation if they want pandits to come back.”

But Kashmiri Muslim leaders resolutely oppose establishment of pandit townships.

“We will not allow the government to build separate townships for the pandits,” says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, 86, chairman of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat Jammu and Kashmir, a group that demands separation from India.

No Kashmiri Muslim opposes the return of pandits, but the proposal to create separate settlements lacks moral and legal justification, Geelani says.

He does not believe the central government’s announcement that pandit townships will not be built in Kashmir.

“This is a plan to divide the people of the valley on a religious basis and create a Palestine-like situation in Kashmir on the pretext of rehabilitation of pandits,” Geelani says. “The people of Kashmir, including the Hindus, will resist against the ploy with full might and not allow the government to succeed.”

Geelani alleges that the state government plans to settle returning pandit families in a separate area. He claims he has information that chief minister Sayeed has already identified suitable land in south Kashmir.

Naqash denies those allegations.

“The government has already said that no separate township will be created,” he says. “What the separatists are saying is a false statement.”

But some pandits say they would prefer to live in communities of their own.

Amit Raina, 40, whose family migrated from Budshah Chowk, Srinagar, to Chandigarh, India, in 1990, says pandits want to live with Muslims in Kashmir but that, for their safety, they would prefer to live in a separate township.

“A separate area for Hindus will create a sense of security among the pandits,” he says in a phone interview from Delhi, where he now lives. “If all pandits will live together at one place, we will be able to fight and resist against any fear. Before the ’90s, we were scattered, and that is one of the reasons we couldn’t resist and had to leave.”

Security is the main concern of pandits pondering a return to Kashmir.

“Migration was never an economic issue,” he says. “It was always the security concerns that made people leave.”

Raina says he would come back to the valley if the government built a separate township for returning pandits.

“One day the Muslims and Hindus of the valley will live together, but before that we should be given an option,” he says.

Many Kashmiri Muslims also want exiled pandits to return to the valley.

Mohammad Sultan, who runs a small grocery shop on the busy street of Ganpatyar in Srinagar, is elated by the movement to repatriate pandits.

“I miss my pandit brothers with whom I had spent most of my time and younger days,” says Sultan, 70. “We used to go to each other’s houses on various festivals. We used to celebrate all the festivals together. Our place used to be full of pandit families, and we all lived like a family.”

The shine and sparkle will be back in the valley if the pandits return, Sultan says.

“They are in our hearts, and we want them to come back and live with us,” Sultan says. “But we do not want them to live in separate places. If the separate townships are created, it means that we will have no interaction with the pandits.”

In addition to requesting action by the central government, Jammu and Kashmir state has initiated other programs to encourage pandits to return to the valley.

In May, the government organized the Hindu festival of Mela Kheer Bhawani in Tullamulla village, in Kashmir’s Ganderbal district.

“It is overwhelming to see that a large number of pandits from all over India came and celebrated the festival in Kashmir,” Naqash says. “The Kashmiri Muslims greeted them and had made many arrangements for the pandits. Such festivals act as a bridge and help in bringing the communities together.”

The government is also renovating old Hindu temples in Kashmir Valley.

“What we want is that when the pandits return to the valley, they should feel at home,” Naqash says.

Many young Kashmiris also want pandits and Muslims to live together.

Ajay Sadhu, 29, a pandit who lives in Srinagar, has few memories of the violence of January 1990. Most of his family members now live in Jammu or Delhi.

Young pandits are reluctant to return to Kashmir, Sadhu says.

“Most of my cousins do not want to come here,” Sadhu says. “They say they have no connection with the valley, and here they may not find good opportunities to work.”

But Sadhu believes they should return. He hopes the government implements the proposal to provide jobs and homebuilding grants to returnees.

Haris Zargar, 28, a student at the University of Kashmir, supports repatriation of pandits for the sake of cultural diversity.

“They should come back and again live like a family,” says Zargar, a Kashmiri Muslim. “We want to live together with the rest of Kashmiris rather than living in separate townships.”

So far, Zargar says he has lived his life in a society made up almost entirely of Muslims.

“If the pandits come back, we will have a different environment to experience,” he says. “I have heard stories from my family about the pandits and how both the communities used to enjoy different occasions like festivals and visit each other’s home. The coming back of pandits will be an opportunity for us to be with the people who are a part of the valley and about which we have only heard.”

Some pandits who chose to remain in Kashmir wish they hadn’t.

Shah, who is the joint-secretary of the Hindu Welfare Society Kashmir, a community organization of Kashmiri pandits, says he regrets staying in Srinagar.

“I always ask myself why we didn’t also leave at that time,” he says. “I deeply regret staying back.”

Pandits living in Kashmir do not receive the monthly allowance paid to exiled Kashmiri pandits, Shah says. Further, the government does not set aside a quota of government jobs and university admissions for pandits living in the valley as it does for exiles.

“We have no facilities here, and we do not come under any special scheme,” Shah says. “For the past 25 years, we have only suffered.”

Naqash confirms that pandits living in the valley receive no special treatment. As Kashmiris, they receive the same services and facilities as their peers of other faiths.

“They are a part of Kashmir and live here like the other Kashmiris do,” he says.

Naqash hopes the Indian central government will implement the state’s proposed incentives and that Kashmiri pandits soon will return to the land of their birth.

“The government wants to bring the pandits back to Kashmir with respect and dignity,” Naqash says. “It is their homeland, and they belong to this valley. They should return without any apprehensions.”

Raihana Maqbool, GPJ, translated four interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.