The publicity machine of the Chief Minister hailed the meeting that Mr. Omar Abdullah held with a group of Kashmiri Pandits on 18th September 2012 in Srinagar, describing the meeting in glowing terms and re-affirming Mr. Abdullah’s pledge that the “Government will do whatever possible for their return and rehabilitation.” This newspaper, in an editorial on 20th September, noted that J&K Government efforts so far have amounted to “mere lip service.” The 18th September meeting was actually a disaster. Here is why.
It started with a great promise. I had been in touch with Mr. Omar Abdullah before, during and after the State Assembly elections in November and December 2008, congratulating him in person (over the phone) on 30th December when his party reached an agreement with the Indian National Congress to form a coalition government with him taking over as the Chief Minister. Mr. Abdullah took the charge on 5th January 2009 in Jammu, and I met him with a delegation of valley based Pandit leaders on 8th January at the HariNiwas in Srinagar.
The urgency for the meeting was prompted by the overarching concern that even though the security situation in the valley had improved considerably by 2008, the population of Pandits living in the valley (who were brave enough to weather the turmoil of insurgency over a decade and a half by staying put) was slowly but surely dwindling. I had made an on-the-spot assessment of Kashmiri Pandits living in the valley in December 2006 and was shocked to find some Pandits living as destitute, while the rest were in deep despondency and trickling out of the valley because of morbid unemployment and isolation. My trip to the valley was preceded by a meeting with the Prime Minister at his residence on January 18, 2006.
Following my written report to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Mr. Wajahat Habibullah (then the Chief Information Commissioner and an advisor on Kashmir policy) undertook a visit to the valley and also met with a cross-section of Kashmiri Pandits to assess the situation first hand and validate my findings. His report to the J&K Chief Secretary on 7th July 2008 not only confirmed my key findings but also recommended additional steps that could be taken by the J&K State to alleviate the suffering of valley based Pandits.
Armed with these two situational reports on Pandits dated December 2006 and July 2008, I made a presentation to the young Chief Minister on 8th January 2009. To his credit, he had brought all the key state officials to the meeting, including Mr. Khurshid Ganai, IAS (his Principal Secretary), Mr. Nasir AslamWani (Sogami), Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from AmiraKadal and his political confidant, and Mr. DavenderRana, CM’s Political Advisor. Mr. Abdullah was very attentive, asked a few questions, and stated that valley Pandits were brave people who did not deserve the fate that they had to endure. He assured us that he would put a priority on addressing the plight of valley based Pandits. He told me that I should hear back from Mr. Ganai in due course.
Months rolled by without any word from the Chief Minister’s Office and finally I decided to contact Mr. Ganai. Mr. Ganai could not recall what happened to the papers that I had submitted to the Chief Minister, and asked me to resend the same to him. I never heard back from him again. I tried to reach Mr. Sogami on the mobile number that he had provided me, but I could not connect with him. Initially it would ring without anyone picking it up, and later I started getting a taped response message that “the number does not exist.” Finally, I turned to Mr. Rana twice, and both times he asked me to email the paperwork to him, but the net result was the same – it was a dead end. Needless to say, my email chatter with the Chief Minister was also history.
Only later through other sources I came to know that the State Government had made a key decision that it was not going to do anything special about Kashmiri Pandits other than fulfil obligations placed on the J&K State by the PMO, for which a separate fund had been designated by the Central Government. In other words, the Kashmiri Pandit issue was relegated strictly as a relief effort, even though in the minds of the CM and his aides it was a “relief and rehabilitation” program.
The fact that rehabilitation normally requires more than jobs and money for internally displaced people was deliberately ignored to obfuscate issues like the state subject rights, benefits under the J&K State budget and authority, and the assistance to those Pandits (i.e. valley based Pandits) who did not come under the purview of the PMO’s relief program. The State designated a cabinet minister for the relief effort, and a Relief Commissioner post was created to oversee disbursement of the central funds (separate from the State Budget) received from the PMO. An Apex Committee of 35 or so Pandits was constituted on an ad hoc basis to play the role of an “advisory committee” which in reality and practice has turned out to be a farce based on the three or four meetings held to date.
However, the latest meeting between the State officials and the Apex Committee held on the afternoon of 18th September was highly anticipated because it was the first such meeting with Mr. Omar Abdullah in the Chair. The meeting took place in CM’s office suite in the Civil Secretariat, Srinagar.
The State government did everything to control the meeting outcome. It invited too many participants and did not give them enough time to prepare for the meeting, ensuring that there will be little or no unanimity of views among Pandits well known for their non-collegiate habits. Nevertheless, the Pandits did convey the message that the relief was neither sufficient nor timely, and in so far as the rehabilitation is concerned, the state has to do a lot more than offer lip service and worn out rhetoric for which the government publicity machine is notorious.
On each and every issue of significance that affects the long-term sustainable survival of Pandits in the valley, the Chief Minister was unsupportive or indifferent. He did not want to discuss political rights of Pandits, including their representation in the State cabinet or in the State Assembly, having confined Pandit representation to a token Member of Legislative Council (MLC) seat. He gave some interesting excuse as to why the “Kashmiri Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill, 2008,” published in the J&K Government Gazette on 9th January 2008 was never submitted in the State Assembly. He turned down the preference of the majority of potential returnees in secure clusters, knowing fully well that most societies from the East to the West have historically created such clusters (also called ghettos) for initial settlers unsure of their future, which over time disappear with an increasing sense of security.
The CM had a ready excuse for why he was not filling up the positions under the PM’s Employment Scheme, saying that some Pandits had taken the matter to the Court and the Government would not act until the Court decides on the matter. It should be pointed out that the Court case only pertains to a small number of re-advertised jobs under the first tranche of 3000 government jobs, whereas the second tranche of 3000 government jobs has yet to be advertised, and nor has the government made any headway in giving 9,000 unemployed Pandits financial assistance and training for self-employment and business ventures, as required under the Prime Minister’s Employment Program.
It was announced on 20th June 2012 that valley based internally displaced Pandits will also receive benefits on par with non-valley based internally based Pandits, but that program has yet to take off. In fact, the State has been dragging its feet in implementing its promise of relocating 51 internally displaced Pandit families living in the valley to Sheikhpora Flats in Budgam, even after all verifications were completed in June 2012.
Perhaps the most telling response from the Chief Minister was to the inquiry about granting Minority status to Kashmiri Pandits. He refused consideration based on the fact that Pandits are Hindus and no different from other Hindus in the State, forgetting that his views are not shared by people who specialize in granting minority status in India. As early as in December 1999, Dr. Tahir Mahmood, Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) wrote to the Chief Minister, Dr. Farooq Abdullah, that “The NCM unanimously endorses each of the seven demands made by the “Kashmiri Hindu Minority Conference” and calls upon the Government of Jammu & Kashmir to accept and implement them through appropriate legislative and executive measures.”
As recent as 7th September 2011, Mr. Wajahat Habibullah, the present Chairman of the NCM wrote to the J&K Government that, “…having received a favourable response from the State and based on outside legal experts, J&K State can consider extension of NCM Act 1992 to the State by recommending to the President of India that NCM Act 1992 be amended to apply to J&K State …” There has been other official correspondence between New Delhi and Srinagar in this regard, and while the State Government is keen to protect the minority status given to Muslim minority in India, it is unwilling to offer similar facilities to Pandit minority in the State.
Mr. Abdullah approved a few minor items to make the life of Pandits living in the Jagti township, Jammu, a bit less stressful, and promised to follow up with the Center on increasing monthly assistance to internally displaced families, implying that he was in no mood to share from the Rs. 33,853 crore 2012-2013 state budget, 53% of which is also an outright grant from the Center.
To conclude, the Chief Minister disappointed his well-wishers with a singular lack of vision in ensuring the return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. Without providing adequate and reassuring political, economic and social space for the distressed minority, it is unlikely that any monetary inducements alone (even if it were offered from the State Budget which is not so presently) will influence Pandits to return in large numbers. It is time to discuss the return and rehabilitation of Pandits with frankness and maturity. If the State Government and the majority community in the valley are unwilling to consider discrete political, economic and societal concessions to the Pandit minority, it should change its rhetoric and let everybody move on. Pandits have the resilience to survive with their heads held high anywhere.
The writer is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He and his wife were born in Srinagar. He graduated from the Tyndale Biscoe High School and the Amar Singh College and completed his post-graduate engineering studies in the U.S. His wife graduated from the Women’s College, Srinagar and did her post-graduate studies in Economics at the University of Kashmir. He is a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Civil Nuclear Trade Advisory Committee (CINTAC), an advisory position to which he was appointed by the U.S. Government.